Vegans avoid eating animal foods for environmental, ethical or health reasons.
Unfortunately, following a diet based exclusively on plants may put some people at a higher risk of nutrient deficiencies.
This is especially true when vegan diets are not well planned.
For vegans who want to stay healthy, consuming a nutrient-rich diet with whole and fortified foods is very important.
Here are 11 foods and food groups that should be part of a healthy vegan diet.
In an effort to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, vegans avoid traditional sources of protein and iron such as meat, poultry, fish and eggs.
Therefore, its important to replace these animal products with protein- and iron-rich plant alternatives, such as legumes.
Beans, lentils and peas are great options that contain 10€“20 grams of protein per cooked cup.
Theyre also excellent sources of fiber, slowly digested carbs, iron, folate, manganese, zinc, antioxidants and other health-promoting plant compounds.
However, legumes also contain a good amount of antinutrients, which can reduce the absorption of minerals.
For instance, iron absorption from plants is estimated to be 50% lower than that from animal sources. Similarly, vegetarian diets seem to reduce zinc absorption by about 35% compared to those containing meat.
Its advantageous to sprout, ferment or cook legumes well because these processes can decrease the levels of antinutrients.
To increase your absorption of iron and zinc from legumes, you may also want to avoid consuming them at the same time as calcium rich foods. Calcium can hinder their absorption if you consume it at the same time.
In contrast, eating legumes in combination with vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables can further increase your absorption of iron.
Nuts, Nut Butters and Seeds
Nuts, seeds and their byproducts are a great addition to any vegan refrigerator or pantry. Thats in part because a 1-oz (28-gram) serving of nuts or seeds contains 5€“12 grams of protein.
This makes them a good alternative to protein-rich animal products.
In addition, nuts and seeds are great sources of iron, fiber, magnesium, zinc, selenium and vitamin E. They also contain a good amount of antioxidants and other beneficial plant compounds.
Nuts and seeds are also extremely versatile. They can be consumed on their own, or worked into interesting recipes such as sauces, desserts and cheeses. Cashew cheese is one delicious option.
Try to choose unblanched and unroasted varieties whenever possible, since nutrients can be lost during processing.
Favor nut butters that are natural rather than heavily processed. These are usually devoid of the oil, sugar and salt often added to household brand varieties.
Hemp, Flax and Chia Seeds
These three seeds have special nutrient profiles that deserve to be highlighted separately from the previous category.
For starters, all three contain larger amounts of protein than most other seeds.
One ounce (28 grams) of hemp seeds contains 9 grams of complete, easily digestible protein €” about 50% more protein than most other seeds.
Whats more, the omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio found in hemp seeds is considered optimal for human health.
Research also shows that the fats found in hemp seeds may be very effective at diminishing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menopause.
It may also reduce inflammation and improve certain skin conditions.
For their part, chia and flaxseeds are particularly high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid your body can partly convert into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
EPA and DHA play important roles in the development and maintenance of the nervous system. These long-chain fatty acids also seem to play beneficial roles in pain, inflammation, depression and anxiety.
Since EPA and DHA are primarily found in fish and seaweed, it might be challenging for vegans to consume enough through their diets. For this reason, its important for vegans to eat enough ALA-rich foods, such as chia and flaxseeds.
However, studies suggest that the body is only able to convert 0.5€“5% of ALA to EPA and DHA. This conversion may be increased somewhat in vegans.
Regardless of this, both chia and flaxseeds are incredibly healthy for you. They also make great substitutes for eggs in baking, which is just one more reason to give them a try.
Tofu and other Minimally Processed Meat Substitutes
Tofu and tempeh are minimally processed meat substitutes made from soybeans.
Both contain 16€“19 grams of protein per 3.5-oz (100-gram) portion. Theyre also good sources of iron and calcium.
Tofu, created from the pressing of soybean curds, is a popular replacement for meats. It can be sautÃ©ed, grilled or scrambled. It makes a nice alternative to eggs in recipes such as omelets, frittatas and quiches.
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans. Its distinctive flavor makes it a popular replacement for fish, but tempeh can also be used in a variety of other dishes.
The fermentation process helps reduce the amount of antinutrients that are naturally found in soybeans, which may increase the amount of nutrients the body can absorb from tempeh.
The fermentation process of tempeh may produce small amounts of vitamin B12, a nutrient mainly found in animal foods that soybeans do not normally contain.
However, it remains unclear whether the type of vitamin B12 found in tempeh is active in humans.
The quantity of vitamin B12 in tempeh also remains low and can vary from one brand of tempeh to another. Therefore, vegans should not rely on tempeh as their source of vitamin B12.
Seitan is another popular meat alternative. It provides about 25 grams of wheat protein per 3.5 oz (100 grams). It is also a good source of selenium and contains small amounts of iron, calcium and phosphorus.
However, individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should avoid seitan due to its high gluten content.
More heavily processed mock meats, such as €œvegan burgers€ or €œvegan chicken fillets,€ usually provide far fewer nutrients and can contain various additives. They should be eaten sparingly.
Calcium-Fortified Plant Milks and Yogurts
Vegans tend to consume smaller amounts of calcium per day than vegetarians or meat eaters, which may negatively affect their bone health. This seems especially true if calcium intake falls below 525 mg per day.
For this reason, vegans should attempt to make calcium-fortified plant milks and plant yogurts part of their daily menu.
Those looking to simultaneously increase their protein intake should opt for milks and yogurts made from soy or hemp. Coconut, almond, rice and oat milks are lower-protein alternatives.
Calcium-fortified plant milks and yogurts are usually also fortified with vitamin D, a nutrient that plays an important role in the absorption of calcium. Some brands also add vitamin B12 to their products.
Therefore, vegans looking to reach their daily intakes of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 through foods alone should make sure to opt for fortified products. To keep added sugars to a minimum, make sure to choose unsweetened versions.
Seaweed is one of the rare plant foods to contain DHA, an essential fatty acid with many health benefits.
Algae such as spirulina and chlorella are also good sources of complete protein.
Two tablespoons (30 ml) of these provide about 8 grams of protein.
In addition, seaweed contains magnesium, riboflavin, manganese, potassium, iodine and good amounts of antioxidants.
The mineral iodine, in particular, plays crucial roles in your metabolism and in the function of your thyroid gland.
The Reference Daily Intake (RDI) of iodine is 150 micrograms per day. Vegans can meet their requirements by consuming several servings of seaweed per week.
That being said, some types of seaweed (such as kelp) are extremely high in iodine, so should not be eaten in large amounts.
Other varieties, such as spirulina, contain very little iodine.
Those who are having difficulty meeting their recommended daily intakes through seaweed alone should aim to consume half a teaspoon (2.5 ml) of iodized salt each day.
Similar to tempeh, seaweed is often promoted as a great source of vitamin B12 for vegans. Although it does contain a form of vitamin B12, it is still not clear whether this form is active in humans.
Until more is known, vegans who want to reach their daily recommended vitamin B12 intake should rely on fortified foods or use supplements..
Nutritional yeast is made from a deactivated strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast. It can be found in the form of yellow powder or flakes in most supermarkets and health food stores.
One ounce (28 grams) contains approximately 14 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber. In addition, nutritional yeast is commonly fortified with zinc, magnesium, copper, manganese and B vitamins, including vitamin B12.
Therefore, fortified nutritional yeast can be a practical way for vegans to reach their daily vitamin B12 recommendations.
However, its important to note that vitamin B12 is light-sensitive and may degrade if bought or stored in clear plastic bags.
Non-fortified nutritional yeast should not be relied on as a source of vitamin B12.
Sprouted and Fermented Plant Foods
Although rich in nutrients, most plant foods also contain varying amounts of antinutrients.
These antinutrients can reduce your bodys ability to absorb the minerals these foods contain.
Sprouting and fermenting are simple and time-tested methods of reducing the amount of antinutrients found in various foods.
These techniques increase the amount of beneficial nutrients absorbed from plant foods and can also boost their overall protein quality.
Interestingly, sprouting may also slightly reduce the amount of gluten found in certain grains.
Fermented plant foods are good sources of probiotic bacteria, which may help improve immune function and digestive health.
They also contain vitamin K2, which may promote bone and dental health as well as help decrease the risk of heart disease and cancer.
You can try sprouting or fermenting grains at home. Some can also be bought in stores, such as Ezekiel bread, tempeh, miso, natto, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi and kombucha.
Whole Grains, Cereals and Pseudocereals
Whole grains, cereals and pseudocereals are good sources of complex carbs, fiber, and iron, as well as B vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium.
That said, some varieties are more nutritious than others, especially when it comes to protein.
For instance, the ancient grains spelt and teff contain 10€“11 grams of protein per cooked cup (237 ml). Thats a lot compared to wheat and rice.
The pseudocereals amaranth and come in a close second with around 9 grams of protein per cooked cup (237 ml). They are also two of the rare sources of complete protein in this food group.
Like many plant foods, whole grains and pseudocereals contain varying levels of antinutrients, which can limit the absorption of beneficial nutrients. Sprouting is useful for reducing these antinutrients.
The nutrient choline is important for the health of your liver, brain and nervous system.
Our bodies can produce it, but only in small amounts. Thats why its considered an essential nutrient that you must get from your diet.
Choline can be found in small amounts in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and grains.
That said, the plant foods with the largest amounts include tofu, soymilk, cauliflower, broccoli and quinoa.
Daily choline requirements increase during pregnancy. Endurance athletes, heavy drinkers and postmenopausal women may also be at increased risk of deficiency.
Therefore, vegan individuals who fall into one of these categories should make a special effort to ensure they have sufficient choline-rich foods on their plates.
Fruits and Vegetables
Some vegans rely heavily on mock meats and vegan junk food to replace their favorite animal foods. However, these types of foods are often highly processed and unhealthy.
Luckily, there are many ways to replace your favorite meals with vitamin- and mineral-rich fruits and vegetables instead.
For instance, mashed banana is a great substitute for eggs in baking recipes.
Banana ice cream is also a popular replacement for dairy-based ice cream. Simply blend a frozen banana until its smooth. Then you can add your preferred toppings.
Eggplant and mushrooms, especially cremini or portobello, are a great way to get a meaty texture in vegetable form. Theyre particularly easy to grill.
Perhaps surprisingly, jackfruit is a great stand-in for meat in savory dishes such as stir-fries and barbecue sandwiches.
Meanwhile, cauliflower is a versatile addition to many recipes, including pizza crust.
Vegans should also aim to increase their intake of iron- and calcium-rich fruits and vegetables. This includes leafy greens such as bok choy, spinach, kale, watercress and mustard greens.
Broccoli, turnip greens, artichokes and blackcurrants are also great options.