If you follow a vegan diet, how do you ensure you're getting all the right nutrients? We explain portion sizes and recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals, plus give you recipes to help you stay healthy...
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 potentially some cancers and type 2 diabetes. Nevertheless, if you’re a full-time vegan it is important that you plan your meals and snacks carefully to get adequate nutrition. To help you on your way, here’s our nutritionist’s guide for a balanced, healthy vegan diet...
The basics of a vegan diet
As a vegan you’ll be avoiding all animal-derived foods – so as well as meat and fish that means no eggs, dairy or even foods like honey. You’ll also be avoiding animal by-products like rennet used in cheese making, gelatine in desserts and certain E numbers including the red food dye cochineal (E120). Even so-called vegetarian foods, like the meat replacement Quorn, are off the menu because they contain egg and sometimes dairy.
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.
- Remember most breads and pastries contain butter and some contain milk.
- In desserts and puddings replace gelatine with agar agar or vege-gel, both are made from seaweed.
- Use silken or soft tofu as an alternative to dairy in desserts and be sure to use fortified dairy alternatives for the added vitamins.
Reference Intake (RI) (the new term for Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs))
The RIs are benchmarks for the amount of energy (kilocalories), fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugar, protein and salt that an average adult should consume each day. The RIs for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt are maximum daily amounts. Don’t forget that we are all different with varying needs for energy and nutrients so this information is for guidance only:
Numbers and figures are all very well but how does this relate to you? Personalise your portions with our handy guide to finding the right serving size:
|Carbs like cereal/rice/pasta/potato||Your clenched fist|
|Proteins like meat/poultry/fish||Palm of your hand|
|Savouries like popcorn/crisps||2 of your cupped hands|
|Bakes like brownies/flapjacks||2 of your fingers|
|Butter & spreads||The tip of your thumb|
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. Again, aim for 10 micrograms daily and look for the vitamin in the form of D2, because vitamin D3 is not typically 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 healthily low in saturated fat, as a full-time vegan you may be missing out on 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 whole-grains, 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.
Vegan diets may be low in protein so it’s a good idea to base your main meals around ingredients like lentils, chickpeas and tofu. 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 flaxseed, rapeseed, walnut or hemp oil. Your body can use these healthy fats overnight for regeneration and repair, which is important for maintaining healthy skin and hair. As a general rule, aim for a tablespoon of ground flaxseed or two tablespoons of oil each day.
Plants are a good source of iron, but it is important to eat them with vitamin C-rich foods to optimise your absorption. For example, combine iron-rich lentils with citrus fruits or peppers. Whole grains are a great source of the mineral zinc, which helps to maintain a healthy immune system.
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 10 May 2016 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.
A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).
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