Planning to increase the number of plant foods in your diet, or take the plunge and go fully vegan? You’ll have plenty of company! Veganism isn’t just a hot topic, it’s a fast-growing lifestyle movement. Not only are there now an estimated 780 million vegans worldwide, Google searches related to veganism have increased by 580% over the last five years.
Veganuary gave the plant-based curious the chance to test-drive the diet for a month. While a considerable number wished to continue, others found it too difficult or didn’t know how to get all the nutrition they needed from plant-based food, so went back to eating as they were before.
While the evidence clearly shows that increasing plant foods in your diet can improve health, leaping head-first into any radically different style of eating involves careful consideration and planning if you’re going to make it work. So let’s delve into how to build a healthy, tasty vegan diet that provides everything you need to support your optimal health.
The basics of a healthy and balanced vegan diet
The first step is to break down a healthy diet into its component parts - we’re talking macronutrients and micronutrients. This knowledge allows you to create tasty meals and menus that meet your body’s basic requirements.
Macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) are required in larger amounts and therefore represent the largest group of foundational foods.
Micronutrients like vitamins and minerals are still essential, but required in smaller amounts.
Harder-to-obtain nutrients (like vitamin B12) have been shown to be more tricky to come-by in vegan diets and therefore require special attention when planning your diet and menus.
Macronutrients - plant-based protein
A food is said to be a ‘complete’ protein when it contains all nine of the essential amino acids our bodies can’t make for themselves - we have to get them from the food we eat.
These proteins represent our body’s main building blocks for growth and repair, and they play an important role in a whole host of bodily processes, from our immune systems to our hormones.
While government guidelines are to eat just under a gram of protein per kg of body weight each day, research shows that we have an increased demand for protein as we get older, if we exercise, or if we have increased stress in our lives.
Taking these considerations in mind, it would be ideal to aim to eat at least 1.2g of protein per kg of body weight daily. For example, if you are 70kg, you would require 84g of protein per day. However, it is important to split this amount of protein into regular portions throughout the day (for example, 28g per meal if you eat three a day, or less with some snacks included). Splitting our protein feedings supports our appetite regulation, digestion, absorption and conversion of the amino acids into the building blocks we require.
Which plants are the best sources of protein?
Plant proteins are great because, by and large, they also contain fibre-rich carbs and antioxidants known as polyphenols. The rub is that unlike meat, fish, and eggs, they do not always contain all nine of the essential amino acids needed to make them complete proteins.
This is why plant protein powder products generally blend ingredients like pea, rice and hemp to create a more complete amino acid profile, similar to animal foods.
The key is to use a variety of plant proteins in your diet because what some lack in essential amino acids is made up in others. For example, eating peanut butter on whole grain toast, or rice and beans, does give you a complete protein.
Here are some protein-rich plants foods which you can mix and match to create protein-rich meals throughout a day
So to sum up, protein is made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of our body especially for skeletal muscle. It is ideal to aim for approximately 1.2g of mixed plant proteins protein per kg of body weight and to spread this total amount into regular meals throughout the day.
Macronutrients - plant-based carbohydrate
Carbohydrates are your body’s main source of fuel providing energy to your muscles and brain. It is ideal to eat two portions of high fibre, slow energy releasing carbs as part of your daily diet.
However, there is research to suggest that carbs are better used as energy (ie not stored as fat) during daylight hours. This may indicate that it is better to focus most of your carbs at lunch and breakfast time.
Here are a few examples of healthy carbohydrate options:
Wholegrain (eg buckwheat rye, spelt)
Wholegrain rice/wild rice
Sweet or white potato
It is ideal to eat a couple of portions of fibre-rich varieties each day. It is also important to consider that vegan proteins like the legume family (beans, chickpeas, lentils) also contain a portion of carbs. The concept of mixed plant protein/carbs will become useful later when we consider building your menus and food plates.
Macronutrients - plant-based fats
Essential fats form our cell membranes; help regulate hormone production and control inflammation. They are also an energy rich food that assists your absorption of fat-soluble vitamins from other plant foods.
Most research on fatty acids focus on omega 3s (EPA, DHA) and ALA. A vegan diet should contain adequate alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) because it is within many plant foods like rape, flax and chia seeds, and walnuts. However, EPA and DHA are usually acquired from eating oily fish and therefore harder to obtain. Luckily, this can be overcome by adding algae oils into your diet.
It is also worthwhile to note that the plant rich Mediterranean diet boasts comprehensive research to support its health-giving properties - one of the key ingredients being the liberal use of extra virgin olive oil.
It is ideal to include a couple of portions of essential fats per day and while we usually recognise these as oils and butters, they also feature in other plant foods like seeds and chocolate.
Here are examples of healthy plant food fats. They’re easy to overeat, so I’ve also included some serving sizes.
1 tablespoon (maybe split into two servings)
- Algae omega
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Cold pressed rapeseed oil
- Virgin coconut oil
- Peanut butter
25g nuts or seeds
20g dark chocolate
Half a medium avocado
Aim for a couple of portions of essential fats per day especially at breakfast and dinner. These can be added as dressings with extra virgin olive oil or with foods like half an avocado. It is important to consider algae omega supplementation which will provide a good source of omega 3 potentially lower in your vegan diet.
Micronutrients and how to avoid deficiencies
Vegan diets generally supply good amounts of fibre, vitamin C, vitamin E and folate and are lower in saturated fats.
However, the absence of meat, fish, and dairy, creates certain challenges that need special consideration when planning and designing an optimal diet. These include ensuring sufficient protein, especially for active and older individuals, in addition to adequate amounts of key nutrients that research shows to be lower in vegan food sources.
Let us explore key nutrient deficiency considerations and how they may impact health if not addressed properly within your diet planning.
Blood health and energy
Vitamin B12 is essential for your metabolism, maintenance of your nervous system and the production of red blood cells. Iron is required for overall blood health and the transportation of oxygen around your body. Requirements may be higher for vegans, especially for women during menstruation and or during pregnancy.
Low levels of either nutrient may be associated with symptoms of anaemia such as tiredness, fatigue or shortness of breath. The anaemia risk for vegans can be twofold - either due to low dietary iron or by B12 deficiency resulting in a lack of red blood cells production, resulting in low iron.
Iron and vitamin B12 are found in the highest amounts in animal foods so you’ll need to make a concerted effort to include iron and B12 rich plant foods regularly or consider supplementation. Plant sources are found in fortified cereals, yeast extract, pulses, wholegrains, dark green vegetables, and nuts.
Muscle and bone health
Vitamin D and calcium are both needed to keep your bones, teeth, and muscles healthy.
You predominantly obtain vitamin D from sun exposure, but you’ll also find it in animal foods like fish and eggs. Calcium is found in dairy produce but also available in vegan foods including soy, beans, and greens.
A recent study found that serum levels of vitamin D were 34% lower in vegans than omnivores, and research has also highlighted that calcium may be lower in plant-based diets. Both are important to consider when trying to maximise intake from food sources. However you may wish to consider supplementation because, even with food, a significantly greater proportion of vegans have been shown to have subnormal vitamin D levels compared to omnivores.
Minerals and metabolism
Zinc, iodine and selenium are essential minerals required from your diet. In combination they work synergistically to support proper thyroid function. Singularly, they work to help a multitude of our other bodily functions including protein synthesis, immune function, and wound healing.
Interestingly, all three contribute to your overall antioxidants’ defence, which helps you buffer against oxidative damage or stress in your cells.
While meat, fish and seafood are the main sources of these minerals in an omnivorous diet, research suggests zinc, iodine and selenium blood levels can be lower in a vegans.
Selenium can be found in brazil buts, brown rice, seeds, beans and mushrooms and zinc in fortified cereals, tofu, hemp seeds and lentils. Vegan plant milks and table salt are often fortified with iodine and other sources include seaweed, and apples and beans in lower amounts.
The crux and challenge is trying to regulate the correct amounts within your plant-based diet. It may therefore be worthwhile finding comprehensive mineral supplement with optimal levels or zinc, iodine, and selenium.
Heart-healthy omega 3
Oily fish provides omega 3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA. Both are well-researched to support heart and brain health, but they also help balance the ratios of other dietary fats which in turn may help manage excessive inflammation within your body.
Because plant foods provide many of the other good fats, it is important to specifically include regular consumption of omega 3 fatty acids in your diet planning, possibly in the form of algae oil.
Creatine for your muscles and brain
Creatine monohydrate is an amino acid and nutritional supplement often consumed by gym goers and athletes. Vegans have been shown to have reduced creatine stores as it is naturally found in most meat products.
The results from creatine supplementation can include increased lean muscle mass, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and brain function (memory and intelligence). Studies on vegans who supplemented with creatine showed that they increased their total creatine levels, both in their muscles and red blood cells, often to levels greater than omnivores.
Most creatine supplements are vegan-friendly, made from sarcosine and cyanamide which in powder form does not contain animal by-products (avoid gelatine-based capsules). Therefore active or exercising vegans may benefit from supplementing 2-5g of creatine powder per day.
Planning your vegan food plate
Knowing your daily protein, carb, fat and nutrient considerations can help you manage the change to a vegan diet, helping you to shop, plan and create menus full of delicious food.
When creating your vegan food plate, remember that portions of wholegrains and plant proteins may double up as carbs and proteins and therefore need monitoring in terms of the quantity you’re getting.
If you’re exercising regularly, it may be worthwhile supplementing your diet with an extra plant protein shake in the morning. Protein shakes are a convenient and tasty way to provide your muscle building blocks and meet your increased protein requirements.
Optimal diets always need careful planning. Failing to prepare may result in preparing to fail, so to help, here is your vegan diet checklist:
Recipe and cooking planning
You’re ready to start!
Plant foods are amazing for health, and if you are thinking of embarking on a vegan diet or increasing plant foods, the key to success is to make sure you enjoy the food.
There are a plethora of great vegan recipe resources which can be super useful to create deliciously healthy dishes. Embrace your inner nutritionist, get your vegan chef hat on, and get smart at including all the key foods and supplements required to help you thrive daily.
Inessa Advanced Multivitamin, is registered with the Vegan Society and is packed with nutrients to support your vegan diet.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might like Supplements for vegans.
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Healthy Eating Pyramid | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health