For vegans who want to stay healthy, consuming a nutrient-rich diet with whole and fortified foods is very important.
Here are some foods and food groups that should be part of a healthy vegan diet.
In an effort to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, vegans avoid traditional 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 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, manganese, zinc, antioxidants and other health-promoting plant compounds (1, 2, 3, 4).
However, legumes also contain a good amount of antinutrients, which can reduce the absorption of minerals.
For instance, iron absorption from plants is estimated to be 50% lower than that from animal sources. Similarly, vegetarian diets seem to reduce zinc absorption by about 35% compared to those containing meat.
It’s advantageous to sprout, ferment or cook legumes well because these processes can decrease the levels 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 their absorption if you consume it at the same time. In contrast, eating legumes in combination with vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables can further increase your absorption of iron.
Nuts, Nut Butters and Seeds
Nuts, seeds and their byproducts are a great addition to any vegan refrigerator or pantry. That’s in part because a 1-oz (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 also extremely versatile. They can be consumed on their own, or worked into interesting recipes such as sauces, desserts and cheeses. Cashew cheese is one delicious option.
Try to choose unblanched and unroasted varieties whenever possible, since nutrients can be lost during processing.
Favor nut butters that are natural rather than heavily processed. These are usually devoid of the oil, sugar and salt often added to household brand varieties.
Hemp, Flax and Chia Seeds
These three 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 — about 50% more protein than most other seeds.
What’s more, the omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio found in hemp seeds is considered optimal for human health.
Research also shows that the fats found in hemp seeds may be very effective at diminishing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menopause.
It may also reduce inflammation and improve certain skin conditions.
For their part, chia and flaxseeds are particularly high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid your body can partly 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 play beneficial roles in 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, it’s important for vegans to eat enough ALA-rich foods, such as chia and flaxseeds.
However, studies suggest that the body is only able to convert 0.5–5% of ALA to EPA and DHA. This conversion may be increased somewhat in vegans.
Regardless of this, both chia and flaxseeds are incredibly healthy for you. They also make great substitutes for eggs in baking, which is just one more reason to give them a try.
Tofu and Other Minimally Processed Meat Substitutes
Tofu and tempeh are minimally processed meat substitutes made from soybeans.
Both contain 16–19 grams of protein per 3.5-oz (100-gram) portion. They’re also good sources of iron and calcium.
Tofu, created from the pressing of soybean curds, is a popular replacement for meats. It can be sautéed, grilled or scrambled. It makes a nice alternative to eggs in recipes such as omelets, frittatas and quiches.
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans. Its distinctive flavor makes it a popular replacement for fish, but tempeh can also be used in a variety of other dishes.
The fermentation process helps reduce the amount of antinutrients that are naturally found in soybeans, which may increase the amount of nutrients the body can absorb from tempeh.