A vegan diet contains only plants (such as vegetables, grains, nuts and fruits) and foods made from plants. Vegans do not eat foods that come from animals, including dairy products and eggs.
Healthy eating as a vegan
You can get most of the nutrients you need from eating a varied and balanced vegan diet.
For a healthy vegan diet:
- eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day
- base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates (choose wholegrain where possible)
- have some dairy alternatives, such as soya drinks and yoghurts (choose lower fat and lower sugar options)
- eat some beans, pulses and other proteins
- choose unsaturated oils and spreads, and eat in small amounts
- drink plenty of fluids (the government recommends 6 to 8 cups or glasses a day)
- If you choose to include foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar, have them less often and in small amounts.
The Vegan Eatwell Guide
The Eatwell Guide defines the different types of foods we should be eating and in what proportions. This guide explains some simple dietary rules to follow, which are relevant for the majority of us, such as getting a minimum five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, including wholegrains and opting for lower fat, lower sugar vegan alternatives to dairy foods. However, the Vegan Plate, promoted by the Vegan Society, is arguably a more relevant example for those following a full-time vegan diet. It highlights the importance of beans and pulses as well as nuts and seeds, shows where calcium can be found in numerous plant-based foods, and emphasises that getting enough vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fats and iodine is essential to maintaining good health.
Another important nutrient, but little talked about, is choline, which is richest in animal foods like egg yolks. Choline is essential for the brain chemical acetylcholine, which helps sharpen our memory, and plays a role in liver function, muscle development and even cholesterol management. Expectant mums are thought to have a greater need for this nutrient because it may be important for the baby’s brain development. Mums will also need it for their own livers and placental function. Vegans won’t fall short of this nutrient as long as their diet includes a wide variety of foods, such as beans, soya, peanuts and quinoa, as well as green veggies, nuts, seeds and grains, including wheat. It’s worth bearing in mind that choline is a water-soluble nutrient, so if you are boiling green vegetables, make use of the cooking liquid in sauces, soups and gravies.
What do vegans eat and avoid?
Vegans avoid all animal-derived foods – so as well as meat and fish, that means no eggs, dairy or honey. They also exclude animal byproducts like rennet used in cheese making, gelatine in desserts and certain E numbers including the red food dye cochineal (E120). Even certain vegetarian foods, such as some meat substitutes, are off the menu because they contain egg and sometimes dairy.
Shopping tips for vegans
If you’re new to vegan cooking, follow our shopping guide for vegan-friendly ingredients:
- Check the labels of all packaged products that you use in cooking such as bouillon powder, stock cubes, sauces and spreads. Ingredients to look out for include whey, casein and lactose, which are all derived from milk.
- Be aware that non-vegan wines and beer may have been processed with animal products. This is also relevant to wine vinegar’s – check that the brand is vegan-friendly.
- Remember most breads and pastries contain butter and some contain milk or milk derivatives.
- In desserts and puddings, replace gelatine with agar-agar or vege-gel, both made from seaweed
- Use silken or soft tofu as an alternative to dairy in desserts and be sure to use fortified plant-based dairy alternatives as they contain added vitamins
Other eatwell guides