As long as it's planned well and includes a variety of nutrient-rich foods, a vegan diet is a healthy diet. A vegan is a vegetarian who not only excludes meat, poultry and fish from his diet, but also eggs, dairy and honey. You can meet all your nutritional needs with plant-based foods, but you will face a higher risk of certain deficiencies, so you need to plan carefully.
Vegan Diet Basics
Like any diet, you can make poor food choices on a vegan diet. To promote health and ensure that you meet your nutrient needs, focus on filling your meals with nutrient-rich foods from all of the food groups. To maximize nutritional intake, fill your diet with whole grains, a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, legumes such as lentils, soy and kidney beans, as well as nuts and seeds.
You should also limit your intake of empty calories from vegan junk food such as soda, sweets, vegan cake and cookies, fried vegan foods such as french fries and other highly processed foods.
One of the hardest nutrients to get on a vegan diet is vitamin B-12 because animal foods are the only natural source, with the exception of nutritional yeast. Fortified foods, such as plant milk and cereal, can help you get vitamin B-12 in your diet. If you're worried about not getting enough from the food you eat, you may need a supplement. Consult your doctor to discuss your concerns and needs.
Other Nutrients of Concern
While it's possible for you to get all the nutrients you need following a vegan diet, there are some nutrients that are a little more difficult to get and require specific food choices.
Calcium and vitamin D are important nutrients for bone health, and without dairy you need to make sure you include other good sources in your diet. To meet your need for both nutrients, include fortified plant milk, orange juice and cereal. Other good food sources of calcium include calcium-set tofu, leafy greens, broccoli, almonds and soy nuts.
There is also concern about getting enough protein and iron without meat. Good sources of both nutrients include beans, soy foods and peanut butter. You can also meet your iron needs with leafy greens and fortified breakfast cereal. Pair your iron sources with fruits and veggies -- their vitamin C content will help with iron absorption.
Sample Vegan Menu
A healthy and nutrient-rich vegan breakfast might include a fruit smoothie made with plant milk, berries, bananas and flaxseeds. Or a bowl of oatmeal topped with raisins and walnuts with a glass of fortified orange juice.
For lunch, enjoy a whole-wheat pita stuffed with hummus, alfalfa sprouts and chopped tomatoes with fresh fruit and a mixed green salad. Another lunch meal might include a bowl of vegetable and bean soup with whole-grain crackers, a handful of almonds and a spinach salad topped with sliced strawberries.
At dinner, stir-fry broccoli, bok choy, mung bean sprouts, cashews and tofu with low-sodium soy sauce and serve with brown rice. Or toss together cooked lentils and bulgur and serve with a kale salad.
Snack on fresh fruit, soy yogurt, nuts or cut veggies.