Getting to know the Basics
The first thing you should know when it comes to nutrition is that there are some nutrients we need more of – macronutrients – and some we need less of – micronutrients.
- Macronutrients – Protein, Fat and Carbohydrates - These supply us with energy, which is why we need them in larger amounts
- Micronutrients – All the Vitamins and Minerals – These are needed in smaller quantities but are still super important
Basics covered, let’s get started with the comprehensive guide to vegan nutrition – including which nutrients you need, why you need them and no less than ten different examples of how to incorporate them into a plant-based diet!
The word protein comes from the Greek ‘prōtos’ meaning primary or ‘first place’ – that’s exactly why it’s at the top of our list! Protein is a must for any healthy diet and you should aim to include at least one source of protein with every meal. Getting enough protein promotes muscle strength, increases satiety and aids weight loss.
There are heaps of plant-based food that contains protein, always aim to include a good variety to provide your body with the complete amino acid profile (https://www.peta.org/living/food/complete-proteins-vegan/) it needs.
Tip: if you combine rice with any kind of pea this should deliver the complete spectrum of aminos.
Use me for: Building and repairing tissue and membranes, activating enzymes, regulating hormones, boosting metabolism.
Find me in: Beans, legumes, tofu, chickpeas, nutritional yeast, hempseed, green peas, lentils, spirulina, and quinoa.
Not all carbs are created equal; the word carbohydrate is an umbrella term for all sugars, starches and dietary fibre. Don’t be afraid of carbs! They’ve been given some bad press over the years, mainly because they’re a major source of energy – but we need energy to survive.
Choosing wholefoods (https://www.hcf.com.au/health-agenda/food-diet/nutrition/what-are-wholefoods) which have been minimally processed will provide your body with the energy it needs and a good dose of fibre (https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/lifestages/women.html?showall=1). It will also help you to avoid processed foods, high in refined sugars and other nasties which can lead to weight gain and mood imbalances.
Use me for: A source of energy, regulating blood sugar, breaking down fatty acids.
Find me in: Sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips, beans, peas, lentils, wholegrain rice and pasta, quinoa, oats and barley.
Again, the word ‘fat’ does not describe just one nutrient but many. For simplicity, let’s talk about ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ fats. Healthy fats, such as Omega-3 and medium-chain triglycerides, have been shown to improve heart health (https://www.self.com/story/surprising-ways-to-prevent-cardiovascular-disease) and reduce levels of bad cholesterol. It’s the unhealthy kind, like trans and saturated fats, that have the opposite effect on our health.
Foods high in fat can be incredibly healthy and nutritious. Choosing wholefoods and avoiding processed foods is a great way to steer you toward the healthy fats. As a bonus, by following a plant-based diet you will automatically steer clear of many harmful fats, which are abundant in animal foods – namely processed meats.
Use me for: A source of energy and essential fatty acids, absorbing fat-soluble vitamins.
Find me in: Avocados, flaxseed, olives, dark chocolate, nuts, chia seeds, coconuts, unrefined vegetable oils and algae supplements https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ben/cdr/2007/00000003/00000003/art00007 (for a vegan source of omega-3).
When it comes to seeking out Vitamin A, choose orange, yellow and red foods. These tend to contain the precursor for Vit A, beta-carotene, which is converted to Vitamin A when eaten. By invention of Mother Nature herself, this Vitamin A will improve your vision – helping you to seek out these colourful foods even easier!
There are masses of plant-based foods containing Vitamin A, but it’s important to make sure they’re eaten regularly.
Use me for: Promoting good vision, maintaining healthy skin and teeth, boosting the immune and reproductive systems.
Find me in: Apricots, cantaloupe melon, spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, broccoli, bell peppers and tomatoes.
Vitamin B Complex: B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic Acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folate), and B12 (cobalamin)
There are eight members of the Vitamin B family. Animal-derived foods and meat are major sources, so following a plant-based diet does make it harder to get sufficient amounts. In particular, vitamin B12 is not found naturally in any plant foods. Signs of a B-Vitamin deficiency include tiredness and agitation, so make sure you boost your diets with the foods below as a first line of treatment for these symptoms.
Use me for: Converting nutrients from food into energy, regulating mood and sleep, producing hormones and growth.
Find me in: Cruciferous veg, bananas, berries, avocados, dates, lentils, whole grains, beans, seeds and nuts.
Lucky for us Vitamin C is available in abundance from citrus fruits. In fact, just one green chilli or a single grapefruit is enough to provide your entire reference nutrient intake of Vit C (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-c-foods#section4) – making meeting requirements very easy!
Tip: For an easy way to boost Vitamin C levels, add fresh herbs to meals and slices of citrus fruits to your drinking water.
Use me for: Growth and development, boosting the immune system and wound healing.
Find me in: Lemons, limes, grapefruit, tomatoes, fresh herbs, cruciferous veg, strawberries, melon, watercress and chilli peppers.
Vitamin D is found in very few foods. In fact, our main source of Vit D is sunlight (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3356951/), as we cleverly convert the sun’s UVB rays into the active form – D3. Whilst this is amazing, most of us don’t get enough sun exposure to meet requirements – unfortunately!
Research has shown that sunlight in the summer is not enough to keep our Vit D levels topped up year-round (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537616/SACN_Vitamin_D_and_Health_report.pdf) So, if we can’t catch enough rays and food sources are low, that leaves supplements. Make sure your supplement is the D2 and not the D3 form, which is not vegan-friendly as it is sourced from animals.
Use me for: Keeping bones, teeth and muscle healthy, absorbing key minerals like calcium.
Find me in: Fortified plank milks, cereals and orange juice, mushrooms.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant exclusively obtained from the diet. Because it is fat-soluble it can be stored in the body and used when it is needed. It works to protect cells from free-radical damage (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3997530/). This is damage caused by things such as pollution, pesticides and heavy metal contamination – which can cause a build up of toxins in the body and lead to disease.
Food sources of Vitamin E are common and there’s an abundance of plant-based sources to choose from.
Use me for: Protecting against illness and infection, maintaining healthy skin and eyes.
Find me in: Peanuts, green leafy veg, unrefined vegetable oils, wheatgerm, whole-wheat flour, spinach, seeds, almonds, peanuts and hazelnuts.
You should be able to get all the Vitamin K you need from a varied plant-based diet. In fact, you’ll struggle to find much Vit K in any animal-based foods. What’s more, you don’t necessarily need a daily intake as any excess Vit K is stored in the liver until it is needed.
There are two types of Vitamin K: K1 (phylloquinone) and K2 (menaquinone). K1 is found in abundance in fresh fruits and vegetables. K2 is a little harder to come by for vegans but fermented foods often produce K2 as a by-product of bacterial activity. So things like kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi are all good sources.
Use me for: Blood clotting and wound healing, keeping bones healthy.
Find me in: Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, tomatoes, cabbage, green tea, parsley, spinach, unrefined vegetable oils and fermented foods.
Minerals, like vitamins, are required in only small amounts. They’re are needed to form strong bones and teeth, as well as turning food into energy. Mineral deficiency is rare among the entire population but vegans do need to take caution when it comes to the following:
Iron – Needed to create red blood cells, carry oxygen around the body, support the immune system and convert food into energy
Find me in: Cruciferous vegetables, beans, peas, dried fruit, nuts and seeds.
Zinc – Important for the immune system, cell growth, wound healing and – interestingly – for our sense of taste and smell
Find me in: Legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu and wholegrains.
Calcium – Maintains a healthy nervous system, helps to release hormones, keeps our heartbeat regular and, of course, helps to build strong bones and teeth
Find me in: Kale, watercress, broccoli, plant-milks and chickpeas.
Iodine – Needed to create hormones which control metabolism and vital during pregnancy for normal brain and bone development
Find me in: Seaweed or supplements.
I hope I have demonstrated that a well-planned vegan diet can provide all you need meet nutritional requirements. Eating a variety of fruit, vegetables, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds is a good start – but it does take time, effort and knowledge to optimise nutritional status with only plant-based foods. Many people choose to take supplements to provide a sort of dietary safety net for this reason.