A Vegan Diet
Veganism explained. How to have a balanced diet and be healthy living as a vegan. What is vegan, and sources of protein, calcium, and iron.
With serious health conditions and chronic diseases plaguing the world; education about the relationship between food and health; increased awareness about sustainability and climate change; and growing concerns about the need to feed a growing world population in the next 50 years, veganism is on the rise.
More people are adopting a vegan diet or eating more plant-based foods in an effort to be healthier and embrace more conscious lifestyle practices.
I have been a vegan for ten years, and almost all of the recipes on this site (with the exception of about five recipes that contain honey) are vegan and gluten-free.
Here is some basic information about veganism, and tips for how you can go vegan or understand or cook for a vegan partner, child, friend or other family member, friend, colleague, or guest.
What is vegan?
A vegan can be defined in two different ways: a dietary vegan and an ethical vegan.
A dietary vegan omits animal or any animal derived products from their diet. They do not eat any meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products or any other animal products or by-products where an animal is involved such as honey and gelatin.
An ethical vegan is a dietary vegan that also eliminates the use of all lifestyle products that are derived from, tested on, or involve animals such as: clothing, shoes or furniture using leather or wool; and skincare and beauty products.
What foods are vegan?
Maintaining a healthy and balanced vegan diet is not as difficult as it might seem at first.
A lot of the healthy foods that we are encouraged to eat by health organizations and medical professionals are already inherently vegan.
Foods that are naturally vegan
- leafy greens
- vegetable oils
By excluding animal products and animal by-products, you are not denying yourself nutrients, merely omitting certain sources of those nutrients.
For example, calcium, which we are brought up to believe is best sourced from cow's milk and other dairy products, is found in plentiful amounts in green vegetables, nuts, and other vegan foods.
High quality protein, which we traditionally think of as coming from meat, fish, poultry, and eggs can also be found in tofu, tempeh, beans, grains, and vegetables.
Furthermore, a responsible vegan diet including whole foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains is high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, health-promoting plant-based fats, and fiber.
Top Vegan Protein Sources
The biggest concern for most people is protein. Where do you get protein on a vegan diet?
It’s important to understand what the role of proteins are in the body.
We have different proteins in our bodies, and they do a variety of jobs: There are builder proteins that construct cells, muscles, connective tissue, bones, tendons, and skin. Transporter proteins carry nutrients around the body; and messenger proteins send signals between all of the key players. Then, there are immuno proteins and hormonal proteins ; and enzyme proteins that support metabolism.
All of the proteins in our bodies are made up of amino acids, and they help keep our cells, muscles, tissues, tendons, and skin working at peak performance.
There are 20 proteins in our bodies, and 9 of them are "essential" to our diets, since our bodies can’t manufacture them.
“Complete proteins” contain, in varying amounts, all of the 9 essential amino acids.
Here are the top sources of plant-based protein:
- chia seeds
- flax seeds
- mung beans
- nutritional yeast
- pumpkin seeds
- sesame seeds
- split peas (yellow)
- sunflower seeds
Note: Our protein needs vary depending on our sex and general make up. We can get too much protein. Excess protein will not build more muscle or strength. Excess protein can overwhelm the body and irritate the body.
Vegan Sources Of Calcium
This is also one of the most common questions about a vegan diet.
How do vegan get calcium?
It's important question.
Calcium is an alkaline buffer mineral critical for health.
Calcium is key for bone health, optimal muscle function, healthy gums and teeth, and for combating excessive acidity and inflammation in the body.
The “we need calcium to build strong bones" is only part of the story. Yes, calcium is important for strong bones. However, calcium doesn't work in isolation for bone health. It requires other minerals, vitamins, and nutrients to accomplish that goal.
Calcium also helps engage the body’s critical “fight or flight” response at the cellular level.
What's important to note about the calcium story is the relationship between calcium and magnesium. These two minerals work in opposition to each other, and we need them both for optimal muscle and bone health.
Calcium is a “contraction enabler" - it helps muscles contract. Magnesium is a “relaxation enabler" to help our muscles relax.
A practical example of how they work together to develop strong bones is the push-pull that happens when we lift things. The other way they work together is to regulate our response to stress (good or bad).
When the body experiences stress, calcium pushes into our cells and instigates a "fight-or-flight" response.
When we have enough magnesium in our cells, the magnesium recognizes what is going on and pushes the calcium back out of our cells to turn down the stress response and restore calm.
So, if you consume calcium with not enough magnesium to balance this intake then your cells aren’t empowered enough to combat appropriate stress responses for health.
Be careful of fortified nut milks or orange juices. These foods are often nutrient-poor, and the form of calcium contained in these processed foods may be less efficiently absorbed.
Another popular misconception is eating cheese for calcium. Cheese is an inflammatory food that creates acid, it isn't detoxifying, and doesn’t contain antioxidants or essential fatty acids which the foods below deliver.
A more prudent approach to health is to consume the whole foods below that will deliver calcium as well as other nutrients for better health.
Recommended Daily Amounts For Calcium
RDA for adults 19-50 = 1000 mg per day
RDA for men 50-70 = 1000mg per day
RDA for women over 50 = 1200 mg per day
RDA for men over 70 = 1200 mg per day
Good Vegan Calcium Sources
Blackstrap Molasses 2 TBSP = 400mg
Collard Greens 1 cup (cooked) = 357 mg
Tofu made with calcium sulfate 4 oz = 200 to 420mg
Tofu made with nigari 4 oz = 130 to 400mg
Whole Almonds 1/2 cup = 188mg
Kale 1 cup (cooked) = 179mg
Bok Choy 1 cup (cooked) = 158mg
Tempeh 1 cup = 140mg
Tahini 2 TBSP = 130mg
Almond Butter 2 TBSP = 111mg
Edamame 1 cup (cooked) = 98mg
Figs 1/2 cup (dried) = 80mg
Vegan Iron Sources
Where do you get iron on a vegan diet?
If I had a dollar for every time I was asked that every week I would be a millionaire.
Iron is an essential mineral for optimal health because it is vital for production of the hemoglobin and myoglobin in our red blood cells, and helps our red blood cells transport oxygen and nutrients to every cell in our bodies.
The World Health Organization (WHO) counts iron deficiency as the number one nutrient deficiency in the world with as many as 80% of people being deficient. Our bodies keep stores of iron (one of the alkaline mineral buffers) as part of our built-in immune regulators.
However, long term depletions of iron stores can lead to iron-deficient anemia. Symptoms of a deficiency can include: fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, inability to maintain body temperature, pale skin, irritability, headaches, and weight loss.
There are two types of iron:
Heme (found in animal foods) and Non-Heme (found in plant-based foods).
The iron contained in plant-based sources is not as readily absorbed as animal sources. As a result, vegetarians and vegans may have lower iron stores than omnivores.
A prudent strategy for getting your daily intake of iron is to eat a balanced diet containing grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. And, consuming them strategically to increase absorption. With iron, it is not how much you consume, but how much you absorb that counts.
Eating smaller amounts throughout the day increases absorption. Consuming vast amounts of iron in one sitting decreases the amount actually absorbed.
Do not drink coffee or tea with meals as the tannins inhibit iron absorption.
Avoid eating calcium-rich foods within 30 minutes of consuming iron-rich foods.
Combining plant-based sources of iron with vitamin C-rich foods increases absorption. Foods like broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, leafy greens, and tomatoes.
Cook your iron-rich foods in a cast-iron skillet as these pans contain iron and can increase iron absorption by up to 10 times.
Don't rely on leafy greens (particularly spinach) as some contain oxalates which can inhibit the absorption of iron.
Recommended Iron Intakes:
Infants and children
- Younger than 6 months: 0.27 milligrams per day (mg/day)
- 7 months to 1 year: 11 mg/day
- 1 to 3 years: 7 mg/day
- 4 to 8 years: 10 mg/day
- 9 to 13 years: 8 mg/day
- 14 to 18 years: 11 mg/day
- Age 19 and older: 8 mg/day
- 9 to 13 years: 8 mg/day
- 14 to 18 years: 15 mg/day
- 19 to 50 years: 18 mg/day
- 51 and older: 8 mg/day
Top Vegan Iron Sources
Tofu (1/2 cup): 6.6 mg
Spirulina (1 tsp): 5 mg
Cooked soybeans (1/2 cup): 4.4 mg
Pumpkin seeds (1 ounce): 4.2 mg
Quinoa (4 ounces): 4 mg
Blackstrap molasses (1 tbsp): 4 mg
Tomato paste (4 ounces): 3.9 mg
White beans (1/2 cup) 3.9 mg
Dried apricots (1 cup): 3.5 mg
Dried peaches (6 halves): 3.1 mg
Prune juice (8 ounces): 3 mg
Lentils (4 ounces): 3 mg
Peas (1 cup): 2.1 mg
Other Vegan Iron Sources
- brown rice
- sunflower seeds
- sesame seeds
- swiss chard
- collard greens
- beet greens
- cacao powder
Eating Out Vegan
There are a wide variety of vegan restaurants catering to all kinds of cuisines in major cities all over the world.
Many mainstream eateries have vegan options, dedicated vegan menus, and icons on the menu denoting dishes that are vegan-friendly.
Salads, soups, vegetable sides, and stir-fries are usually available on most menus, and most restaurants are happy to accommodate special requests.
I will often politely ask for a vegetable pasta dish, stir-fried vegetables, or steamed veggies.
For a list of vegan restaurants, head to Happy Cow or Veg Guide.
When introducing a vegan diet to a child, try not to be overwhelmed or put off but what seems like a large undertaking of a nutritional uphill battle.
A vegan diet for a child is just as easy as one for an adult, and if executed right can be much better for them. The American Dietetic Association has said that, "Well-planned vegan diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence."
Planning is the key. A well planned vegan diet and lifestyle for child is all about knowledge and education. A vegan diet is achievable and easy to manage. In fact, a plant-based diet has been shown in many studies to be healthier than the average American diet.
Education and working in consultation with a doctor and dietician is key to ensuring that a child receives the right balance of nutrients required at every stage of development. Different nutritional needs need to be met at different ages. Knowing the best vegan alternatives to give your child is important.
With more vegan options at airports, cruise ships, planes, trains, and hotels, traveling as a vegan is getting easier.
Get online and look at the vegan options at hotels and resorts.
Book a special vegan meal with the airline.
Mistakes can occur with catering and serving, so taking a few vegan snacks on board to help with any hunger pangs on a long haul flight.
Happy Cow and Veg Guide make dining easy.
There are also some great vegetarian and vegan travel blogs.
With veganism on the rise, commercial food companies, grocers, and health food stores all have a lot of vegan options and dedicated vegan sections, and products are often clearly labeled as vegan or vegan-friendly.
Vegan.org have a great list of certified vegan companies for you to keep on your vegan foodie radar.
PETA has an extensive grocery shopping list that makes vegan shopping easy.
Hidden Ingredients On Food Labels from the Vegan Society:
- Fish Oil
- Casein/Whey: Both are made from milk.
- Honey, Beeswax (E910), Propolis and Royal Jelly: All come from bees
- Carmine/Cochineal (E120): Made from crushed beetles. This is a red dye used to color food.
- Rennet: Used in the production of cheese, it originates from the stomach of mammals.
- Paneer: A common cheese in India, it is made by curdling heated milk.
- Kefir: Fermented milk derived from cow, goat or sheep’s milk.
- Koumiss: Fermented alcoholic dairy drink from Central Asia. Taken from a female horse.
- Lard: Pig fat used as a cooking fat, spread or shortening.
- Gelatin : Used in candy, sweets and some desserts Gelatin is made from animal bones and connective tissue.
- Ghee : Used in mainly Indian dishes Ghee is clarified butter.
- Lactose: Used most often as an additive in foods, Lactose is derived from milk.
- Isinglass: A protein substance from the swim bladders of fish which is used in the clarification of wine.
- Suet: Raw beef or Mutton fat, used to make tallow. Used in the cooking of puddings, pastries and pies.
- L-Cysteine (E920): Made from animal hair or feathers this is an additive that can sometimes be vegan but not always, best to be wary.
- Shellac (E904): Used occasionally when glazing candies, sweets and fruit this agent is made from insect secretions.
- Vitamin D3 or “Vitamin D”: Vitamin D3 is not suitable for a vegan diet however Vitamin D2 is.
Everyday Food Products To Check:
- Breakfast Cereals and Bars – Could contain honey or milk derived products.
- Margarines and Spreads – Most contain milk products
- Fresh Pasta and Noodles – Could contain egg (Keep an eye out for rice noodles)
- Candy, Sweets, and Jelly – Double check for gelatin and milk derived products.
- Curry pastes and Worcestershire sauce – May contain fish.
- Stock Powders – Look out for milk derived products
- Alcohol – Wines, beers and ciders are sometimes filtered using animal products.
Other Vegan Shopping:
There are some great vegan alternatives when shopping for anything, from clothes to furniture.
Hidden Ingredients In Lifestyle Products:
- Lanolin: Used in cosmetics and skin ointments, it is wax substance extracted from the wool of sheep and other wool bearing animals.
- Leather: Animal skin and rawhide used to make many different products like, shoes, clothes, furniture, wallets, handbags and gloves.
- Tallow: An animal fat, used to make soap, candles and shoe polish.
- Silk: Produced by some insects but most predominantly by the moth caterpillar, and used in textiles.
- Musk: An aromatic substance excreted from the glands of the musk deer
- Civet: Cat-like animal that produces a musk like fragrance from its glands.
- Ambergris: Used for creating perfume it is a substance made from the digestive system of sperm whales.
- Sepia: a brownish pigment derived from the ink sac of a cuttlefish and used in some artworks, magazines and photography.
The vegan versions of popular foods are just getting better and better, and very popular with non vegans.
I’m not a big fan of faux meat products, But, there are a ton of them.
Meat substitutes: to replace beef, chicken, turkey, seafood and pork that be used in many different dishes like stir-fries, pastas, burgers, and casseroles. These meat-like products are often made from tofu, tempeh, seitan, rice, quorn, or legumes.
Milk: there are so many - almond, coconut, cashew, rice, oat, and soy are the most widely available with artisan brands offering walnut, hazelnut, peanut, and other plant-based milks
Cheese: vegan cheese is getting really sophisticated now with varieties made from nuts, soy, rice, and coconut
Yogurt: soy, almond, coconut, and cashew yoghurts are widely available.
Cream: cashew cream and coconut creams are available
Mayo: there are a wide variety of vegan mayo on the market.