Vegans avoid eating animal foods for environmental, ethical or health reasons.
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 antinutrients (7).
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 (8).
In contrast, eating legumes in combination with vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables can further increase your absorption of iron (9).
Bottom Line: Beans, lentils and peas are nutrient-rich plant alternatives to animal-derived foods. Sprouting, fermenting and proper cooking can increase nutrient absorption.
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 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 (10).
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 (11).
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 pantry.
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 conditions (17).
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 recipes.
4. Tofu and Other Minimally Processed Meat Substitutes
Tofu and tempeh are minimally processed meat substitutes made from soybeans.
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.
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 sparingly.
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 daily menu.
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 alternatives.
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 protein.
Two tablespoons (30 ml) of these provide about 8 grams of protein.
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 amounts.
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 food stores.
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 reducing 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 antinutrients.
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
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.
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 baking recipes.
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 great options.
Bottom Line: Fruits and vegetables are very healthy and some of them can be used as alternatives for animal foods.
Take Home Message
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 these foods in sufficient quantities. In these cases, supplements are a good backup option to consider.