Vegans avoid eating animal foods for environmental, ethical, or health reasons.
While a diet based exclusively on plants may have some health benefits, it may put some people at a higher risk of nutrient deficiencies.
This is especially true when vegan diets are not well planned.
For vegans who want to stay healthy, consuming a nutrient-rich diet with whole and fortified foods is very important.
Here are 11 foods and food groups you should try to include in your vegan diet plan.
Vegans avoid animal-based sources of protein and iron, such as meat, poultry, fish, and eggs.
Therefore, it’s important to replace these animal products with protein- and iron-rich plant-based alternatives such as legumes.
Beans, lentils, and peas are great options that contain 10–20 grams of protein per cooked cup.
They’re also excellent sources of fiber, slowly digested carbs, iron, folate, calcium, potassium, zinc, antioxidants, and other health-promoting plant compounds.
However, legumes also contain a fair amount of antinutrients, which can reduce the absorption of minerals.
For instance, iron absorption from plants is lower than that from animal sources. Similarly, vegetarian diets seem to reduce zinc absorption by about 35% compared with those containing meat.
It’s advantageous to soak, ferment, or cook legumes well because these processes can decrease the amounts of antinutrients.
To increase your absorption of iron and zinc from legumes, you may also want to avoid consuming them at the same time as calcium-rich foods. Calcium can hinder the absorption of these nutrients if you consume it at the same time.
In contrast, eating legumes in combination with vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables can increase your absorption of iron.
Summary: Beans, lentils, and peas are nutrient-rich plant alternatives to animal-derived foods. Soaking, fermenting, and proper cooking can increase nutrient absorption.
2. Nuts, nut butter, and seeds
Nuts and seeds are great additions to any vegan refrigerator or pantry. That’s in part because a 1-ounce (28-gram) serving of nuts or seeds contains 5–12 grams of protein.
This makes them a good alternative to protein-rich animal products.
In addition, nuts and seeds are great sources of iron, fiber, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and vitamin E. They also contain a good amount of antioxidants and other beneficial plant compounds.
Nuts and seeds are extremely versatile. You can eat them on their own or work them into interesting recipes such as sauces, desserts, and vegan cheeses.
Try to choose unblanched and unroasted varieties whenever possible, since nutrients can be lost during processing.
Favor nut butter that is natural rather than heavily processed. These are usually free of the oil, sugar, and salt often added to some popular varieties.
Summary: Nuts, seeds, and their kinds of butter are nutritious, versatile foods rich in protein and nutrients. They can be good additions to your pantry.
3. Hemp, flax, and chia seeds
These three types of seeds have special nutrient profiles that deserve to be highlighted separately from the previous category.
For starters, all three contain larger amounts of protein than most other seeds.
One ounce (28 grams) of hemp seeds contains 9 grams of complete, easily digestible protein — and up to 50% more protein than some other seeds.
Research also shows that the fats found in hemp seeds may be very effective at diminishing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause.
They may also reduce inflammation and improve certain skin conditions.
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For their part, chia seeds and flaxseeds are particularly high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid your body can partially convert into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
EPA and DHA play important roles in the development and maintenance of the nervous system. These long-chain fatty acids also seem to have beneficial effects on pain, inflammation, depression, and anxiety.
Since EPA and DHA are primarily found in fish and seaweed, it might be challenging for vegans to consume enough through their diets. For this reason, vegans need to eat enough ALA-rich foods, such as chia seeds and flaxseeds.
However, studies suggest that the body can convert only 0.5–5% of ALA to EPA and DHA. This conversion may be increased somewhat in vegans.
Regardless of this, both chia seeds and flaxseeds are healthy. They also make great substitutes for eggs in baking, which is just one more reason to give them a try.
Summary: The seeds of hemp, chia, and flax are richer in protein and ALA than most other seeds. Flaxseeds and chia seeds are also great substitutes for eggs in recipes.
4. Tofu and other minimally processed meat substitutes
Tofu and tempeh are minimally processed meat substitutes made from soybeans.
Both contain 9–20 grams of protein per 3.5-oz (100-gram) portion. They’re also good sources of iron and calcium.
Tofu, created by pressing soybean curds, is a popular replacement for meats. It can be sautéed, grilled, or scrambled. It makes a nice alternative to eggs in dishes such as omelets, frittatas, and quiches.
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans. Its distinctive flavor makes it a popular replacement for fish, but it can also be used in a variety of other dishes.
Fermentation can help reduce the number of antinutrients that are naturally found in soybeans, which may increase the number of nutrients the body can absorb from tempeh.
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The fermentation process of tempeh may produce small amounts of vitamin B12, a nutrient that’s mainly found in animal foods and not normally found in soybeans.
However, it remains unclear whether the type of vitamin B12 found in tempeh is active in humans.
The amount of vitamin B12 in tempeh also remains low and can vary from one brand of tempeh to another. Therefore, vegans should not rely on tempeh as their only source of vitamin B12.
Seitan is another popular meat alternative. It provides about 18 grams of protein per 3.5 ounces (100 grams). It also contains iron, calcium, and phosphorus.
However, people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should avoid seitan due to its high gluten content.
More heavily processed mock meats, such as “vegan burgers” and “vegan chicken fillets,” usually provide far fewer nutrients and can contain various additives. They should be eaten sparingly.
Summary: Minimally processed meat alternatives such as tofu, tempeh, and seitan are versatile, nutrient-rich additions to a vegan diet. Try to limit your consumption of heavily processed vegan mock meats.
5. Calcium-fortified plant kinds of milk and yogurts
Vegans tend to consume smaller amounts of calcium per day than vegetarians or meat eaters, which may negatively affect their bone health. This seems especially true if calcium intake falls below 525 mg per day.
For this reason, vegans should try to include calcium-fortified plant kinds of milk and plant yogurts in their daily menu.
Those looking to simultaneously increase their protein intake should opt for milk and yogurts made from soy or hemp. Coconut, almond, rice, and oat kinds of milk are lower in protein.
Calcium-fortified plant milk and yogurts are usually also fortified with vitamin D, a nutrient that plays an important role in the absorption of calcium. Some brands also add vitamin B12 to their products.
Therefore, vegans looking to reach their daily intakes of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 through foods alone should opt for fortified products. To keep added sugars to a minimum, you can choose unsweetened versions.
Summary: Plant milk and yogurts fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 are good alternatives to products made from cows’ milk.
Seaweed is one of the rare plant foods to contain DHA, an essential fatty acid with many health benefits.
Algae such as spirulina and chlorella are also good sources of complete protein.
Two tablespoons (30 ml) of these provide about 8 grams of protein.
In addition, seaweed contains magnesium, riboflavin, manganese, potassium, and good amounts of antioxidants.
But keep in mind that some types of seaweed (such as kelp) are extremely high in iodine, so it’s best not to eat them in large amounts. Iodine is an element that is found naturally in some foods and added to some salt products.
It’s essential for body functions such as thyroid regulation, protein synthesis, and proper nervous system development in fetuses and infants.
Some types of seaweed, such as kelp, nori, kombu, and wakame, are great sources of iodine. Some other varieties, such as spirulina, contain less.
Similar to tempeh, seaweed is often said to be a great source of vitamin B12 for vegans. However, while seaweed does contain a form of vitamin B12, it’s still not clear whether this form is active in humans.
Until more is known, vegans who want to reach their daily recommended vitamin B12 intake should rely on fortified foods or talk with a healthcare professional about possibly taking supplements.
Summary: Seaweed is a protein-rich source of essential fatty acids. It’s also rich in antioxidants, and some types are rich in iodine.
7. Nutritional yeast
Nutritional yeast is made from a deactivated strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast. It can be found in the form of yellow powder or flakes in most supermarkets and health food stores.
One ounce (28 grams) contains approximately 16 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber. In addition, nutritional yeast is commonly fortified with B vitamins, including vitamin B12.
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Therefore, fortified nutritional yeast can be a practical way for vegans to meet their daily vitamin B12 needs.
Non-fortified nutritional yeast is not a reliable source of vitamin B12.
Summary: Fortified nutritional yeast is a protein-rich source of vitamin B12. However, non-fortified versions are not a reliable source of the vitamin.
8. Sprouted and fermented plant foods
Although rich in nutrients, most plant foods also contain varying amounts of antinutrients.
These antinutrients can reduce your body’s ability to absorb minerals from these foods.
Sprouting and fermenting are simple and time-tested methods of reducing the amounts of antinutrients found in various foods.
These techniques increase the amounts of beneficial nutrients absorbed from plant foods and can also boost their overall protein quality.
Interestingly, sprouting may also slightly reduce the amount of gluten found in certain grains.
Fermented plant foods are good sources of probiotic bacteria, which may help improve immune function and digestive health.
They also contain vitamin K2, which may promote bone and dental health as well as help decrease the risk of heart disease and inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
You can try sprouting or fermenting grains at home. Some sprouted or fermented products — such as Ezekiel bread, tempeh, miso, natto, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, and kombucha — are also available in stores.
Summary: Sprouting and fermenting foods helps enhance their nutritional value. Fermented foods also provide vegans with a source of vitamin K2.
9. Whole grains, cereals, and pseudocereals
Whole grains, cereals, and pseudocereals are good sources of complex carbs, fiber, and iron, as well as B vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium.
However, some varieties are more nutritious than others, especially when it comes to protein.
For instance, the ancient grains spelt and teff contains 10.7 and 9.7 grams of protein per cooked cup, respectively.
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The pseudocereals amaranth and quinoa come in a close second with 9.3 and 8.1 grams of protein per cooked cup, respectively.
Summary: Spelt, teff, amaranth, and quinoa are flavorful, high protein substitutes for better-known grains such as wheat and rice. Sprouted varieties are best.
10. Choline-rich foods
The nutrient choline is important for the health of your liver, brain, and nervous system.
Our bodies can produce it, but only in small amounts. That’s why it’s considered an essential nutrient that you must get from your diet.
Choline can be found in small amounts in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and grains.
The plant foods with the largest amounts are tofu, cauliflower, and quinoa.
Daily choline requirements increase during pregnancy. People who drink alcohol heavily and postmenopausal women may also be at increased risk of deficiency.
Therefore, vegan individuals who fall into one of these categories should make a special effort to consume enough choline-rich foods.
Summary: Choline-rich plant foods such as tofu, cauliflower, broccoli, and quinoa are important for the proper functioning of your body.
11. Fruits and vegetables
Some vegans rely heavily on mock meats and other vegan processed foods to replace their favorite animal foods. However, these types of foods are often not the most nutritious options.
Luckily, there are many ways to add vitamin- and mineral-rich fruits and vegetables to your meals.
For instance, mashed banana is a great substitute for eggs in baking recipes.
Banana “ice cream” is a popular replacement for dairy-based ice cream. Simply blend a frozen banana until it’s smooth. Then you can add your preferred toppings.
Eggplant and mushrooms, especially cremini or portobello, are a great way to get a meaty texture in vegetable form. They’re particularly easy to grill.
Perhaps surprisingly, jackfruit is a great stand-in for meat in savory dishes such as stir-fries and barbecue sandwiches.
Cauliflower is a versatile addition to many recipes, including pizza crust.
Vegans should also aim to increase their intake of iron- and calcium-rich fruits and vegetables. This includes leafy greens such as bok choy, spinach, kale, watercress, and mustard greens.
Broccoli, turnip greens, artichokes, and black currants are also great options.
Summary: Fruits and vegetables are very healthy, and some of them can be used as alternatives for animal foods.
Vegans avoid all foods of animal origin, including meat and foods containing animal-derived ingredients.
This can limit their intake of certain nutrients and increase their requirements for others.
A well-planned plant-based diet that includes sufficient amounts of the foods discussed in this article will help vegans stay healthy and avoid nutrient deficiencies.
Nevertheless, some vegans may find it difficult to eat enough of these foods. In these cases, supplements may be an option to consider.