How to be a healthy vegan
Veganism is the pinnacle of plant-based eating, but you still need to follow the basic principles of a healthy diet to achieve a good balance of nutrients that will support your body’s needs.
You can glean everything your body needs from eating plant-foods, but it does take a little more planning and understanding of what to eat and how to put meals together. The key is to eat a varied balanced diet, but certain areas of the vegan diet may need more consideration, especially if you’re just starting out.
Veganism has a reputation for being a low in calories so to get the most out of this diet to fit in with your energy needs you need to include plenty of nutrient-dense foods. Vegetables, beans and pulses are naturally low in calories so meals should also include foods such as avocado, oils, nuts, seeds, nut butters, tahini and plenty of wholegrain carbs such as brown rice, pasta and oats.
Protein is essential for the growth and repair of tissues. The body requires 21 amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins and nine of these must be obtained from the diet (essential amino acids). Animal proteins contain a full spectrum of amino acids, but some may be lacking in certain plant proteins.
To ensure your amino acid intake, include a variety of plant proteins with every meal. Plant proteins include nuts, nut butters, seeds, beans, pulses and lentils. Those with a complete set of essential amino acids include quinoa, buckwheat (such as soba noodles), hemp seeds, chia seeds, tofu, tempeh, edamame beans, Quorn (vegan products in the range) and Ezakiel bread (from Jerusalem, made using beans, lentils and grains).
Iron is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide and women are more at risk than men. Findings from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey have shown that 27% of women do not get enough iron from their diet putting them at risk of anaemia, which causes chronic tiredness and fatigue (1).
Include plenty of iron-rich foods in your diet such as beans, pulses, lentils, nuts, seeds, fortified breakfast cereals, tofu, tempeh, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit and dried spices. Iron from plant-foods is not as easily absorbed by the body so partner them with a source of vitamin C (fruits, fruit juice, red peppers, broccoli) to help improve absorption and avoid drinking tea with meals as this can inhibit iron uptake.
This vitamin is only found in a few plant-foods such as nutritional yeast and marmite spread. Vitamin B12 is essential for the production of healthy red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body and help to release energy from food. The best way to ensure your intake of vitamin B12 is by including fortified foods such as cereals, plant-milks and soy products. Contrary to popular belief, spirulina and other algae products are not reliable sources of this vitamin.
Calcium is required for healthy bones and muscle function. This mineral is especially important for young people whose bones are still developing up until the age of twenty-five. Whilst dairy is a good source of calcium it’s not the only one and there are many other ways to obtain it from plant foods such as tofu, almonds, dark green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds, tahini and fortified plant-milks. Include two or three servings of calcium-rich foods on a daily basis.
Zinc is essential for making new cells and enzymes, supporting the immune system, protecting men’s health and processing carbohydrates, proteins and fats in the body.
Vegans should include plenty of plant-sources of zinc in their diet such as sourdough bread, oats, dark green leafy vegetables, lentils, seeds and tofu. Seeds are great to keep to hand and can be sprinkled on many foods such as salads and soy or coconut yoghurt as a zinc booster.
Omega 3 fatty acids are referred to as ‘essential’ as they need to be obtained from your diet. Omega 3 fatty acids have many health benefits, which include the reduction of inflammation in the body. The most important are called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexeanoic acid (DHA), which are found predominantly in oily fish such as salmon.
Plants such as dark green leafy vegetables, seeds, seed oils, quinoa and nuts contain alphalinolenic acid (ALA), which the body coverts to EPA and DHA. Whilst these foods are a useful source of Omega 3, the conversion in the body is poor so vegans may want to consider topping up their diet with a vegan Omega 3 supplement.
There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to get everything you need from a vegan diet. The key is getting to grips with the essential vegan foods and finding new and interesting ways to prepare meals using them.