A nutritionist's top 10 tips for a healthy vegan diet
I’m Barbara, a Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr, BSc Human nutrition and PGDip Clinical & Public Health Nutrition) and have followed a vegan diet for almost 12 years.
I have always been interested in nutrition, but a huge big part of the reason I enrolled to university to study – first bioscience, then nutrition – was because many people told me that I couldn’t be a healthy vegan and I wanted to investigate for myself.
After all, there’s so much confusing (and often conflicting) information out there, which is why people often fear that being vegan means that their diet will be ‘deficient’, ‘incomplete’ or compromise their health.
But the truth is, a vegan diet can be delicious, healthy and nutritionally complete with a bit of nutrition know-how, which I’m going to share with you today.
With that said, here are my top 10 science-backed tips for a healthy vegan diet.
1. Embrace whole foods
This is my most important tip of them all.
Eating a wide variety of minimally processed and unprocessed vegan whole foods will mean that you remain healthy, well-nourished and that your body will get all the macronutrients it needs (protein, fats & carbohydrates) as well as most of the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
So, whenever you can, focus on whole foods such as:
- Whole grains
- Nuts & seeds
- Tofu & tempeh
- Herbs & spices
- Healthy oils
- Unsweetened plant milk alternatives
2. Avoid ultra-processed foods
With vegan diets becoming more popular, there is an ever-growing number of vegan-friendly processed products being introduced to supermarkets.
Whilst these can help when initially transitioning to a vegan diet, remember this: just because they’re vegan, doesn’t mean they’re automatically healthy.
For example, avoid basing your entire protein intake on heavily processed mock meat alternatives like vegan burgers or ‘chicken’. These – just like the meat-containing originals – are typically highly refined and are full of additives.
Of course they are fine in moderation – a once-a-week vegan burger will not break the bank or your health. But trying to meet all your protein needs from ‘fake meats’ alone, is not a healthy way to go.
3. Focus on plant protein – but forget the myths!
It’s a myth that a vegan diet will be deficient in protein. According to official statistics, people of all ages in the UK (that’s including vegetarians and vegans) are eating well over the recommendations.
You can easily meet your protein needs by eating protein rich plant sources daily. Just aim to include one or two (palm sized) serving of the following foods at each meal:
- Edamame/soy beans
- Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans, peas)
- Nuts & seeds
- Vegan alternatives to dairy (milk & yoghurt) – go for unsweetened options
- Wild rice
- Spirulina (great with green smoothies)
Tofu and tempeh are especially great sources in terms of their protein content – so if you’re not sensitive to soy, make sure to give them a try.
There are also no hard rules when it comes to meeting your protein needs, but it is recommended to aim to spread your protein intake as evenly as possible across the day. 20–30g protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner is optimal for most people.
4. Healthy fats are your friend – especially omega 3s
Often, people are scared of fats, but it’s so important to include enough fats on a vegan diet.
Aim to have ~70-90g of fat per day (70g fat per day for an adult female and 90g per day for an adult male). To meet your daily needs, simply try to include a serving of healthy fat (a tablespoon of oil, half an avocado or a small handful of nuts, for example) per meal.
Great examples of vegan-friendly healthy fats include:
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Virgin coconut oil
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews etc)
- Seeds (chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds etc)
- Peanuts (technically not nuts!)
- Nut butters
Omega 3 fats are especially important. Your body isn’t able to make this essential fat (along with omega 6, which most of us consume more than enough of) on its own, so it’s important to consume it.
Omega 3 fats are ALA, EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are readily found in fish and algae sources. As you don’t consume fish, your main source of omega 3 comes from ALA, which is found in many plant foods.
Vegans are encouraged to consume at least 2g of ALA daily, which can be as simple as:
- A tablespoon of chia seeds or ground flax seeds
- Two tablespoons of hemp seeds
- Six walnut halves
You might also consider algae oil supplements, which provide a great plant source of EPA & DHA.
5. Build a healthy vegan meal by remembering ‘FFP’
It can be difficult to know what to eat when you first go vegan, but an easy way to build a healthy, balanced plate/meal is to remember ‘FFP’. That’s fibre, fat & protein:
Fill at least half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, courgette, mushrooms, asparagus, spinach and peppers.
Fill a quarter with a serving (or two) of quality plant protein, such as tofu, tempeh, edamame and legumes.
Add a small serving of healthy fat, such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and olives.
And, if you’d like to, finish with a quarter with a serving of complex carbohydrate, such as sweet potato, brown rice, wholewheat cous cous or quinoa.
You can build some great vegan salad/’buddha’ bowls this way – they make for a nutritious, delicious and high-protein lunch or dinner! Check out one of our favourite buddha bowl recipes by BBC Good Food.
6. Get clued up on vitamins
There are 2 vitamins that need a little extra attention on a vegan diet.
Vitamin B12 is produced by microorganisms (that are then eaten by animals) and is only available from foods of animal sources.
You must eat B12 fortified foods (such as dairy free milk or yoghurt alternatives, nutritional yeast or marmite/yeast extracts) daily or, alternatively, take a supplement.
It can be difficult for anyone (not just vegetarians and vegans!) in the UK (especially during autumn and winter) to get an adequate amount of daily vitamin D intake from food, so a supplement is recommended.
Find out more in my complete guide to vegan nutrition.
7. Mind your minerals!
Just like vitamins, there are a few minerals that need a little extra attention on a vegan diet. Here is a very quick guide to the best vegan sources of each.
It’s easy to meet your calcium needs on a vegan diet – just eat plenty of tofu, fortified dairy alternatives, green leafy vegetables (such as kale and okra) and fortified flour/bread.
Without some thought, you may be at risk of not consuming enough iodine in your diet, as most food sources are of animal origin.
Seaweed is a highly concentrated source of iodine, but it can provide excessive amounts, so it’s best not to have it more than once a week.
In this case, a high-quality supplement or multivitamin such as Multi Nutrient is your best bet.
You can get an adequate amount of iron from a vegan diet as many plants contain good amounts of this mineral. Eat plenty of pulses (lentils, chickpeas, beans, peas), tofu, quinoa, nuts and seeds and green leafy vegetables, especially kale.
Vitamin C helps/enhances iron absorption, so it’s a good idea to combine sources of both in a meal – for example add broccoli or peppers to a tofu stir fry.
Although selenium is found in meat, fish and eggs, a substantial proportion of the population (that’s everyone, not just vegans) are thought to not consume adequate amounts of this mineral.
The best source is nuts and seeds – especially brazil nuts, which can supply your daily needs in a single nut. If you’re not a fan of brazil nuts, a supplement (or selenium-containing multivitamin) is a good idea.
You can meet your zinc intake needs by eating plenty of pulses (chickpeas, lentils), tofu, quinoa, chia seeds, nuts & seeds (walnuts, cashews, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds) and wholemeal bread.
8. Consider a high-quality supplement
In some cases, if you have a varied whole foods vegan diet – with plenty of B12 fortified foods – and live in a sunny climate, supplementing your vegan diet might not be necessary.
But if you you don’t consume adequate amounts of the vitamins and minerals listed above from whole food dietary sources or fortified foods, it’s essential to take a high-quality supplement.
You don’t need to take several different supplements, though – for most people, a high quality vegan multivitamin like Multi Nutrient is perfect. When you’re still finding your feet with a vegan diet, I highly recommend doing this.
9. Hydrate well!
A vegan diet typically means an increased fibre intake. This is a good thing as fibre has many health benefits, including a more diverse gut microbiome (better gut health) and a lower risk of numerous chronic diseases.
But fibre draws water to the bowel, which means you can become a little dehydrated. The solution is simply to drink plenty of fluids – perhaps a little more than you did previously.
Drink plenty of water, unflavoured sparkling water, unsweetened (herbal) tea and coffee (with or without unsweetened plant milk). Soups, fruits and vegetables will of course also help you keep well hydrated!
10. Be kind to yourself
Please don’t stress about your diet, don’t get too upset about any potential slip-ups and, most importantly, never compromise your health.
The key to a successful, healthy vegan diet (or any diet) is also that you enjoy the foods you eat. For the majority of your diet, focus on whole foods. But know that it’s absolutely fine to enjoy the occasional treat (cake, doughnut or vegan meat alternative) as long as those do not form part of your daily diet.
And please don’t get upset if you slip up and eat something that contains milk or animal products. We’ve all been there and whilst it can be upsetting, please don’t be hard on yourself – it happens sometimes!
Lastly, never-never compromise your health. Take your medications, even if they are not vegan. The definition of ‘veganism’, according to The Vegan Society, recognises that it is not always possible or practicable to avoid animal use in a non-vegan world.
Find out more about a smooth transition to a vegan diet in our how to go vegan guide.
Bonus tip - Try Purition!
Purition is a blend of plant based whole foods that you can make into a shake, yoghurt bowl or add to porridge. It’s quick, easy and super nutritious – think protein, healthy fats (including omega 3s), fibre and loads of naturally-occurring nutrients to fuel your day.
Even better? It’s free from all the gums, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners that you’ll find in most other vegan shakes or protein powders. Unlike most others, it’s made from locally-sourced UK & EU ingredients, with sachets packed in 100% recyclable paper. That means it’s better for you – and better for the planet too.
It’s such an easy way to support your health on a vegan diet. Get started with any 7 vegan sachets for £16.80!
These tips are general nutritional information and if you have been advised to follow a specific diet by a medical professional, or live with any medical condition, please consult them before making any changes to your diet.
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