avoid eating animal foods for environmental, ethical or health
Unfortunately, following a diet based exclusively on plants 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 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.
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 (5, 6).
It’s advantageous to sprout, ferment or cook legumes well
because these processes can decrease the levels of
To increase your absorption of iron and zinc from legumes, you
may also want to avoid consuming them at the same time as
foods. Calcium can hinder their absorption if you consume
it at the same time (8).
In contrast, eating legumes in combination with vitamin C-rich
fruits and vegetables can further increase your absorption of
Bottom Line: Beans, lentils and peas are
nutrient-rich plant alternatives to animal-derived foods.
Sprouting, fermenting and proper cooking can increase
2. 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
This makes them a good alternative to protein-rich animal
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
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
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.
Bottom Line: Nuts, seeds and their butters
are nutritious, versatile foods that are rich in protein and
nutrients. Every vegan should consider adding them to their
3. 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.
What’s more, the omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio found in
hemp seeds is considered optimal for human health (13).
It may also reduce inflammation and improve certain skin
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 (18, 19, 20, 21).
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.
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.
Bottom Line: The seeds of hemp, chia and
flax are richer in protein and ALA than most other seeds.
Flax and chia seeds are also great substitutes for eggs in
4. Tofu and Other Minimally Processed Meat Substitutes
and tempeh are minimally processed meat substitutes made from
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
The fermentation process of tempeh may produce small amounts of
vitamin B12, a nutrient mainly found in animal foods that
soybeans do not normally contain.
However, it remains unclear whether the type of vitamin B12
found in tempeh is active in humans.
Seitan is another popular meat alternative. It provides about
25 grams of wheat protein per 3.5 oz (100 grams). It is also a
good source of selenium and contains small amounts of iron,
calcium and phosphorus (28).
However, individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity
should avoid seitan due to its high gluten content.
More heavily processed mock meats, such as “vegan burgers” or
“vegan chicken fillets,” usually provide far fewer nutrients
and can contain various additives. They should be eaten
Bottom Line: Minimally processed meat
alternatives including 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 Milks 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 (29, 30).
For this reason, vegans should attempt to make
calcium-fortified plant milks and plant yogurts part of their
Those looking to simultaneously increase their protein intake
should opt for milks and yogurts made from soy or hemp.
Coconut, almond, rice and oat milks are lower-protein
Calcium-fortified plant milks 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
make sure to opt for fortified products. To keep added sugars
to a minimum, make sure to choose unsweetened versions.
Bottom Line: Plant milks 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
Two tablespoons (30 ml) of these provide about 8 grams of
In addition, seaweed contains magnesium, riboflavin, manganese,
potassium, iodine and good amounts of antioxidants.
The mineral iodine, in particular, plays crucial roles in your
metabolism and in the function of your thyroid gland.
The Reference Daily Intake (RDI) of iodine is 150 micrograms
per day. Vegans can meet their requirements by consuming
several servings of seaweed per week.
That being said, some types of seaweed (such as kelp) are
extremely high in iodine, so should not be eaten in large
Other varieties, such as spirulina, contain very little iodine.
Those who are having difficulty meeting their recommended daily
intakes through seaweed alone should aim to consume half a
teaspoon (2.5 ml) of iodized salt each day (31).
Similar to tempeh, seaweed is often promoted as a great source
of vitamin B12 for vegans. Although it does contain a form of
vitamin B12, it is still not clear whether this form is active
in humans (32, 33, 34, 35, 36).
Until more is known, vegans who want to reach their daily
recommended vitamin B12 intake should rely on fortified foods
or use supplements.
Bottom Line: Seaweed is a protein-rich
source of essential fatty acids. It is also rich in
antioxidants and iodine, but should not be relied on as a
source of vitamin B12.
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
One ounce (28 grams) contains approximately 14 grams of protein
and 7 grams of fiber. In addition, nutritional yeast is
commonly fortified with zinc, magnesium, copper, manganese and
B vitamins, including vitamin B12.
Therefore, fortified nutritional yeast can be a practical way
for vegans to reach their daily vitamin B12 recommendations.
However, it’s important to note that vitamin B12 is
light-sensitive and may degrade if bought or stored in clear
plastic bags (37).
Non-fortified nutritional yeast should not be relied on as a
source of vitamin B12.
Bottom Line: 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
the minerals these foods contain.
Sprouting and fermenting are simple and time-tested methods of
the amount of antinutrients found in various foods.
Fermented plant foods are good sources of probiotic bacteria,
which may help improve immune function and digestive health.
Bottom Line: Sprouting and fermenting foods
helps enhance their nutritional value. Fermented foods also
provide vegans with a source of probiotics and 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.
That said, some varieties are more nutritious than others,
especially when it comes to protein.
The pseudocereals amaranth and quinoa
come in a close second with around 9 grams of protein per
cooked cup (237 ml). They are also two of the rare sources of
complete protein in this food group (51, 52).
Like many plant foods, whole grains and pseudocereals contain
varying levels of antinutrients, which can limit the absorption
of beneficial nutrients. Sprouting is useful for reducing these
Bottom Line: 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
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.
Therefore, vegan individuals who fall into one of these
categories should make a special effort to ensure they have
sufficient choline-rich foods on their plates.
Bottom Line: Choline-rich plant foods such
as soy, 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 vegan junk food to
replace their favorite animal foods. However, these types of
foods are often highly processed and unhealthy.
Luckily, there are many ways to replace your favorite meals
with vitamin- and mineral-rich fruits and vegetables instead.
For instance, mashed banana is a great substitute for eggs in
Banana ice cream is also 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.
Meanwhile, 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 blackcurrants are also
Bottom Line: Fruits and vegetables are very
healthy and some of them can be used as alternatives for
Take Home Message
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 these
foods in sufficient quantities. In these cases, supplements
are a good backup option to consider.