As the popularity of veganism grows, you may be wondering whether a vegan diet is a healthy way to eat. Here you'll find everything you need to know about what eat to ensure you're following a healthy vegan diet.
A vegan diet refers to one that excludes animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs and honey, but what is included in the diet can vary widely.
A vegan diet could be based on vegan sausage rolls, dairy-free ice cream, chips and cola.
Although this diet removes animal foods, it will not promote optimal health due to the high intake of added sugar, saturated fat, salt, and additives used for improving factors such as shelf-life, texture and consistency.
These are considered ‘ultra-processed’ foods and have been linked to poor health1.
On the other hand, a vegan diet could consist of predominantly whole, plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and pulses.
This dietary pattern has consistently been shown to improve quality and length of life by reducing the risk of chronic health conditions2.
So, as you can see, the healthfulness of a vegan diet depends on the majority of vegan foods you choose to eat3.
As with any dietary pattern, there are things to consider to ensure that what you are eating will support your health in the short and long term. Here we take you through what you need to know to optimise the health benefits of your vegan diet.
What are the key elements of a healthy vegan diet?
To consider the healthiness of any diet, it is important to consider the quality and diversity of food choices.
Vegetables and fruit
Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, fibre, water, and beneficial plant compounds called phytochemicals. Consuming a range of colours will maximise the diversity of nutrients provided, so aim to choose a rainbow of colours.
Frozen fruits and vegetables can be useful to limit cost and reduce food waste. Try adding frozen berries to your breakfast, tomatoes in your sandwich or stir a big handful of spinach into your evening meal.
Starchy carbohydrates provide us with the energy we need to get through the day, as well as vitamins, minerals and fibre.
The quality of the carbohydrates you are choosing is the most important factor here, with wholegrain and brown varieties providing extra fibre and micronutrients that are often stripped from white and more processed varieties.
Examples include brown rice, wholewheat pasta, wholemeal bread, and porridge oats.
High protein foods
Plants contain all the protein that we need. Whole plant foods provide protein in a healthy package with fibre and phytochemicals.
We all need a small amount of fat in our diet, but it is important to choose unsaturated fats over saturated fats, particularly in supporting long-term cardiovascular health.
Whole plant foods such as avocados, olives, olive oil, nuts and seeds provide these ‘good fats’. So, aim to include these foods daily whilst reducing sources of saturated fats from coconut oil, cakes, biscuits, crisps and other more processed food items.
Other foods high in added fat, sugar and salt include pastries, sweets, sauces, chocolate bars, fast foods, and ice cream. These foods provide a rich source of energy but very little nutritional value.
If you consume these foods regularly, aim to eat them less often, in smaller amounts, and replace them with nutrient-rich foods from the alternative groups.
Enjoy this article? Read these next:
- 20 things you need to know before going vegan
- 13 vegan substitutes you need to know about when you first go vegan
- What are the benefits of a whole food plant based diet?
How can you make sure you’re eating a balanced vegan diet?
A great way to plan your diet to ensure you are getting the right balance is to think of a plate or circle representing your whole diet.
Fill half of your plate with a colourful array of fruits and vegetables. Fill one quarter of your plate with whole starchy carbohydrates, and fill the final quarter of the plate with high-protein plant foods.
Top your meals with a small amount of healthy fat and you will be on your way to a healthy plant-powered plate.
Buddha bowls are a great way of ensuring your plate is filled with a variety of foods you need for a healthy vegan diet.
Can you get all the nutrients you need from food or do vegans need supplements?
There are a few additional nutrients that require consideration on a healthy vegan diet. Many of these nutrients can be covered with simple dietary tweaks:
Ensure you choose plant milks and yogurts with added calcium and include calcium-set tofu, beans, and low oxalate greens such as kale and watercress in your diet regularly.
Although abundant on a healthy vegan diet, plant iron from foods like beans, dark leafy greens, seeds, dried apricots and figs is more difficult for us to absorb.
Make sure you include a source of vitamin C with your meals. For example – broccoli, peppers, peas, kiwi or strawberries, as these foods will increase iron absorption significantly.
Broccoli is a great source of iron, calcium, and vitamin K and is great for maintaining healthy bones.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Include walnuts or ground flaxseeds daily, as our body converts the fats in these foods into the omega 3 fatty acids we need. If you have any concerns, you could also opt for an algae oil supplement.
Just 2 Brazil nuts a day will cover the selenium needs for most people, otherwise consider supplementing4.
A vegan diet should be supplemented with the following:
- Vitamin B12 – aim for at least 10mcg daily, or 2000mcg weekly
- Iodine – aim for 140mcg of iodine from a non-seaweed source, alternatively choose a plant-milk with added iodine
- Vitamin D – all adults (not just vegans) should supplement with 10mcg through the winter months4.
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) has confirmed that a well-planned vegan diet is suitable for healthy living in people of all ages5. Many people find that moving towards a vegan diet can have dramatic and positive effects on their health and wellbeing.
The removal of animal foods will result in less saturated fat, cholesterol, carcinogenic compounds and inflammation in the body. But remember, it’s not just about what you remove, but what you replace those animal foods with that will play a role in how healthy your diet will be.
Avoid relying on ultra-processed foods by eating a predominantly whole foods, plant-based diet.
With additional consideration of the above nutrients, you will be on your way to a healthy vegan diet that will support your wellbeing for many years to come.
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