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How to Plan a Healthy Vegan Diet

Culinary Medicine

John Ambrose, with permission

InBrief


A vegan dietary pattern has many health benefits. [1] However, like any diet, if not carefully planned, it may not meet your needs for some nutrients and may exceed recommendations for others (see Health Benefits and Nutritional Risks of Vegan Diets). Knowing how to make wholesome vegan choices and to plan and prepare nutritious vegan meals can help ensure a healthy nutrient intake while reducing chronic disease risk.


A vegan diet eliminates all animal products. This may sound simple – just skip the meat – but it is not that easy. Imagine a dinner of steak, broccoli, mashed potatoes, a salad with Italian dressing, a dinner roll with butter, and a glass of milk. If you think that removing the steak from your plate will make this meal vegan, think again. You would also need to replace the milk and butter used to make the mashed potatoes, the butter on the roll, and the milk in your glass. Even the Italian dressing may be off limits if it contains Parmesan cheese.


Planning a healthy vegan diet starts by following the recommendations for any healthy diet – select foods from each of the five food groups: grains, vegetables, fruits, protein foods, and dairy. Foods from the vegetables, fruits, and grains groups come from plants so fit into a vegan diet unless animal products have been added to them. For example, broccoli is vegan, but broccoli with cheese sauce is not. There are many vegan options from the protein foods group. Legumes, such as beans, peas, and soybeans, as well as nuts and seeds, are whole-food vegan choices and there are also processed meat alternatives such as vegan burgers, sausages, and nuggets. Vegan dairy options include fortified plant-based milks, yogurts, and cheeses. Including the recommended number of servings from each food group will help you meet calorie and nutrient needs (See figure). [2]


Making varied choices from within each of the food groups helps you meet all your nutrient needs. Choosing legumes along with a variety of grains, nuts, and seeds throughout the day can provide the right mix of amino acids to meet your protein needs.[3] A bean burrito along with roasted vegetables and brown rice can provide as much protein as a beef burrito. Grains are good sources of iron, zinc, and B vitamins; half of your grains should be whole grains such as whole wheat, rolled oats, brown rice, and quinoa. Including a variety of vegetables and fruits helps meet vitamin and mineral needs. Citrus fruit and tomatoes are excellent sources of vitamin C; leafy and dark green vegetables, such as kale, chard, and broccoli can boost your calcium intake; and red-orange fruits and vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, and apricots provide vitamin A. Oils, seeds, and nuts are good sources of vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. So, a meal of lentils, onions, carrots, tomatoes, and Swiss chard sauteed in canola oil and served over brown rice with peanut sauce provides plenty of protein and good sources of vitamins C, E, and A as well as calcium, iron, and zinc. However, even with varied choices from each food group, vegan diets cannot provide adequate amounts of vitamins B12 and D without supplements or fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and plant-based milks (see table, Sources of Nutrients at Risk in a Vegan Diet). Calcium needs can be met with careful whole-food choices and/or supplemental sources. Iodine needs can be easily met when iodized salt is used; check the label and be aware that most sea salt is not iodized.

sources of nutrients at risk in a vegan diet

In addition to providing enough protein, vitamins, and minerals, a healthy vegan diet should be moderate in calories and limit saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium. Whole foods are generally low in these nutrients, whereas processed foods tend to be high in them. But not everyone has the time or resources to avoid all processed foods and cook every meal from scratch. Including some processed foods, like canned soups, vegan meat alternatives, and microwavable meals, with whole-food choices can simplify meal preparation and provide plenty of essential nutrients while limiting nutrients that increase disease risk. For example, a meal of frozen plant-based “chicken” strips, oven-roasted potatoes and carrots, and a salad provides an easy-to-prepare nutritious meal. Overreliance on ultra-processed foods, even if they are vegan, can create a dietary pattern that exceeds recommendations for nutrients that should be limited. For example, ultra-processed snack foods such as such as potato chips, Oreos, and sugar-sweetened beverages, add calories, salt, and added sugars, but few essential nutrients. Restaurant meals are another option for those who don’t have the time, knowledge, or inclination to cook. Ethnic cuisines such as Ethiopian, South Indian, Korean, and many Mexican and Chinese fast-food chains offer a variety of vegan choices. However, restaurant meals are typically higher in calories and sodium than meals prepared at home.


So, if you want to try a vegan diet, start by making small changes (See table, Making Healthy Vegan Choices). Gradually replace the meat in your diet with whole-food plant sources of protein or plant-based meat substitutes. Experiment with plant-based milks to find one you like and that meets your nutrient needs. When choosing prepared foods, read the food labels. The ingredient list on the label will tell you if the food contains any animal products. It is easy to recognize that eggs, milk, and cheese come from animals, but also look for gelatin, an animal product used as a stabilizer in food processing, and casein and whey, milk proteins used in many baked goods. The Nutrition Facts portion of the food label will help you identify vegan foods that provide the mix of nutrients you are looking for. For example, don’t assume your plant-based milks, yogurts, or cheeses are providing you with protein, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12; read the label to be sure. Check your breakfast cereal label, some products do not contain any added nutrients while others are fortified with all the vitamins and minerals for which there is an RDA, including those that may be at risk in a vegan diet. Learning to choose a satisfying, enjoyable, and healthy vegan diet can take time and experimentation, but the benefits to your health and the planet are well documented.

making healthy vegan choices chart


References

[1] Selinger E, Neuenschwander M, Koller A, et al. Evidence of a vegan diet for health benefits and risks – an umbrella review of meta-analyses of observational and clinical studies.Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2022;1:11. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2022.2075311.

[2] U.S. Department of Agriculture. MyPlate. Learn how to eat healthy with MyPlate. Accessed May 10, 2023. https://www.myplate.gov/.

[3] Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(12):1970-1980. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025.



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