Vegan diets: everything you need to know

Vegan diets are a type of vegetarian diet, where only plant-based foods are eaten. With good planning, those following a vegan diet can cover all their nutrient bases, but there are some extra things to consider.

Vegan diets include:

  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Breads, cereals and grains
  • Legumes (eg lentils, chickpeas, dried beans)
  • Soy foods like tofu and tempeh
  • Nuts and seeds.

Vegan diets don’t include:

  • Meat, poultry, fish and seafood
  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Often honey, plus other animal-derived ingredients or food additives

If you are following a vegan diet, you need to be aware of your intake of some specific nutrients, that are only found in animal products. These are four key nutrients to keep in mind:

  • Iron: People following a vegan diet can get enough iron through plant foods like legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds, wholegrains (especially amaranth and quinoa), dried fruits and dark green leafy vegetables. However, the type of iron in plant foods (non-haem iron) is not as easily absorbed as that in animal foods (haem iron). To boost the absorption of iron from plant foods, include a vitamin C-rich food with meals – e.g. berries, citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, capsicum, tomatoes or broccoli. And avoid drinking tea with meals, as some antioxidants in tea can affect iron absorption. Read more about iron and anaemia.
  • B12: Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products, so without these, it’s essential to eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 (such as some soy milks, and vegetarian burgers/sausages), or take a vitamin B12 supplement. Speak to your GP or an Accredited Practising Dietitian to find out more about supplements.
  • Calcium: As a vegan diet does not include dairy products, it is important to include other calcium-rich foods. Some good plant sources of calcium are calcium-fortified soy or almond milks, hard tofu, almonds, unhulled tahini (sesame seed paste) and green leafy vegetables like kale and Asian greens (e.g. bok choy, Chinese broccoli).
  • Omega-3 fats: Our body can’t make omega-3 fats itself, so it’s important to get them through food. Marine sources of omega-3 fats provide the most health benefits. Plant sources contain a different type of omega-3 fat to marine sources. Our bodies can convert some omega-3 fats from plant sources into the more beneficial form found in marine sources, but the conversion rate is low.  Plant sources of omega-3 fats include linseeds/flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, soy bean oil and canola oil. There are also vegan marine omega-3 fat supplements available.
Whether you are currently following a vegan diet, or are considering changing to one, it is a good idea to consult an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) with a special interest in this area. An APD will help to make sure you are getting all the right foods to meet your individual needs and feel full of energy.