What does a healthy vegan diet look like?

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A vegan diet is a plant-based diet that includes fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, legumes, nuts and seeds. Vegans do not eat any food products or ingredients derived from animal sources such as meat, poultry, fish, honey, dairy and eggs. People may choose to be on a vegan diet for various reasons such as environmental and ethical concerns, better health and taste preferences.

The Vegan Eatwell Guide (an adaptation of the UK’s Eatwell Guide) promoted by the Vegan Society gives an idea on what types of food from the main food groups should be included to have an overall healthy, balanced and sustainable diet. In addition, it encourages individuals to include fortified foods and supplements to ensure good nutrition.

A healthy vegan diet should:

Include a variety of different fruit and vegetables:These are packed with essential vitamins, minerals and fibre. They can either be fresh, tinned, frozen and dried. Individuals should aim to have at least 5 portions per day. One portion of fruit or vegetable is 80g, which is equivalent to: one medium size piece of fruit, one dessert bowl of salad, two or more small fruits such as plums and satsumas, a large handful of berries or grapes and three heaped tablespoons of peas, carrots or sweetcorn.

Include starchy carbohydrates in each meal:
To ensure balance in a vegan diet, individuals should base their meals with starchy carbohydrates. Wherever possible, they should opt for wholemeal varieties and higher fibre options such as sweet potato, wholemeal bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, couscous, oats and wholewheat breakfast cereals. These are good dietary sources of iron and B vitamins.

Include protein food sources:
Protein is an integral part of our diet and important for building and maintaining all type of body tissue including muscles. Protein-rich foods include beans, lentils, tofu, chickpeas, nuts and soya milk.

Have lower fat and lower sugar dairy alternatives:These are good sources of calcium which are essential food healthy bones and teeth. Examples of dairy alternatives include fortified plant-based milks (e.g soya milk and almond milk) and plant-based yoghurt.

Contain small amounts of oils and spread that are high in monounsaturated fats: There is strong evidence that opting for unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats can help lower cholesterol levels. Examples of monounsaturated fats include rapeseed and olive oil.

Include plenty of fluids:
The UK Government recommends 6 to 8 glasses of fluids a day for good hydration, with water being the best choice!

Include foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) less often and in small amounts:Regular consumption of HFSS food products have been associated with high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular and certain cancers.

It is always important to check food labels of vegan products and not always assume that because it is vegan that it is healthy.

Some important nutrients to consider.

Vitamin B12:
It is important that those on a vegan diet are getting enough vitamin B12. This is essential for the formation of red blood cells, maintaining a healthy nervous system and providing energy. They are naturally found in animal products and thus food sources that are suitable for vegans may be limited. Sources of vitamin B12 include yeast extract fortified with vitamin B12 (like Marmite), vitamin B12 fortified plant-based milks, yoghurts and breakfast cereals.
Adults aged 19-64 years need about 1.5mcg of vitamin B12 a day and should ensure they check food labels of fortified products. Vegans may consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement but should speak to their health professional first.

Vitamin D:
Everyone should ensure they have good vitamin D levels. Vegans should ensure they include plant-based sources of vitamin D in their diet such as fortified breakfast cereals and non-dairy milk and yoghurt alternatives. Public Health England (PHE) recommends that all adults and children over 1 year should have a daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D3 from lichen or D2 are animal-free options.

Iodine is a key part of thyroid hormones needed for a range of body processes like metabolism and the development in children. Iodine is abundantly found in fish, milk and dairy products. Some milk alternatives, not all, are fortified with iodine so it is important to check the product label first.

Seaweed is a very rich source of iron but can provide excess amount and therefore it is important to limit intake to no more than once a week.

Selenium keeps the immune system healthy and prevents cell and tissue damage. The body cannot make selenium itself, thus, including dietary sources is important. Dietary sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, seeds, bread, pasta and lentils.

Omega 3 fatty acids:

Omega 3 fatty acids are cardioprotective and found in oily fish. However, food sources that are suitable for vegans include flaxseeds, rapeseed, tofu and walnuts.

A well-planned vegan diet can be nutritious and support healthy living in people at different life stages.
However, just because some foods are considered ‘vegan friendly’ does not always mean it is healthy. Some vegan products can be high in saturated fat, sugar and salt and it is always important to check the food labels of products. Having said this, ensuring that people are getting the right amount of nutrients through their diet and supplements is vital to maintain good health.

Therefore, it is crucial to know a variety of foods that form part of a healthy balanced vegan diet. There are some vitamins and minerals that you might want to consider a supplement for, it is best to discuss with your Doctor or Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist first.

As featured inside Thrive Magazine Spring 2020 issue. Thanks to #ThriveExpert and Qualified Dietician Tai Ibitoye for writing this article. Tai is a registered Dietitian & Doctoral Researcher. Her areas of interest are public health, nutritional status of older & young adults.  Find out more from: Tai Ibitoye