How to eat well and stay healthy on a vegan diet

Add more vegies to your diet with Katrina Meynink's garam masala roasted cauliflower.
Add more vegies to your diet with Katrina Meynink's garam masala roasted cauliflower. Photo: Katrina Meynink

The co-founder of animal protection institute Voiceless, Ondine Sherman, shares advice from her new book, Vegan Living, on how to live a healthy plant-based life.

Going vegan, despite the effort, is a joyful and positive culinary experience. Yes, changing your tastes and eating habits can be hard, especially letting go of a few beloved dishes, but it is extremely rewarding. Here I want to give you a few key tips that will make sure your change to veganism is nourishing, healthy and easy.

'Abundance is the ticket': Ondine Sherman says widening rather than narrowing your diet is the key to healthy eating.
'Abundance is the ticket': Ondine Sherman says widening rather than narrowing your diet is the key to healthy eating. Photo: Supplied

Eating well

Begin your journey in the healthiest way possible by adding nutritious delicious foods rather than narrowing your diet or increasing processed junk. Abundance is the ticket. After all, there are reportedly more than 70,000 edible plants to choose from. This is an opportunity for dietary expansion (rather than scarcity) and you will be surprised and delighted by the new tastes, textures, exotic ingredients and even sweets that will make you swoon. The best way to do this is to add new daily foods into your diet, veganise your favourite meals, and stock up your kitchen with staple ingredients and delicious go-to snacks.

In a nutshell, any issues that may arise from swapping to a vegan diet often come from restricting and reducing your variety and this is best avoided by making sure you add a food each time you remove one. So, if you take beef out of your diet, add beans. Remove fish, add tofu.

Choose vegies and legumes and skip the white bread, white pasta, sugar and chips, which give you energy but no healthy micronutrients. How can we add more vegies to our diet? Try adding them to a salad, soup, wrap, curry, smoothie, pasta sauce, rice, or vegie burger, or dip them in a spread such as hummus.

Ondine Sherman's new book.
Ondine Sherman's new book. Photo: Supplied

Gemma Davis, a vegan naturopath and an ambassador for Voiceless, says, "Eat a wholefood-based diet. More from the Earth, less from packages."

Seeing a dietitian or health practitioner who is knowledgeable about plant-based diets may help provide ideas and guidance. It's also worth seeing a doctor to get some baseline tests done so you can see any health changes as your vegan journey progresses.

Following vegan food bloggers, recipe sites, YouTubers and nutritionists online has helped me and so many aspiring vegans begin positive habits. But I also agree with the opinion of another fellow vegan Grace Prael, who says:

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"Do not use social media or anecdotes as definitive sources of nutrition information. Always seek out scientific consensus where available. If you find scientific information too technical, consult high-quality sources that translate scientific findings into information useable by the general population." 

So, do your research, focus on nutrient-dense whole foods, and try to add in one food for every one you remove (remember, abundance!). And, yes, a vegan cupcake is beyond delicious and a plant-based burger essential to my well-being, but all in moderation. I discovered that eating healthy is eating healthy, junk food is junk food, and processed is processed, even if it's vegan. The same rules apply.

Jill Dupleix recipe: Green noodle bowl with broccoli.

Jill Dupleix's green noodle bowl with broccoli is rich in calcium. Photo: William Meppem

Vegan nutrition

Nutrition is an important part of eating well. The most common question vegans are asked is, "Where do you get your protein?" Major concerns also include iron and calcium. Don't worry, I've got you covered. Let's break down all the components you need to feel confident you have your nutritional bases secured.

Most of us are creatures of habit, looking for routine in all areas of our lives, including what we eat. Creating your weekly vegan meal plan so it's balanced isn't too hard if you find a handful of dishes that you like and can regularly make. We do need to be aware that the daily food pyramid for vegans looks a little different.

Here's one example of how it can look:

  • 5+ servings of carbs and starchy vegies
  • 4+ servings of vegies
  • 3+ servings of beans and lentils
  • 2+ servings of fruits
  • 1-2 servings of seeds and nuts
  • and a B12 supplement
Stick blenders are great for whizzing up soups from leftover veg.

Include colourful foods in your diet, such as Dan Lepard's garlic, sweet potato and chickpea soup. Photo: William Meppem

Colour

Eat rainbows and you'll find the pot of golden health! No, really – different coloured plant-foods have different phytochemical compounds and these compounds have major benefits for your health. Here's a rainbow of delicious food:

  • Red: tomato, strawberry, apple, watermelon, raspberry, cherry
  • Orange: carrot, orange, sweet potato, apricot, squash
  • Purple: eggplant, beetroot, plum, grapes
  • Yellow: lentils, bananas, lemons, peaches
  • Green: broccoli, edamame, spinach, peas, avocado
  • White: potato, tahini, oats, chickpeas, lima beans, soybeans, tofu, onion, quinoa
  • Brown: cashews, lentils, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, peanut butter, mushrooms, dates
  • Blue: blueberries
  • Black: black beans, chia seeds.
Neil Perry's warm lentil salad with pumpkin and chilli.

Neil Perry's warm lentil salad with pumpkin and chilli is a healthy source of protein. Photo: William Meppem

Proteins

The recommended dietary allowance of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. So if you're 65 kilograms, for example, that's 65 times 0.8, which equals 52 grams of protein per day. You can use one of the many online protein calculators to find out what the number is for your body. But don't get too stuck on data – research on how much protein is the optimal amount to eat for good health is ongoing, and the debate is far from conclusive. There is no need to consciously combine different plant proteins at each meal because as long as we eat a variety of foods every day, our body maintains a pool of amino acids that can be used to complement dietary protein.

Check out the list below of healthy proteins and include them in your everyday eating, but please don't sweat it. Contrary to popular belief, this is not an issue. A comprehensive medical review found vegans with protein deficiency were far from the norm. Here are some great protein-rich foods to add to your diet:

  • Seitan: 25 grams of protein per 100 grams. It's made from gluten, the main protein in wheat. Unlike many soy-based mock meats, seitan mimics the look and texture of meat when cooked. I use it regularly, adding garlic, fresh tomatoes and herbs, to make vegan bolognese.
  • Tofu, tempeh and edamame: 10-19 grams of protein per 100 grams. All originate from soybeans. Soybeans are considered a whole source of protein, providing the body with essential amino acids.
  • Lentils: 18 grams of protein per cup, cooked.
  • Other pulses and pseudograins: Examples include chickpeas – 15 grams of protein per cup, cooked; lima beans – 15 grams per cup, cooked; and quinoa – 11 grams per cup, cooked.
  • Green peas: 8 grams of protein per cooked cup. These are an awesome addition to your diet and they're also super high in fibre and vitamin K and good for your eyes.
  • Vegetables: The most protein packed include broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts with about 4-5 grams of protein per cooked cup.
  • Nuts: A handful of mixed nuts is my favourite protein-rich (and calcium-rich) snack. Almonds have 6.4 grams of protein per 28 grams (about a handful) while for the same portion size, peanuts yield 7 grams, pistachios 5.5 grams, pecans 2.7 grams, sunflower seeds 6.4 grams and flaxseeds 5 grams.
  • Nutritional yeast: 8 grams of protein per ¼ cup.
Good Food. Hot Food. Kale chips July 1st. Photo: Edwina Pickles. 5th June 2014.
Photographic – Tue, 11. December 2018 12:00 AMI15F9688 316.JPGGood Food. Hot Food. Kale chips July 1st. Photo: Edwina Pickles. 5th June 2014.

Kale chips are powerhouses of nutrients and vitamins. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Calcium

We need calcium for our bones, and it doesn't need to come from dairy. Vegans can have a higher risk of bone fractures, so please be sure to eat calcium-rich foods. Luckily there are lots of healthy calcium sources: tahini, calcium-fortified non-dairy milk drinks, such as soy, rice, coconut, oat or nut milks. Read the label to see how much calcium you get in a serving. Your daily calcium requirement depends on your age – teens need up to 1300 milligrams while adults under 50 require 1000 milligrams. Over 50 and your body needs 1200 milligrams. Here are some top calcium sources:

  • Soy milk, enriched: 250-450mg per cup
  • Cooked soybeans: 261mg per cup
  • Soybeans/edamame: 98mg per cup, cooked
  • Raw firm tofu: 683mg per 100 grams
  • Broccoli: 62mg per cup, cooked
  • Beans: 370mg per cup black-eyed peas; 191mg per cup white beans
  • Tahini: 130mg per 2 tablespoons; also high in magnesium, potassium and iron
  • Almonds: 97mg per ¼ cup, and brazil nuts, 35mg per ¼ cup
  • Almond butter: 111mg per 2 tablespoons
  • Kale: 177mg per cup, cooked
  • Cereals, calcium-fortified: ranges 250-1000mg per ½ to 1 cup
  • Chia seeds: 160mg per 2 tablespoons
  • Flax seeds: 36mg per 2 tablespoons
  • Orange juice, fortified: 300mg per 348 mg per cup
  • Figs: 300mg per cup, dried or uncooked
  • Butternut squash: 84mg per cup, boiled
  • Raisins: 54mg per 2/3 cup
Maple, soy and sesame tofu stir-fry with brown rice and greens. Sticky stir-fries for Good Food, February 2019. Images and recipes by Katrina Meynink. Good Food use only.

Tofu is a rich source of iron, and absorbs flavours well such as in this maple, soy and sesame tofu stir-fry. Photo: Katrina Meynink

Iron

In good news, the American Dietetic Association confirms vegetarians don't have a higher incidence of iron deficiency than non-vegetarians. And one of the most comprehensive studies ever undertaken into the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease found that the consumption of meat is not needed to prevent iron-deficiency anaemia.

However, it's always a good idea to have your iron levels checked. If it's low, stock up on more iron-rich food or take a supplement. Green leafy vegetables (ideally three servings per day) are a good start, and adding something with a little vitamin C (orange juice, broccoli or tomato) will help to increase the absorption of iron. The recommended intake varies, but for menstruating women it's 14-18 milligrams per day. For men and non-menstruating women it's about 8 milligrams. Here are some good sources:

  • Tofu: 6.6mg per ½ cup
  • Quinoa: 2.2mg per 150 grams, cooked
  • Spinach: 6.4mg per cup, cooked
  • Kidney beans, chickpeas, soybeans, lima beans: 4.5-5.2mg per cup, cooked
  • Black beans, pinto beans: 3.6mg per cup, cooked
  • Pumpkin seeds: 3mg per 30 grams
  • Peas: 2.5mg per cup, cooked
  • Potato with skin: 2mg per 1 medium
  • Brown, red, green lentils: 6.59mg per cup, cooked
  • White or cannellini beans: 5.2mg per cup, cooked
  • Dark chocolate: 7mg per 85 grams

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamin B12 is the only must-have supplement for vegans. It is crucial for the maintenance of our nervous systems and formation of red blood cells.

B12 is made by bacteria (or anaerobic microorganisms) living in soil and water, rather than animals or plants. Animals consume the bacteria by eating grass with soil particles attached to it. The bacteria then accumulate in their gastrointestinal tract until absorbed into the muscles of their bodies. While in the past, humans would have ingested B12 in the same way animals do – by eating plants like roots and tubers that had traces of soil – today that's not the case. Our current agricultural systems incorporate cleaning and sanitisation, plus our soil is exposed to antibiotics and pesticides – all practices that rid our food plants of bacteria. It's because these natural B12 sources no longer exist that vegans must consume B12 as a supplement. You can buy B12 in drops or tablets.

You may want to consider other vitamins and minerals with advice from a natural health provider.  For example, zinc can sometimes be low in vegans so it's important to get your levels checked. Omega 3 is important for good mood, brain power, learning and concentration, and linseeds, flaxseed and canola oil, chia and walnuts are all great sources. But some people are not efficient at converting those into the highly beneficial long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, and need to take them as supplements. Traditionally found in fish, you can get your omega 3 just as easily from a non-toxic (organic) algae oil.

Special diets and different stages of life 

It's important to work with an experienced dietician if you have any health concerns, allergies or issues. Nutritional requirements can vary depending on age, pregnancy, breastfeeding and other stages of life, too. If you have questions or concerns about your or your family's health, it's a good idea to see a doctor or health professional who has experience with vegan diets.

This is an edited extract of Vegan Living: A simple guide to a cruelty-free, healthy, plant-based life by Ondine Sherman, Pantera Press, $RRP24.99. Buy now