Updated: Oct 3, 2021
A vegan diet consists of only foods made from plants such as fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds.
Research has shown that a vegan diet can provide us with all the nutrients we need for a well-balanced diet at any stage of life. As with any diet however, understanding and planning is key.
Are you thinking about transitioning to a vegan diet but not sure how to start? or perhaps you are already vegan and want to ensure that you are getting the balance right? Read on to find out more about how to eat for optimum health on a vegan diet…
Think about your protein options
Protein is an important macronutrient for tissue growth and repair. It is also involved in transporting oxygen around our bodies and fighting infections. Furthermore, protein can help to regulate our blood sugar control and keep us feeling fuller for longer making it an important macronutrient in the prevention of obesity.
As most of us are aware animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products are rich sources of protein. A common mistake on a vegan diet is to forget about substituting these for plant-based protein alternatives. Not having enough protein can lead to lethargy, increased hunger, reduced immune function, dry skin, brittle nails and hair loss. Good plant-based sources of protein include beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy products such as tofu and tempeh.
Tip: As a starting point aim to include a plant-based protein source in at least 2 meals per day.
Eat a variety of different fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are an exceptionally good source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are also high in fibre which helps to keep our digestive systems healthy, and low in calories which helps with maintaining a healthy weight. We should all aim to eat at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables per day. Variety is also important as different fruit and vegetables contain different vitamins and minerals. Click here to learn more about what counts as a portion of fruit and vegetables.
Tip: Aim to eat a rainbow of different coloured fruits and vegetables.
Base your meals on starchy carbohydrate
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary energy source. Starch is broken down into glucose which is then used by the body as fuel. Consequently, without them you would find yourself feeling quite lethargic and potentially very hungry.
Starchy foods should make up about a third of all the food we eat. Aim to base your meals on a source of starchy carbohydrate such as potato, rice, pasta, or bread.
Think about your fats
The good news is that a vegan diet is typically rich in heart healthy unsaturated fats which can help to lower your cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart attack and strokes. Omega 3 fatty acids are particularly important. On a non-vegan diet these are primarily found in oily fish. On a vegan diet the best sources include rapeseed oil, flaxseed, avocado, soy-based products, such as tofu and walnuts.
Although plant-based fats are an important part of the diet, be careful with portion control, especially if you are trying to lose weight. As with any type of fat, plant-based fats are high in calories so consuming too many of them will make it harder to lose weight or lead to unwanted weight gain.
Include dairy substitutes
Dairy products are a rich source of calcium, B12 and iodine, all of which are important components of a healthy diet. Not substituting your dairy products is likely to lead to insufficient calcium intake which may lead to poor bone health. A lack of B12 can lead to anaemia, and Iodine deficiency is associated with poor thyroid function. The good news is that most plant-based dairy substitutes are fortified with calcium and sometimes B12 and iodine. If you are trying to increase your protein intake, then opt for soya or pea based dairy substitutes.
Tip: Choose dairy substitutes that are fortified with calcium, iodine and B12. Suitable options include Oatly original oat drink, Alpro Soya drink or Mighty pea original milk.
Consider whether you are getting enough selenium
Selenium is an important antioxidant involved in the normal function of the immune system and sperm production. On a non-vegan diet rich sources include fish, meats (especially organ meats) and dairy products. Vegan sources include Brazil nuts, whole oats, and wholegrains options such as brown bread, rice or pasta.
Tips: 1. You can achieve your daily selenium requirement by eating just 5 Brazil nuts per day 2. Choose wholegrain starch options when possible.
Do vegans need to take supplements?
Vitamin D - Regardless of whether you are following a vegan diet or not I recommend that you take a daily vitamin D supplement containing at least 10mcg or 400IU of vitamin D. It is very difficult to consume enough vitamin D through diet alone. Vitamin D is produced in the body when our skin is exposed to sunlight. Unfortunately, in the UK most of us don’t get enough sunlight exposure. Vitamin D is especially important for helping the body to absorb calcium and optimise bone health. A vitamin D deficiency can also lead to tiredness and general aches and pains.
Vitamin B12 - For most people following a vegan diet I recommend supplementing with vitamin B12. Unless you are consuming B12 fortified products such as cereals, milks, nutritional yeast, marmite or vegan spreads at least twice a day, it is very difficult to achieve enough. Make sure your B12 supplement contains at least 10mcg.
Iodine - If you are unlikely to be able to consume at least 2 portions (~400ml) of iodine fortified dairy substitutes per day, then I recommend taking a 140mcg daily supplement.
Selenium – If you don’t like Brazil nuts, and you struggle with wholegrains then you are unlikely to be able to get enough selenium in your diet. If this is the case, then a daily supplement of 65mcg for women and 70mcg for men is recommended.
Tip: If you need to supplement with all the above then The Vegan Society markets a supplement providing reliable intakes of vitamins D, B12, iodine and selenium.
Thanks for reading 😊 For further information and personalised advice, consider booking my plant-based diet package.
1. EFSA. EU Register on Nutrition and Health Claims [Internet]. 2016 [cited 9/9/2021]. Available from: http://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/labelling_nutrition/claims/register/public/?event=search
2. Dietary Reference Values for Food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom: Report of the Panel on Dietary Reference Values of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy, Volume 41 of Department of Health Report on Health and Social Subjects, Issue 41 of Reports on health and social subjects, ISSN 0300-8045