Vegan diet: A beginner's guide
New to the vegan lifestyle or just looking for some dietary advice? Our registered nutritionist Jo Lewin offers up easy alternatives, delicious recipes and health considerations for when following a vegan diet...
Choosing to follow a vegan diet may seem like a daunting prospect. This spotlight feature aims to offer some answers to commonly asked questions about veganism, provide you with useful alternatives that are safe to eat and an array of delicious vegan-friendly recipes.
The Vegan Society states that: ''Veganism is a way of living which seeks to avoid, as far as possible and practical; the use of animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. At the heart of veganism is the core principle that animals are not ours to be used.''
What to avoid:
The day to day basics of following a vegan diet involve choosing not to eat anything which originates from animals:
- No meat, fish, animal fats or gelatine
- No dairy products such as cow's milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, goat's or sheep's milk
- No eggs nor foods containing eggs such as Quorn
- No honey
What to include:
Vegans are able to obtain all the nutrients the body needs by eating a varied diet containing:
- Fruit and vegetables
- Starchy foods, focusing on wholegrains
- Non-dairy sources of protein such as nuts, beans and pulses
- Dairy alternatives such as fortified plant 'milks'
Following a vegan diet has been made easier in recent years as supermarkets, health food stores and specialist online suppliers now stock a wide variety of non-animal dairy alternatives and vegan ingredients.
Consider the following vegan alternatives to commonly consumed foods:
- Swap cow's milk for... Plant milks such as soya, rice, oat, hemp, coconut, hazelnut and almond – look for a fortified product with added vitamin B12, D and calcium.
- Swap dairy products (including cheese) for... nut or seed butters and plant-based milk alternatives
Note - Many brands of vegetable margarines and spreads are not suitable for vegans as they may contain milk derivatives.
- Swap butter for... Rapeseed, olive and coconut oils in cooking. Tahini can be stirred into salads and can be spread on bread and crackers as a butter substitute. It also works well stirred into a bowl of pasta or used to top jacket potatoes.
- Swap yogurt for... Soya yogurts and soya desserts as well as coconut yogurt and coconut cream.
- Swap meat & fish for: Vegetable burgers, nut roasts and ingredients such as tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils and mushrooms. Be aware that quorn is not suitable for vegans as it may contain egg and dairy.
Tip: Check the freezers in supermarkets. Most of the vegan products are stored here.
If you follow a vegan diet there are some nutrients that you need to pay particular attention to. The most common micronutrient deficiencies for vegans (and some vegetarians too!) are iron, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12.
Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth. Include calcium-rich green, leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, as well as nuts and seeds such as almonds and sesame seeds. Milk and yogurt alternatives such as soya milk are often fortified with calcium. Dried fruit such as raisins and prunes are also a good source of calcium.
The best source of vitamin D is the sun! The body requires vitamin D to absorb calcium so it plays an important role in bone health. Many breakfast cereals and some spreads are fortified with vitamin D. You may want to take a vitamin D supplement but check with your doctor and always check the label to ensure the supplement is not from animal origin.
Iron is essential for growth and development and plays a role in transferring oxygen around the body. Vegan diets can supply adequate iron from plant-based sources such as green leafy vegetables; broccoli, watercress, spinach, grains such as; lentils, quinoa and seeds such as pumpkin seeds. Read our spotlight on high-iron diets for more information.
Vitamin B12 is important to maintain healthy blood and nervous system. The main sources of vitamin B12 are foods from animal sources so unsurprisingly, vegans and vegetarians are often low in this vitamin. If you are worried you may have low levels of vitamin B12 consult your doctor as a supplement may be needed. Vegan-friendly sources of B12 include fortified breakfast cereals, soya milks and yeast extract.
Omega-3 fatty acids, primarily found in oily fish, are an essential component of a healthy, balanced diet. For vegans, useful sources are seeds including flaxseeds and chia, nuts such as walnuts and their oils as well as cold-pressed rapeseed oil. Vegans (both adults and children) obtain important calories and energy from fats so try drizzling oils over vegetables, dip bread in oil, make sandwiches with oil-rich hummus and roasted vegetables or top warm toast with tahini or nut butters. Supplementation can be useful for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding but it is important to speak to your GP or your dietitian before you take them.
If you are concerned about your levels of iron, vitamin D or B12, ask your GP to do a blood test.
Things to watch out for
During pregnancy and while breastfeeding, women following a vegan diet need to ensure they get adequate vitamins and minerals for their child's growth and development. More information can be found at the NHS website:
Vegan friendly recipes
Nut butters such as peanut, cashew, hazelnut and almond are delicious on bread or rice cakes and good for adding flavour to vegetable casseroles and bakes.
Peanut butter & banana on toast
Thai satay stir-fry
Nutty apple sarnies
Avocadoes are wonderfully creamy and rich in good fats, which means they're a great topping on jacket potatoes, in salads and sandwiches, even mashed on rice cakes spread with nut butter and sliced banana.
Avocado & leaf salad
Avocado & lime cream
Exotic avocado salad
Potato & avocado salad
Try making speciality breads which use olive oil such as focaccia as it is higher in fat and therefore contains more energy than standard breads:
Potato focaccia Pugliese
Courgette & mushroom bread
Finally, a great, vegan hummus recipe is a must for between-meal snacking:
This article was last reviewed on 13 April 2022.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (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.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.