Basic Vegan Nutrition

An easy guide to vegan nutrition… because we care

So, you’re thinking about becoming vegan. You know it’s the ethical thing to do, you’re excited… but you still have no clue about nutrition. Maybe you’re the kind of person who eats a range of things and hopes for the best. We’ve all been there!

But what are you supposed to eat for a balanced diet? People say vegans are deficient in iron and protein, but that’s not true… is it? Nope! It’s a COMPLETE MYTH. Vegan nutrition is something that’s talked about so much, but you really needent worry. Millions of vegans live healthily without scrutinising their diet. If you eat a range of fruit, veg and staples, take B12 and minimise processed meals, you should be just fine.

Still, everybody, vegan or not, should have a grasp of basic nutrition. It’s good to make sure your eating habits are sustaining your body for the long-term.

You’re in the right place now so buckle up! This is a super simple, easy peasy, dummies guide to nutrition. We’ll cover the key nutrients and amounts you need. We’ll also be including the best foods for each nutrient – these will be the most commonly found supermarket items, so please note that the food lists are not exhaustive!

So here are the real basics. Get those mastered, and then move on to the Learner Vegan guide for more advanced nutrition if you’re brave enough.

vegan breakfast with fruit and coffee

Protein

What does it do for me?

Protein forms the basis of muscle, hair, nails and collagen – so just a bit important! It also makes hormones, DNA to name but a few.

Where can I get it from? 

kale and chickpea salad protein

Chickpeas are delicious roasted in a salad

Protein is in all plants in varying amounts – vegetables, lentils, nuts, grains. Great sources of protein are nuts, seeds, soy-based foods and legumes. Some of the best ones commonly found in supermarkets are: chickpeas, soybeans (look for soy-rich faux meats too in moderation), green peas, black beans, pinto beans, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, almonds, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, red lentils, nut butters (like PB). Try to eat 3-4 servings of these per day.

How much do I need?

Advice can vary, but aim for 0.9 – 1.2 g of protein per kg of body weight. So if you weigh 70kg, aim for approx 70g protein. We wouldn’t recommend any less than 45g per day for adults. For active athletes, increase up to 1.6.** For comparison, 100g lentils contains approx 26g protein.

Any meal ideas?

Tofu scramble, lentil and pea soup, houmous with crudites, lentil burger, tempeh stir fry, porridge with seeds, three bean chilli, mixed bean salad, peppers stuffed with quinoa, mock meat tacos, black bean and peanut butter wrap, tarka daal.

Iron

What does it do for me?

Iron is a key component of haemoglobin (found in red blood cells) and myoglobin (muscle cells). It helps to keep your immune system strong, and increases brain and muscle function. Without sufficient iron levels, you can suffer from extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, dizziness, and chest pain. There’s more, but you get the point!

leafy green spinach for iron

Try adding leafy greens to salads and smoothies

Where can I get it from?

Quantities of iron are found in most foods. The best and most common sources for vegans are leafy greens such as curly kale and spinach, dark chocolate, pumpkin and hemp seeds, lentils, dried fruit especially peaches and prunes, tofu, pistachio and cashew nuts. Some cereal and bread is iron-fortified so check out packaging and you might get a nice surprise.

Note that tea and coffee (caffeine) decrease iron absorption from foods, so avoid them whilst eating. Foods rich in vitamin C help increase absorption, so orange juice/broccoli/pepper with meals is a great idea.

How much do I need?

Most adults need 8.7mg per day. Menstruating women should aim for 14.8mg per day due to the losses. For comparison, 100g cashews contain around 6.5mg iron.

Any meal ideas?

Porridge with raisins and orange juice, tofu kale and broccoli stirfry, lentil ragu, black bean burritos, kale crisps, spring vegetable soup, lentil and veg stew, veggie couscous with chickpeas, spinach chickpea and pepper curry, tempeh steaks, satay tofu.

Calcium

What does it do for me? plant milk with almonds

Most of us think about strong bones and teeth, with regards to calcium. That’s true, but it also helps with muscle control, blood clotting, nervous system function. Symptoms of calcium deficiency include confusion, muscle spasms, depression, numbness in extremities, and more. Another important nutrient then!

Where can I get it from?

Many foods are calcium-fortified, such as plant milk, yoghurt, and bread. Check packaging for exact quantities. Other calcium-rich foods include tofu, kale, watercress, dried figs, almonds, chia seeds, brazil nuts, white beans. These are better sources of calcium than dairy!

How much do I need?

In the UK, adults are recommended 700mg per day. For comparison, 1/2 cup of raw firm tofu has approx 250mg of calcium.

Any meal ideas?

Tofu and kale stir fry, cereal with fortified milk and chia seeds, white bean avocado and basil sandwich, broccoli and spinach patties, tofu paneer, spinach and artichoke pesto pasta, kale and edamame dumplings.

Vitamin B12

What does it do for me?

Vitamin B12 speeds up reactions in your body, helps keep nerve and blood cells healthy, and contributes to DNA. A deficiency can mean anaemia, nervous system damage, fatigue, loss of memory and more. The megaloblastic anaemia caused by low B12 levels can make you feel very weak and lethargic.

engevita vegan nutritional yeastWhere can I get it from? 

Vitamin B12 is not produced by plants, only micro-organisms, which makes it a little trickier to get hold of. The only reliable sources of vitamin B12 for a vegan are fortified foods, such as cereal or milk, and a supplement. Other fortified foods include nutritional yeast, yeast extracts like vegemite, certain cereals (it will be advertised on the box), some meat alternatives and vegan spreads. We love the Fruit and Fibre from Aldi, and Kellogg’s Special K.

How much do I need?

Try to eat at least 2 fortified foods per day that equal 3mcg (micrograms). Alternatively, take a good quality vegan supplement of at least 10mcg per day. It is key that you do at least one of these things, as vegans cannot reliably get B12 any other way.

Carbohydrates

What do they do for me?

Carbs provide fuel for the central nervous system and energy for working muscles. They are essential for brain function and can influence your mood and memory. Lack of carbs can also cause headaches, and your blood sugar levels to drop.

Bear in mind that many people actually consume too many carbs. Excessive carb intake can make you more vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes, and contribute to obesity.

When can I get them from?

Carbs can be simple or complex. Simple carbs are ’empty’ calories as they are processed, refined sugars like sweets and syrups. They have little nutritional value. Complex carbs have 3+ sugars and are unprocessed. Examples are beans, lentils, potatoes and whole-grain bread.

Most people don’t struggle to get enough carbs – quite the opposite! Try to avoid refined, processed carbohydrates such as fried potatoes, crisps and white bread. Whole grains, sweet potato and whole-wheat bread/rice are the healthier options and provide more sustained energy.

How much do I need?

A tricky question, as it depends what type of carbs you’re eating. The UK government recommends that a third of your diet should be made up of starchy foods, such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta, and another third should be fruit and vegetables. For the average person consuming 2000 calories per day, that’s 200-250g carbohydrates.

Any meal ideas?

For meals containing healthy carbohydrates, try veg and potato tacos, sweet potato and chickpea curry, chilli with wholegrain pasta, brown rice sushi, tomato and basil bruschetta, banana bread.

sweet potato fries

Everyone needs sweet potato fries in their life…. they’re the perfect source of carbs, too

Sugar

What does it do for me?

Despite what the diet companies say, you need sugar in your life, vegan or no vegan. The sugar we commonly think of is a simple carbohydrate. On labels we usually see it as glucose, fructose, sucrose or lactose (from dairy). In the right form and amounts, it’s of huge benefit to the body. It provides energy, and stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin.

When can I get it from?

There are two types of sugar – naturally occurring sugar, and added sugar. breakfast waffles with healthy sugar as maple syrup

Now here’s the sucky bit. Some refined, added sugar is processed using bone char (cattle bones). If you’re buying bags of sweetener, white or brown sugar, you’ll need to check. Beet, coconut, and organic sugar do not use bone char. Major sources of added sugar are soft drinks, cakes, desserts and many other sweet, manufactured foods.

Of course, you want to consume naturally occurring sugar from fruit and vegetables if possible anyway, as this is far healthier. Natural sugar is also found in agave nectar and maple syrup – highly recommended in a latte or porridge!

How much do I need?

World Health Organisation recommends that only 5% of your calorie intake is from added sugars. That equates to roughly 7 tsp / 30g for an adult. Ideally, eating 2-3 pieces of fruit per day will get you the right kind of sugar.

Any meal ideas?

You don’t need to make specific meals with sugar in. For a healthy dessert swap, try fruit salad. You can also substitute refined white sugar, for coconut sugar or maple syrup.

Fat

What does it do for me?

Let’s make it clear – not all fats are equal. Healthy fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The healthy fats are essential in any diet. They help reduce cholesterol, are anti-inflammatory, and complement insulin and blood sugar levels. Eating no fat at all can disrupt hormone levels, weaken bones and impair digestion.

The reason why fat seems to be the enemy in the diet world is unhealthy fats. These are saturated, hydrogenated and trans fats. They can have the opposite effect and increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

woman holding cut avocadoWhen can I get it from?

The healthy fats that we want to consume come from avocados, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, other nut and seed butters, olives and olive oil, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, and dark chocolate.

How much do I need?

The recommended daily intake is 50-90g. That’s because it varies per person. A good rule of thumb is to consume 0.5g for each lb of your weight (eg. 120lb person would aim for 60g). For comparison, one avocado is roughly 23g of healthy fat.

Any meal ideas?

Mashed avocado on wholegrain toast, avocado and dark chocolate mousse, houmous and chia salad wrap, black bean and seed burgers, walnut pesto pasta, superfood salad with nuts and seeds, peanut butter and salad in wholegrain pitta.

Fibre

What does it do for me?

Fibre is roughage that’s too complex for the body to digest. It’s found in plant foods, so very easy for vegans to get hold of! Fibre cleanses the system, lowers cholesterol by keeping arteries clean, regulates insulin levels, and promotes regular bowel movements. Without sufficient fibre, you can suffer from constipation and poor digestion. You are at higher risk of weight gain, haemorrhoids and diverticular disease.

When can I get it from?

raw nut and date bar vegan

You can even add nuts and seeds to treats!

Split peas, beans, apples, flax seeds, nuts, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds, lentils, raspberries, refried beans, artichokes, bran flakes, avocado, chickpeas.

How much do I need?

Around 25-35g per day for an adult. Another general guideline is to get 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories in your diet.

Any meal ideas?

Add nuts and seeds to a salad, stir fry and breakfast. Try refried bean and carrot chilli, pea soup, air-popped popcorn, apple and apricot pancakes, quinoa with roasted root vegetables, berry and apple smoothies.

Water

What does it do for me?

Water is absolutely essential and something that most people forget to get enough of. It helps the skin to regulate body temperature through sweating, and saves us from dehydration and the associated dizziness. It assists in circulating nutrients around the body and flushes out toxins, plus a load more! Lack of water can cause chronic fatigue, high or low blood pressure, headaches, mood swings, stomach pains, and many other effects.

When can I get it from?

If you don’t like tap water, try filtered water, herbal and fruit teas, and weak low-sugar squashes. Some foods have high water content too. Strawberries, melon, and celery are just a few.

How much do I need?

There are many different opinions on this! 2 litres, or 8 glasses, per day is the average recommendation. Those prone to sweating or very active, will need more to re-hydrate more often.

Tired yet? We’re almost done! vegan milkshakes with fruit

You’ve probably heard the term ‘whole foods’ floating around – these are food items that contain a variety of nutrients at once. By eating whole foods every day, you’re likely to get sufficient amounts of the above nutrients and more. Think quinoa, oats, brown rice.

Stuck with all the numbers? Worried you’re not getting enough of something? There are some great calorie-counting websites/apps out there. You can enter food and keep a tally of your intake of protein, iron, calcium, carbs etc. Many vegans have used MyFitnessPal before and found it to be useful. It could be a good idea to use one of these for a month or so, so you can see if there are certain foods you’re drawn too. You can also easily see if you’re not getting enough of one thing, and play around with your diet. Don’t worry, you don’t need to do this for the rest of your life – we don’t!

You can also check out our free shopping list for a vegan beginner. It includes a good mix of nutrient-rich foods.

**It’s worth us saying that the guidance on ‘how much?’ of each nutrient to consume, can vary from person to person. We’re all individuals here. So if you’re attempting weight loss, building muscle mass, breastfeeding, are under 18, consult your GP or search for specific advice.

Have you got basic nutrition sussed? Click through for the advanced guide to nutrition. Don’t forget to share this page with the Learner Vegans in your life first!

Still a bit confused? Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section below. We’ll be happy to help!

All health content on learnervegan.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor. If you have any concerns about your health, you should contact your local health care provider.

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