Vegan nutrition guide
The nutritional benefits of veganism are often heavily debated amongst vegans and non-vegans. It can get pretty heated!
Whilst I definitely do have my own opinions on the debate, I want to provide you with useful factual information that will help you to make an informed decision about your diet and your nutritional needs.
Ultimately, this vegan nutrition guide will give you all the information you need to follow a healthy plant-based diet that is nutritionally complete.
Please note: I am not a doctor. So if you are concerned about your diet then please go direct to them for advice.
Veganism has been gaining popularity in recent years as more people are becoming conscious about their health, the environment, and animal welfare. A vegan diet, which eliminates all animal products, can provide numerous health benefits when approached in a balanced and informed way.
In this vegan nutrition guide, I will delve into the world of vegan nutrition and explore the health benefits of a vegan diet and the potential risks of eating purely plant-based foods.
Many studies have shown that a well-planned vegan diet can lower the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. A plant-based diet is rich in fibre, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, all of which can contribute to better health outcomes.
Moreover, a vegan diet can be a great source of essential nutrients such as iron, calcium, and B vitamins, all of which are vital for overall health and well-being.
However, a vegan diet can also lead to certain nutrient deficiencies if it’s not planned correctly. For this reason, it’s essential to be mindful of the types of food you consume and to ensure that you’re eating a varied and balanced diet.
In addition to exploring the benefits and challenges of a vegan diet, I’ll also discuss the key vegan nutrients and how to ensure that you’re getting enough of these essential nutrients in your diet.
Whether you’re a seasoned vegan or just starting out on your plant-based journey, this vegan nutrition guide will provide you with all the information you need to make informed choices about your nutrition and to cook delicious, nutritious vegan food.
Why trust my vegan nutrition guide?
I’ve been vegan since 2015 and have since then worked in numerous vegan kitchens developing nutritious plant-based menus, meal plans, and recipes. Therefore, I am very knowledgeable about both veganism and plant-based food.
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Ready to tuck into some super nutritious vegan content? Let’s start by covering the basics about veganism.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is a type of plant-based diet that eliminates all animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, and any other animal-derived ingredients. People choose to follow a vegan diet for a variety of reasons, including health, ethical, environmental, and/or religious beliefs.
For those with ethical concerns, a vegan diet is seen as a way to avoid supporting industries that exploit animals for food, clothing, or other purposes. A vegan diet can also help reduce the environmental impact of food production, as raising animals for food requires a large amount of land, water, and other resources.
From a health perspective, a well-planned vegan diet can provide numerous benefits, including a lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer, improved heart health, and a reduced risk of obesity. Additionally, a vegan diet can be a great source of essential nutrients such as fibre, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, all of which can contribute to better health outcomes.
Finally, for some people, a vegan diet is a religious or spiritual choice, as some religions prohibit the consumption of animal products.
Regardless of the reason, a well-planned vegan diet can provide numerous health benefits and is a sustainable and humane way of eating.
What are the benefits of a vegan diet?
By choosing to eat a vegan diet you can benefit from the following:
- Improved health outcomes: A vegan diet has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer (scientific source).
- Weight management: A vegan diet can help with weight management as it is typically lower in calories and higher in fibre compared to a diet that includes animal products (scientific source).
- Better heart health: A vegan diet is typically low in saturated fat and high in antioxidants and other nutrients that can improve heart health (scientific source).
- Increased energy levels: A well-planned vegan diet can provide a sustained source of energy throughout the day (scientific source).
- Better digestion: A vegan diet is high in fibre, which can help improve digestion and prevent constipation (scientific source).
- Better kidney function: A vegan diet has been shown to improve kidney function in people with kidney disease (scientific study).
- Environmental sustainability: A vegan diet has a smaller environmental impact compared to diets that include animal products, as raising animals for food requires a large number of resources such as land, water, and energy (scientific source).
- Animal welfare: For those with ethical concerns, a vegan diet is a way to avoid supporting industries that exploit animals for food, clothing, or other purposes.
It is also important for me to note that a poorly planned vegan diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies and other health problems. For this reason, it’s important to approach a vegan diet in a balanced and informed way, ensuring that you’re getting enough of all the essential nutrients your body needs to thrive.
This vegan nutrition guide will help you understand how you can lead a nutritious vegan lifestyle that is beneficial to your health (and to animals too).
Are there any health risks to a vegan diet?
While a well-planned vegan diet can provide numerous health benefits, a poorly planned vegan diet can lead to certain nutrient deficiencies. which can in turn lead to numerous health risks.
I personally have never experienced any of these, nor has anyone I know. But I do know that deficiencies can happen and that they can be very serious. I’ve only ever heard of it happening when people have extreme diets, so either really bland diets focusing on beige carbohydrates and plenty of deep fried food, or restrictive diets consisting of just fruit and vegetables.
So, please do keep in mind that when reading this list that whilst these deficiencies are possible, you will likely not struggle with them as long as you eat a varied diet. That can include takeaways as well as nutritious home-cooked meals.
Here are some potential health risks and how to avoid them:
Vitamin B12 deficiency: Vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal products and can be difficult to obtain from a vegan diet. A Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause nerve damage, anaemia, and other health problems. To avoid this, vegans should take a Vitamin B12 supplement or consume Vitamin B12-fortified foods.
Iron deficiency: Iron from animal products, known as heme iron, is more easily absorbed than iron from plant sources, known as non-heme iron. Vegans may need to eat iron-rich plant foods such as dark, leafy greens and fortified cereals, and consider taking an iron supplement.
Calcium deficiency: Calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth, and is found in dairy products. Vegans can obtain calcium from fortified plant milks and juices, as well as leafy greens and tofu made with calcium sulfate.
Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency: Omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart health and can be difficult to obtain from a vegan diet. Vegans can consume Omega-3-rich plant foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, or take a vegan Omega-3 supplement.
Protein deficiency: Protein is important for building and repairing body tissue, and can be obtained from a variety of plant foods such as legumes, soy products, nuts, and whole grains. Alternatively, you can buy a vegan protein powder.
What nutritious foods should vegans eat?
Vegan or not, it is important to eat food from a variety of different food groups in order to reap the nutritional benefits of food. Here are the nutritious foods that vegans should be eating a variety of.
Fruit & vegetables
Eat a variety of fruit and vegetables every day for vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants. Aim to eat at least five portions (80g per portion) of fruit and vegetables a day, which is really easy to do on a vegan diet.
Make sure to consume whole grains within your diet for fibre, carbohydrates, and some vitamins and minerals. These can include brown rice, quinoa, oats, barley, bulgur, buckwheat and corn (in its whole form). When buying breaded products try and opt for whole grain varieties, but the occasional white bread loaf won’t kill you!
Legumes are a really healthy addition to any meal. Aim to include them in one or two dishes every day. They are great plant-based sources of protein packed full of nutrients.
Nuts & seeds
Try including some nuts and seeds into one of your meals every day, alternatively eat some as a snack. They are a great source of healthy fats, protein, and severals vitamins and minerals. Just make sure to eat them in moderation as they are quite fatty!
Healthy vegan substitutes can be enjoyed on a daily basis. They tend to be fortified with vitamins like B12 and calcium, which can help to up your daily intake.
Good vegan substitutes include plant-based milk and healthy vegan cereals.
How do vegans get enough protein?
All plants contain protein, meaning a well-balanced vegan diet containing a variety of whole foods will ensure you get enough protein in your diet.
Contrary to popular belief, there are quite a few plant-based sources of complete proteins, meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids. These include but are not limited to quinoa, nutritional yeast and peas.
On top of this, if you eat a variety of grains, nuts and seeds, legumes and vegetables, then you’ll make up a complete protein through your daily eating.
Superfoods are nutrient-dense foods that are considered to have exceptional health benefits due to their high levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients. Some superfoods have been studied for their potential to prevent or treat specific health conditions, while others are simply considered to be healthy choices due to their nutrient profile.
Here are some popular and nutritious vegan superfoods that are good to include in to your plant-based diet to enhance your nutrition.
Chia seeds: high in fibre, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Spirulina: a type of blue-green algae that is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Kale: a leafy green vegetable high in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Acai berries: high in antioxidants and a good source of healthy fats.
Berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries): high in antioxidants and vitamin C.
Avocados: high in healthy monounsaturated fats and potassium.
Sweet potatoes: high in fibre, vitamins, and minerals.
Nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews): good source of healthy fats, protein, and fibre.
Garlic: a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory food.
Turmeric: a spice with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
What foods should vegans avoid?
A vegan diet is one that avoids food from animal origins. This includes animals themselves and their by-products. Here is an overview of the foods that vegans should avoid.
- Dairy: milk, yoghurt, cheese, butter, cream, ice cream, etc.
- Animals: beef, pork, poultry, lamb, etc.
- Fish: all types of fish, seafood, etc.
- Eggs: from all animals
- Animal byproducts: honey, whey, casein, lactose, gelatin, isinglass, shellac, lanolin, etc.
What vegan food should be eaten in moderation?
There are many vegan-friendly foods that whilst being great for animals and the environment, they should still be eaten in moderation. They don’t provide many nutritional benefits and can actually be detrimental if eaten regularly.
For instance, I like to eat the occasional vegan burger every few weeks or a takeaway once a month, but I stick to nutritionally balanced whole foods-focused dishes day-to-day.
Here are some vegan-friendly foods that should be eaten in moderation.
- Vegan dairy: ice creams, creams, butter
- Vegan meat substitutes: burgers, sausages, bacon
- Other vegan foods: sugary foods, deep-fried foods (yes, that does mean you should keep those vegan takeaways to a minimum…)
What nutrients do vegans need to get?
As humans, we all need the same nutrients to stay alive but some are just harder to get from plant-based sources. Moreover, some are getting harder to obtain naturally due to overfarming.
The popularity of animal-based nutrients, which are promoted heavily by health professionals and companies, has also made it harder for people to find alternatives. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good quality alternatives. Thankfully, we now have a lot more information on how to source everything we need for a healthy vegan diet.
Here are the most important nutrients that you need to consider when following a vegan diet.
Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that is important for the production of red blood cells, the proper functioning of the nervous system, and the maintenance of DNA. It is created by bacteria which is commonly eaten by animals, meaning it is often found in animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products.
That being said, this bacteria is becoming less apparent in plant-based feed due to overfarming, so even most animals are now given shots of B12.
In order to get enough B12, it is worth eating fortified breakfast cereals, plant-based milk, and nutritional yeast. Additionally, many vegans take a B12 supplement to ensure they are getting enough of this important nutrient.
Iron is a mineral that is essential for the production of haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Iron is also important for the proper functioning of the immune system and brain development.
Vegans can get iron from plant-based sources such as:
- Lentils and other legumes
- Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard greens)
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Dried fruit (raisins, apricots)
- Whole grains (brown rice, quinoa)
- Nuts and seeds (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds)
The difficulty is that plant-based iron is not as easily absorbed by the body as the iron found in animal products. To increase the absorption of iron from plant-based sources, you should combine iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, and bell peppers.
You may also want to consider an iron supplement to be safe.
Iodine is an essential mineral that the body needs to make thyroid hormones, which regulate the body’s metabolism and help control growth and development. Iodine is also important for brain development and function, especially in fetuses and young children.
The main dietary sources of iodine are seafood, dairy products, and iodized salt. Vegan iodine sources include fortified plant-based milk, fortified breakfast cereals, and iodised salt. Some plant-based foods, such as seaweed, are also good sources of iodine, but it can be difficult to get enough from these sources to meet the daily recommended intake. Therefore, an iodine supplement is often recommended to vegans.
Calcium is an essential mineral that is important for building and maintaining strong bones and teeth, as well as proper muscle function, nerve transmission, and blood clotting.
Vegans can get calcium from plant-based sources such as:
- Leafy greens (kale, collard greens, bok choy)
- Fortified plant-based milks and juices
- Fortified tofu and other soy products
- Sesame seeds and tahini (sesame seed paste)
- Fortified breakfast cereals
To increase calcium absorption, you should pair calcium-rich foods with foods high in vitamin D, such as fortified plant-based milk and mushrooms exposed to UV light.
There are plenty of calcium-rich vegan foods, but if you don’t eat many of these foods you may want to also consider a calcium supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that is important for heart health, brain function, and overall health. There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
DHA and EPA are found primarily in algae, which is then found in fish, while ALA is found in plant-based sources such as:
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Algal oil (a plant-based source of DHA)
While the body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, the conversion is not very efficient. Therefore, some vegans may choose to take a DHA supplement derived from algal oil to ensure adequate intake.
Do vegans need to take supplements?
Whether or not you need to take supplements on a vegan diet really depends on whether you are getting all of the above nutrients through your food alone.
If you carefully plan your meals each week and make sure to consume plenty of nutrient-rich foods as listed above, alongside balanced meals with whole grains, vegetables, fruits and plant-based proteins, then you may well have a nutritionally complete diet.
However, it is hard to know unless you get your blood tested for nutrient deficiencies.
Some people, like myself, like to be on the safe side and buy supplements to ensure they are getting enough nutrients on top of their diet. If you feel like this also, then you might want to consider a high-quality vegan multivitamin or you can select individual vitamins based on what you need in your diet.
What vegan nutrition brands are good?
If you do decide to start supplementing your vegan diet, these vegan-friendly nutrition brands are a great place to start! Have a look through my reviews of these companies.
Do vegans have good gut health?
Vegan diets can support good gut health, but it depends on the overall quality and variety of the diet. A plant-based diet that includes a variety of whole foods, such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, can provide a good source of fibre, prebiotics, and probiotics that promote gut health.
Fibre, which is abundant in plant-based foods, helps to promote regular bowel movements and feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Prebiotics, which are non-digestible carbohydrates found in some plant-based foods, also help to feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Probiotics, which are live microorganisms found in fermented foods, such as soy yoghurt, kefir, vegan kimchi and sauerkraut, can help to promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria.
However, it’s important to note that not all vegan diets are created equal, and a diet that is high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats may not provide the same gut health benefits as a diet rich in whole plant-based foods. And let’s be honest, there are many junk food vegans out there. They may well have very unhappy guts!
If you are a junk food vegan or if you have pre-existing gut issues then I would recommend trying out eating fermented foods and taking vegan-friendly probiotics.
Get personalised nutritional advice
Everybody is different and our nutritional needs are no different. So, as much as it is important to ensure you take all of the above-recommended vitamins and nutrients, you may need more or less of some things. This could be down to your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, your genetics, or down to your diet.
Therefore, I would recommend going to the doctor or taking a blood test to find out what you may personally be lacking.
How do you cook nutritious vegan meals?
Cooking nutritious vegan meals that contain plenty of vitamins and nutrients may sound tricky, but if you are willing to learn and give it a go then you will find it easy in the long run. Anything that is truly worth doing is difficult in the beginning!
See also: my comprehensive guide to vegan cooking
To get started, you may want to consider following these next steps to incorporate more nutritious vegan cooking into your day-to-day life.
Step 1: Follow nutritious vegan recipes
A good place to start is with nutritional plant-based recipes. They will teach you how to incorporate a wide range of ingredients into your meals which you can take inspiration from when you are rustling something up at home.
Step 2: Take vegan cooking classes
Learning how to incorporate healthy ingredients into your vegan cooking is a lot easier when you are being taught by a professional! Vegan cooking classes are becoming very popular meaning there is a great variety of options, with many being taught by chefs and backed by nutritionists.
Step 3: Follow a nutritionist-backed vegan meal plan
A meal plan can make your weeks a lot easier. They will guide you through everything you need to cook, from breakfast to lunch and dinner. You can either make one yourself, just be sure to include a good variety of ingredients and food groups, or you can purchase a nutritionist-backed one.
Step 4: Try out a nutritious vegan ready meal
No, I’m not talking about the ready meals you’ll find on your supermarket shelves, these are good-quality vegan ready meals cooked by chefs and flash-frozen to preserve nutrients. There are plenty of vegan-friendly companies offering this service, so make sure to browse through the link below.
Step 5: Get help from healthy vegan recipe boxes
If you really enjoy cooking but haven’t got the time to plan healthy meals for every day of the week then you may want to consider a vegan recipe box. They are built by chefs and nutritionists to make your life easier!
They send you a box with a variety of meals to cook with the ingredients and recipe to do so.
Here are some frequently asked questions about vegan nutrition.
Can we get enough nutrients on a vegan diet?
Yes, a well-planned vegan diet can provide all the nutrients your body needs. With careful planning and attention to key nutrients, a vegan diet can be nutritionally adequate and even healthful.
Plant-based sources of protein, such as legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds, can provide all the essential amino acids that your body needs. Whole grains, along with leafy greens and other vegetables, can provide adequate amounts of iron, while fortified plant-based milks and other fortified foods can provide calcium.
Vitamin B12 can be obtained from fortified plant-based milks, breakfast cereals, and yeast extracts, or from a supplement. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are typically found in fatty fish, can be obtained from plant-based sources such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, or from an algal oil supplement.
Is vegan food healthier?
A well-planned vegan diet can be a healthy and nutritionally adequate way of eating. Vegan diets are often rich in fibre, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, and low in saturated fat, which can help to promote good health.
Studies have shown that vegans tend to have a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer compared to non-vegans. However, it’s important to note that the health benefits of a vegan diet are largely dependent on the quality and variety of the foods consumed.
A vegan diet that is high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats (looking at you, junk food vegans) may not provide the same health benefits as a diet rich in whole plant-based foods. Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to your nutrient intake and to include a variety of whole foods, such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, in their diet.
Are humans supposed to be vegan?
The debate on whether humans are supposed to be vegan or not is a highly debated and controversial topic. There is no one definitive answer, but evidence does seem to point towards humans being natural herbivores.
From an evolutionary perspective, humans have the ability to thrive on a wide variety of diets, including those that include both animal and plant foods. But it can be argued that humans are naturally herbivorous, due to the anatomy of our digestive system and our relative lack of physical adaptations for meat consumption compared to other omnivorous or carnivorous species.