Michelle Sanchez, CNM trained naturopath, nutritionist and medical herbalist, highlights the benefits of a plant-based diet and guides you to the easiest way to put together a healthy vegan meal plan
Creating a balanced and healthy vegan meal plan can be overwhelming and confusing; and if not planned properly, your diet may lack specific nutrients, which could lead to potential health risks.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is a plant-based diet that excludes all animal-derived products including meat, fish, dairy, eggs and honey.
Ideally, it should be rich in unprocessed, whole foods derived from plants including vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and whole grains.
Eating only packaged and processed foods, refined grains (such as bread, pasta, pastries), fruit juice, and dried fruits is not a healthy approach to veganism and can encourage nutritional deficiencies.
Preparing fresh food is always the best option as you know exactly what you’re eating and have total control of what you put in your body. Foods should be eaten in their natural state and organic where possible.
The health benefits of eating a vegan diet
- Improves your basic intake of nutrients as vegetables contain plenty of essential minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.
- Great for gut health as plant foods are a great source of fibre, keeping your bowel movements regular and your digestive tract flowing. Plant-based foods are easier to digest than animal products.
- Keeps weight in check. Those who eat a wholesome vegan diet tend to have a lower BMI (Body Mass Index) and a reduced risk of obesity.
- Good for your heart. Eating animal-derived foods can contribute to increased cholesterol in your arteries and high blood pressure.
- Lowers blood sugar levels and improves insulin regulation. This is due to the high fibre, mineral and antioxidant content of plant-based foods.
- Better for the environment as plant foods are more sustainable than animal products.
What can you eat on a vegan diet?
- Any kind of vegetable – the more colours the better. Eat lots of greens including spinach, kale and broccoli; orange vegetables like sweet potato, carrot and pumpkin; red vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes.
- Low sugar fruits (except in winter) such as blueberries, strawberries, citrus and apples.
- Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, oats, millet, whole wheat and barley.
- Nuts and seeds including nut butters.
- Legumes: beans (all types), lentils, chickpeas and peas.
- Plant-based oils such as coconut, olive and almond oil.
- Herbs and spices, both fresh and dried.
Foods to avoid
- Refined grains like white flour, white rice and pasta, bread, pastries, cereals and crackers.
- Sugar and sweeteners including high-sugar foods and refined carbohydrates.
- Takeaways and fast food.
- Packaged foods such as crisps, biscuits, tinned food and frozen meals.
Still not sure where to start? Try out some ready-made meal plans
Nine tips for creating a healthy, balanced vegan meal plan
1. Eat according to the seasons and your body constitution.
Buy vegetables that are in season and grown locally. It’s best to avoid fruit in the winter months as fruits are very cooling for the body.
As winter is dominated by cold, it’s better to eat warming foods instead to create heat in the body.
2. Include some protein at every meal such as beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds.
Protein anchors your blood sugar levels, repairs and builds tissues, and reduces hunger hormones.
Protein facilitates metabolic functions to occur in the body and helps regulate fluid balance.
3. Your plate should include a rainbow of vegetables and fruit every day.
Eat an array of different coloured fruits and vegetables as they contain an abundance of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants.
These are all key nutrients that enable cells to function efficiently, promote healthy metabolism, and protect cells from damage.
If your body gets all the nutrients it needs you will feel more energised and focused.
4. Healthy fats are important
They provide a source of energy for the body, aid the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K), manufacture hormones, and protect your cell membranes.
Good sources of fats include avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, flaxseeds, and flaxseed oil.
Vegans can get omega-3 fatty acids from hemp, chia seeds, purslane, algae, walnuts, and some green leafy vegetables.
Omega-3 is essential for brain health, mood regulation, cardiovascular function, and lowering inflammation in the body.
5. Ensure you consume sufficient B12 and iron.
These are essential nutrients needed for metabolism and energy production in the body.
There are some vegan sources for vitamin B12, including nutritional yeast, yeast spreads (such as Marmite), chlorella, and nori seaweed.
Vegan sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, pine nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, apricots, blackstrap molasses, kidney beans and pinto beans, lentils, chickpeas, spirulina, and wheat germ.
6. Don’t forget calcium
Calcium is another important mineral that vegans can obtain from plant sources without needing to consume dairy.
Calcium-rich foods include green leafy vegetables, broccoli, sesame seeds, tahini, sweet potatoes, almonds, hazelnuts, and legumes.
7. Include plenty of fibre
Consume a good amount of soluble fibre (beans, sprouts, sweet potatoes, broccoli, pears) as fibre helps to maintain healthy blood sugar levels and gut health.
Fibre keeps your bowel regular and your gut microbiome (beneficial bacteria in the gut) healthy.
8. Read food labels
Check labels to identify whether food is vegan or not, and also to avoid nasty ingredients and hidden sugars.
Many products claim to be “sugar-free”, “natural” and “a healthy alternative”; however, this is often far from the truth. Food manufacturers use these terms to attract attention to sell their products.
Natural flavourings and colourings usually mean they have been made chemically in a lab using toxic ingredients.
9. Avoid frying and cooking foods with damaged, hydrogenated oils such as rapeseed or vegetable oil.
Be aware that dairy-free spreads are also a source of damaged oils. Nut or seed butters are a more nutritious, healthier option.
Don’t heat foods to a high temperature, whether that be boiling or frying, as it can destroy the nutrients in the food.
Try to eat foods in their raw form or lightly sauté or steam where necessary.
New to veganism? Discover the benefits of a whole food plant-based diet.