Vegan diets are a type of vegetarian diet, where only plant-based foods are eaten. They differ to other vegetarian diets in that no animal products are usually consumed or used. Despite these restrictions, with good planning it is still possible to obtain all the nutrients required for good health on a vegan diet.
The following foods can be included in a vegan diet:
• Fruit and vegetables
• Breads, cereals and grains
• Legumes (eg lentils, chickpeas, dried beans)
• Soy products
• Nuts and seeds.
The following foods are excluded in a vegan diet:
• Meat, poultry, fish and seafood
• Dairy products
• Animal fats
• Often honey, plus other animal-derived ingredients or food additives
The main reasons why some people choose to follow a vegan diet include: religious reasons, environmental and health concerns and animal rights.
Like any eating plan which restricts certain food groups, a vegan diet needs careful planning to ensure that nutritional requirements are met. Following are sources of key nutrients in a vegan diet:
• Protein: sources include legumes (dried beans, peas and lentils), nuts and seeds, soy products and wholegrain breads and cereals (particularly amaranth and quinoa).
• Zinc: sources include legumes, nuts, seeds and wholegrain breads and cereals.
• Iron: sources include legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds, wholegrains (especially amaranth and quinoa), dried fruits and dark green leafy vegetables.
Vegans can easily obtain enough iron from plant foods. However the type of iron found in plant foods (non-haem iron) is not as readily absorbed as the type found in animal foods (haem iron). In order to increase the absorption of iron from plant sources, follow these simple steps:
• Include a vitamin C-rich food with meals to increase the iron absorption – eg berries, citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, capsicum, tomatoes or broccoli
• Drink tea between meals instead of with the meal, as the phytates in tea can inhibit iron absorption.
For more information about iron visit Nutrition Information A-Z Anaemia.
• B12 : Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products, being originally derived from bacteria. Those following a vegan diet will need to ensure that they either consume foods fortified with vitamin B12 or take a vitamin B12 supplement. For further advice about supplementation, see your doctor and speak to an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD).
• Calcium: As a vegan diet does not include dairy products, it is essential that non-dairy sources of calcium are consumed on a daily basis. Some good plant sources of calcium include calcium-fortified soy products, hard tofu, almonds, unhulled tahini (sesame seed paste) and green leafy vegetables such as Kale and Asian greens (e.g. bok choy, Chinese broccoli).
• Vitamin D: most of our vitamin D comes from the action of sunlight on the skin. Therefore vegans can obtain their vitamin D from safe sun exposure unless they cover up or spend significant time indoors throughout the year. Vitamin D is found in a limited number of foods. Fortified soy milks and ‘vitamin D mushrooms’ provide a good source for vegans.
• Omega 3: Sources for vegan diets include linseeds/flaxseeds and chia seeds (and their oils), walnuts, soy products and omega-3 fortified foods such as some breads. While some food products enriched with omega-3 use a derivative of seaweed as the source of omega fatty acids, vegans should check food labels for suitability.
Any diet that excludes nutritious food groups needs careful planning to ensure nutritional needs are met. Whether you are currently following a vegan diet, or are considering changing to a vegan diet, it is a good idea to consult an APD with special interest in this area. An APD will help to ensure you are receiving adequate nutrition to maintain good health. Visit the ‘Find an APD’ section to find an APD near you.