A vegan diet is often accepted to be a healthy one and thought to help reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. Nevertheless, if you’re a full-time vegan it is worth taking the time to plan your meals and snacks – this way you will ensure your diet supplies all the nutrients you need to remain strong and healthy. To help you on your way, here’s our nutritionist’s guide for a balanced, healthy vegan diet...
The Vegan Eatwell Guide
The Eatwell Guide defines the different types of foods we should be eating and in what proportions. This guide explains some simple dietary rules to follow, which are relevant for the majority of us, such as getting a minimum five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, including wholegrains and opting for lower fat, lower sugar vegan alternatives to dairy foods. However, the Vegan Plate, promoted by the Vegan Society, is arguably a more relevant example for those following a full-time vegan diet. It highlights the importance of beans and pulses as well as nuts and seeds, shows where calcium can be found in numerous plant-based foods, and emphasises that getting enough vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fats and iodine is essential to maintaining good health.
Another important nutrient, but little talked about, is choline, which is richest in animal foods like egg yolks. Choline is essential for the brain chemical acetylcholine, which helps sharpen our memory, and plays a role in liver function, muscle development and even cholesterol management. Expectant mums are thought to have a greater need for this nutrient because it may be important for the baby’s brain development. Mums will also need it for their own livers and placental function. Vegans won’t fall short of this nutrient as long as their diet includes a wide variety of foods, such as beans, soya, peanuts and quinoa, as well as green veggies, nuts, seeds and grains, including wheat. It's worth bearing in mind that choline is a water-soluble nutrient, so if you are boiling green vegetables, make use of the cooking liquid in sauces, soups and gravies.
What do vegans eat and avoid?
Vegans avoid all animal-derived foods – so as well as meat and fish, that means no eggs, dairy or honey. They also exclude animal byproducts like rennet used in cheese making, gelatine in desserts and certain E numbers including the red food dye cochineal (E120). Even certain vegetarian foods, such as some meat substitutes, are off the menu because they contain egg and sometimes dairy.
Shopping tips for vegans
If you’re new to vegan cooking, follow our shopping guide for vegan-friendly ingredients:
- Check the labels of all packaged products that you use in cooking such as bouillon powder, stock cubes, sauces and spreads. Ingredients to look out for include whey, casein and lactose, which are all derived from milk.
- Be aware that non-vegan wines and beer may have been processed with animal products. This is also relevant to wine vinegars – check that the brand is vegan-friendly.
- Remember most breads and pastries contain butter and some contain milk or milk derivatives.
- In desserts and puddings, replace gelatine with agar-agar or vege-gel, both made from seaweed.
- Use silken or soft tofu as an alternative to dairy in desserts and be sure to use fortified plant-based dairy alternatives as they contain added vitamins.
Reference Intakes (RI)
Nutrition needs vary depending on your sex, size, age and activity levels, so use this chart as a general guide only. The chart shows the Reference Intakes (RI) or daily recommended amounts for an average, moderately active adult to achieve a healthy, balanced diet for maintaining rather then losing or gaining weight. The RIs for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt are maximum daily amounts. There is no RI for fibre although health experts suggest we have 30g a day. Don't forget that we are all different with varying needs for energy and nutrients, so this information is for guidance only:
Reference intakes (RI) for men
- Energy – 2500kcal
- Protein – 55g
- Carbohydrates – 300g
- Sugar – 120g
- Fat – 95g
- Saturates – 30g
- Salt – 6g
Reference intakes (RI) for women
- Energy – 2000kcal
- Protein – 50g
- Carbohydrates – 260g
- Sugar – 90g
- Fat – 70g
- Saturates – 20g
- Salt – 6g
Numbers and figures are all very well, but how does this relate to you? Keeping the Eatwell Guide in mind, you can personalise your portion sizes.
Carbs like cereal/rice/pasta/potato
- Portion size: Your clenched fist
- Include 1 portion at each main meal and ensure it fills no more than ¼ of your plate
Protein like tofu/beans/pulses
- Portion size: Palm of your hand
- Aim to have a portion at each meal
- Portion size: 1 of your cupped hands
- Enjoy as a snack or part of a meal
Vegan spreads/nut butter
- Portion size: The tip of your thumb
- Eat no more than 2 or 3 times a day
Savouries like popcorn/crisps
- Portion size: 2 of your cupped hands
- Enjoy as a snack/treat
Bakes like vegan brownies/flapjacks
- Portion size: 2 of your fingers
- Enjoy as an occasional treat
Don’t forget, as set out in the Eatwell Guide, we should all be aiming for a minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Discover what counts as one portion using our five-a-day infographic.
Vegan diets are rich in fibre, vitamin C and folate (thanks to all that fruit and veg), but you may be lacking in a number of other vitamins and minerals. Vitamin B12 is a good example. We need it for healthy red blood cells and nerve function, but because it’s typically found in animal foods like eggs, milk and cheese, full-time vegans need to include fortified breakfast cereals and soya products, and possibly consider taking a B12 supplement (look for one that supplies 10 micrograms daily).
Another nutrient to be aware of is vitamin D. Much of our vitamin D is metabolised via sunlight on the skin, but you can also obtain it from fortified vegan spreads and soya milk. Some vegans choose to supplement with vitamin D, especially during the winter months when sunshine is in short supply. When choosing a supplement, aim for 10 micrograms daily and remember, some forms of vitamin D supplement are not vegan, and some are thought to be more bio-available and therefore more effective. Vitamin D in the form of D2 is suitable for vegans, but vitamin D3 may not be, so look for a vitamin D3 product that is derived from lichen, which is suitable for vegans.
Breakfast is key to starting the day in a balanced way, so whatever you do, don't be a breakfast skipper as missing your first meal of the day sets you off on a blood sugar roller-coaster, which means you'll end up choosing the wrong foods later in the day. Remember, breakfast makes an important contribution towards your daily intake and it plays a key role in maintaining a healthy weight.
Eating well in the morning is vital for balancing energy levels. The ideal is to eat little and often, but you need to make every snack work for you. That means choosing snacks that satisfy energy needs, plus supply extra benefits like topping up your five-a-day or upping your intake of other key nutrients.
Although vegan diets are generally low in saturated fat, as a full-time vegan you may be missing out on the potent forms of heart-friendly omega-3 fats, known as EPA and DHA. We typically get these from fish and seafood, although sea vegetables such as kelp and certain micro-algae supplements can make a useful contribution. It’s also a good idea to include plenty of nuts, seeds and their oils especially walnut, flaxseed, hemp and rapeseed.
Pack your lunch with a combination of carb-rich foods for energy and satisfying protein from foods such as nuts, seeds, beans and pulses. The key is to choose carbs that produce a steady rise in blood sugar, which means passing on the sugary 'white' foods and going for high-fibre wholegrains, which help you manage those afternoon munchies.
Bulghar wheat with carrots & hazelnuts
Pearled spelt salad with peas & gooseberries
Japanese noodles with sesame dressing
Herby apricot quinoa
Crunchy chickpea salad
Late-summer tomato & carrot salad
Mexican salad with tortilla croutons
Simple coconut & bean soup
Cannellini bean, cherry tomato & red onion salad
Whether your mid-afternoon weakness is for sweet or savoury, there are plenty of healthy options to satisfy. Combine dried fruit with unsalted nuts or seeds for an energising, protein-packed snack. Alternatively, make up a savoury nut and seed mix, or enrich a veggie dip with a handful of nuts.
It's a common belief that vegan diets may be low in protein but as long as you base your main meals around ingredients like lentils, chickpeas and tofu this doesn't have to be the case. Add flavour with yeast extract, which is not only a tasty addition but a useful source of vitamin B12. Fill half your plate with a colourful variety of veggies (especially leafy greens because they supply small amounts of the mineral iodine) and drizzle with a dressing made from cold-pressed flaxseed, rapeseed, walnut or hemp oil. Your body can use these healthy fats overnight, along with protein for regeneration and repair, important for maintaining healthy skin and hair. As a general rule, aim for a tablespoon of ground flaxseed, chia seeds or two tablespoons of oil each day.
Plants are a good source of iron, and you can optimise your absorption of this energising mineral by combining plant sources with foods rich in vitamin C. For example, combine iron-rich lentils with citrus fruits or peppers.
Chickpea, tomato & spinach curry
Vegetable tagine with chickpeas & raisins
Vegetable vegan biriyani with carrot salad
Veggie Thai red curry
Quinoa stew with squash, prunes & pomegranate
This article was last reviewed on 30 August 2019 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens Bsc (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post-graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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