A balanced diet for vegans

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If you follow a vegan diet, ensure you’re getting all the right nutrients. We explain portion sizes plus the vitamins and minerals you need to 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, 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 Eatwell Guide

The Eatwell Guide defines the different types of foods we should be eating and in what proportions. The guide explains some simple rules to follow like getting a minimum five-a-day of fruit and veg, including wholegrains and choosing more beans and pulses, while opting for lower fat, lower sugar vegan alternatives to dairy foods.

What do vegans eat and avoid?

Vegans avoid all animal-derived foods – so as well as meat and fish, that means no eggs, dairy or even honey. They also exclude animal byproducts like rennet used in cheese making, gelatine in desserts and certain E numbers including the red food dye cochineal (E120). Even certain vegetarian foods, such as some meat substitutes, are off the menu because they contain egg and sometimes dairy.

Shopping tips

If you’re new to vegan cooking, follow our shopping guide for vegan-friendly ingredients:

  1. 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.
  2. Be aware that non-vegan wines and beer may have been processed with animal products.
  3. Remember most breads and pastries contain butter and some contain milk.
  4. In desserts and puddings, replace gelatine with agar-agar or vege-gel, both made from seaweed.
  5. Use silken or soft tofu as an alternative to dairy in desserts and be sure to use fortified dairy alternatives as they contain added vitamins.

Reference Intakes (RI)

Nutrition needs vary depending on your sex, size, age and activity levels, so use this chart as a general guide only. The chart shows the Reference Intakes (RI) or daily recommended amounts for an average, moderately active adult to achieve a healthy, balanced diet for maintaining rather then losing or gaining weight. The RIs for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt are maximum daily amounts. There is no RI for fibre although health experts suggest we have 30g a day. Don’t forget that we are all different with varying needs for energy and nutrients, so this information is for guidance only:

Reference intakes (RI)
Men Women
Energy (kcal) 2500 2000
Protein (g) 55 50
Carbohydrates (g) 300 260
Sugar (g) 120 90
Fat (g) 95 70
Saturates (g) 30 20
Salt (g) 6 6

Perfect portions

Numbers and figures are all very well, but how does this relate to you? Keeping the Eatwell Guide in mind, you can personalise your portion sizes.

Foods Portion size
Carbs like cereal/rice/pasta/potato (include 1 portion at each main meal and ensure it fills no more than ¼ of your plate) Your clenched fist
Protein like tofu/beans/pulses (aim to have a portion at each meal) Palm of your hand
Nuts/seeds (as a snack or part of a meal) 1 of your cupped hands
Vegan spreads/nut butter (no more than 2 or 3 times a day) The tip of your thumb
Savouries like popcorn/crisps (as a snack/treat) 2 of your cupped hands
Bakes like vegan brownies/flapjacks (as an occasional treat) 2 of your fingers

Don’t forget, as set out in the Eatwell Guide, we should all be aiming for a minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Discover what counts as one portion using our five-a-day infographic.

Breakfast

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. When choosing a supplement, aim for 10 micrograms daily and remember, some forms of vitamin D supplement are not vegan, and some are thought to be more bio-available and therefore more effective. Vitamin D in the form of D2 is suitable for vegans, but vitamin D3 may not be, so look for a vitamin D3 product that is derived from lichen, which is 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.

Breakfast suggestions
Mexican beans & avocado on toast
Vegan tomato & mushroom pancakes
Creamy mango & coconut smoothie
Apple & blueberry bircher
Green breakfast smoothie

Mid-morning snack

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.

Snack suggestions
Date & walnut cinnamon bites
Cherry soya yogurt
Energy bites

Lunch

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, linseed, 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 wholegrains, which help you manage those afternoon munchies.

Lunch suggestions
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

Mid-afternoon snack

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.

Afternoon snack suggestions
Almond, raisin & popcorn trail mix
Apricot & seed protein bar​
Tangy roast pepper & walnut dip
Spicy seed mix
Harissa-spiked houmous
Indian oven chips

Dinner

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 linseed, rapeseed, walnut or hemp oil. Your body can use these healthy fats overnight, along with protein for regeneration and repair, important for maintaining healthy skin and hair. As a general rule, aim for a tablespoon of ground linseed, chia seeds or two tablespoons of oil each day.

Plants are a good source of iron, but it is important to eat them with foods rich in vitamin C to optimise your absorption. For example, combine iron-rich lentils with citrus fruits or peppers. Wholegrains are a great source of the mineral zinc, which helps to maintain a healthy immune system.

Dinner suggestions
Chickpea, tomato & spinach curry
Vegetable tagine with chickpeas & raisins​
Lentil lasagne
Vegetable vegan biriyani with carrot salad
Veggie Thai red curry
Vegetarian casserole
Quinoa stew with squash, prunes & pomegranate
Ratatouille​


This article was last reviewed on 26 June 2017 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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