In recent years, interest in vegan food has grown phenomenally. Some choose to exclude food from the animal kingdom for ethical reasons, others for health reasons or as part of trying to contribute to as small a climate footprint as possible. Whatever the reason, there are some things you need to know to be sure to get all the nutrition you need.
What Is Vegan Food?
A vegan diet consists of food from the plant kingdom without any element sourced from the animal kingdom. It, therefore, does not contain meat, fish, shellfish, dairy products, eggs or honey. Many also avoid gelatin, which is extracted from the connective tissue of animals.
Replace the Meat and Fish
When excluding such a large group of nourishment sources as all the foods from the animal kingdom, it is important to know which plant kingdom options contain the nutrients you are missing out on—and replace meat, fish, eggs and milk with them.
In general, the more food that is removed, the higher the requirement that the food you eat contains enough replacement nutrition. The essential nutrients to keep track of are vitamin B12, vitamin D, riboflavin, iron, zinc, calcium, selenium, iodine, omega 3 fats, and protein.
Vegan on the Daily Menu
The following foods need to be on the menu, preferably every day, to get all the nutrition you need:
- Legumes, such as beans, peas and lentils – they provide, among other things, iron, zinc, protein and fiber,
- Wholemeal products, such as oatmeal, graham flour or rye wholemeal flour – contain more nutrients than refined “white” flour, including iron and folate.
- Fortified vegetable drinks are a good source of vitamin b12, riboflavin, vitamin D and calcium. Read the packaging to be sure that the nutrients just mentioned are included. Note that organic varieties may only be enriched with vitamin D. Anyone who makes their own drink or chooses organic varieties needs to get b12, vitamin D, riboflavin and calcium from other foods or supplements.
- Rapeseed oil and cooking fats made from rapeseed oil – contributes omega-3 fats that are only found in a few foods from the plant kingdom.
- Vegetables and root vegetables – contributes fiber and nutrition, including vitamin C, which facilitates the absorption of iron and zinc in vegetarian food.
- Fruit or berries – also contributes fiber and nutrition, including vitamin C.
The Food in Practice
There are a lot of ways to cook legumes, whole grains, nuts and other nutritious foods. You can eat legumes in lentil or chickpea curry, bean steaks, falafel, pea soup, lentil soup, lentil bolognese, hummus or bean dip, for example. It is also possible to mix boiled red lentils in a pancake batter or serve black beans or other legumes marinated as an accompaniment to the main dish.
- Tofu can be diced and served as is, or marinated, breaded, fried or stir-fried. It is also available to buy ready-marinated.
- Nuts and seeds can be chopped and mixed with dried fruit in muesli and flake mixtures. They can also be combined with onions, spices, potato flour, or any other binder and fried into balls or steaks.
- Vegetarian whole and semi-finished products such as mince, veggie balls, and steaks made from legumes can also be a good source of nutrition.
- In a sandwich: all-vegetarian shortening, hummus, peanut butter, pea pattie, veggie slices and seaweed caviar.
- You can use whole grains in various ways, such as replacing half of the wheat flour in pancakes with oat or rye flour. Whole-wheat pasta and whole-wheat bulgur are the best options. Choose wholemeal flakes or cereals, and bake or buy bread with a higher percentage of whole grains than similar items. Crispbread is frequently made entirely of whole grains.
- Root vegetables: Boil, fry, raw grate, oven roast, grill, breadcrumb or puree. There are lots of cooking methods and options.
- Examples of vitamin C-rich accessories that go well with food to facilitate the absorption of iron and zinc are peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, berries or citrus.
Protein Is Rarely a Problem
Protein is the body’s building block and is needed to build everything from muscles and tissues to hormones and other substances. Foods from the plant kingdom contain more protein than many people think, and therefore it is usually not a problem for vegans to get enough.
For vegans who exercise a lot, as long as you get enough energy from your food, that’s fine. If the energy intake is not sufficient, then protein is used as an energy source instead of as building blocks.
Protein is made up of about 20 amino acids. Nine of them are essential, meaning they cannot be produced in the body, so they need to be present in the food you eat. Foods from the animal kingdom often contain all the essential amino acids in suitable proportions, while foods from the plant kingdom contain low levels of some.
Provided you do not eat a very restricted diet; it is not a problem because the amino acids in vegetables complement each other. This means that healthy people who eat enough varied plant-based food do not have to think too much about the food’s protein quality.
Examples of foods from the plant kingdom with a lot of protein are beans, lentils, peas, tofu, other soy products, vegetable drinks, quinoa, nuts, and seeds. Cereal products, such as bread, pasta, bulgur and rice, also contribute protein.
Fat is an important energy source, and the right kind of fat in moderation is needed to feel good. What you need to keep in mind is to get enough omega-3 fats but not too much saturated fat.
The body itself cannot produce Omega-3 fats, so they need to come from food. Omega-3 fats are mainly found in rapeseed oil, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds and oily fish. An easy way to get enough omega-3 fats is to use canola oil and cooking fats made from rapeseed oil in cooking and sandwiches.
Flaxseed oil contains a lot of omega 3 but has a fairly sharp taste and is sensitive to heating and is, therefore, better suited as a dressing than in cooking. On the other hand, flax seeds should not be eaten in large quantities, as they contain harmful substances.
There are different types of omega-3 fats. In fatty fish, the long fatty acids DHA and EPA are present. Algae oil also contains DHA. To some extent, the omega-3 fat in vegetables can be converted to the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA in the body.
How effective the conversion varies from person to person. These fats are especially important for pregnant or breastfeeding women, as they are needed for the development of the brain in fetuses and young children.
Coconut oil and palm oil contain saturated fats, which in themselves contribute energy, but which are not as helpful as other fats.
Good Quality Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are an essential source of energy. By choosing carbohydrates of good quality, i.e., that have a natural fiber content, you get food that also provides a lot of nutrition. Examples of such foods are whole grains, root vegetables, cabbage, onions, legumes, fruits, berries, nuts and seeds.
Those who have difficulty getting enough energy may need to cut down on fiber and increase fat. This can apply, for example, to those who exercise a lot or have a poor appetite and are unable to eat large amounts of food. Fibers saturate a lot but provide little energy.
The carbohydrates also include sugar. Like everyone else, vegans should eat sugar sparingly, as sugar does not provide any nutrition.
Important Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamin B12 is needed for the formation of blood cells and is necessary for the function of the nervous system. Vitamin B12 is only found in meat, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products and is absent in plant foods. Therefore, vegans need to get vitamin B12 either through B12-enriched food or supplements or both. The recommended daily intake for teens and adults is 2.0 micrograms.
Vitamin D is needed to regulate the calcium balance in teeth and bones. The best source of vitamin D is the sun, The sun is the best source of vitamin D, but during the winter, the sun is too low in the sky for most of us to make enough vitamin D naturally.
Vitamin D is naturally found in certain forest mushrooms, such as chanterelles and porcini. Still, because it is not found in many everyday foods, enriched products play a significant role in a vegan diet.
Vegetable beverages, fats and certain other vegetable products are fortified with vitamin D. There is rapeseed oil fortified with vitamin D, but most oils are not fortified. Read the packaging to make sure that the drink and shortening are enriched.
There are two different forms of vitamin D: vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. Vegetable products are usually fortified with vitamin D2. Research suggests that this form is not quite as effective as vitamin D3, but both forms provide enough vitamin D if you eat them regularly.
Vitamin D3 for enrichment is extracted from wool fat, but there is also a variant of vitamin D3, extracted from lichen, which can be used for vegetable products.
The recommended daily intake of vitamin D is ten micrograms (equivalent to 400 IU) until the age of 75. For people over 75 years of age, 20 micrograms (equivalent to 800 IU) is recommended.
Those who do not eat vitamin D enriched foods, such as vegetable drinks and shortening, need to take vitamin D supplements equivalent to 10 micrograms.
For anyone who is not outdoors during the summer or completely avoids the sun directly on the skin and can not assimilate as much vitamin D from the sun’s rays, a vitamin D supplement equivalent to 20 micrograms a day is recommended.
Riboflavin (vitamin B2) is found mainly in dairy products and is needed for the body’s energy production and as part of antioxidant protection. The best vegetable sources are fortified vegetable drinks, legumes, green leafy vegetables and whole grains. Read the packaging to be sure that the drink is enriched.
Iodine plays a central role in the body’s metabolism. A good way to ensure iodine intake is to use iodized salt in cooking. Salt used for semi-finished products, bread and the like, is rarely iodine-enriched. The same goes for most gourmet salts. It says on the packaging if the salt is iodine enriched.
Everyone, regardless of diet, needs to get iodized salt, but for those who avoid milk, eggs and seafood, which are our most significant natural sources of iodine, it is extra important.
But you do not need extra salt on the food. No large amounts of iodized salt are required. Three grams of iodized salt corresponds to the recommended daily intake of iodine for adults.
Iodine is also found in some algae products, but the levels vary and can also be harmful to children, pregnant women and breastfeeding women.
Iron is needed for the blood to transport oxygen to all the tissues in the body. In the plant kingdom, there is iron in peas, beans and lentils, and in tofu and tempeh.
Nuts, seeds, buckwheat, dried fruits, vegetables and whole grains, especially oats, also contain iron. Parsley is sometimes mentioned as a source of iron, but large quantities and several pots are needed to have any significance in practice.
It is more difficult for the body to absorb iron from vegetarian food than iron in meat and fish. This is partly because the iron in vegetables is of a different kind that needs to be converted before it is taken up, and partly because the iron in meat and fish gets help on account of something called the “meat factor.”
For those who do not eat meat, it is therefore extra vital that the iron intake is sufficient. The recommended daily intake of iron is 15 milligrams for women of childbearing age and nine milligrams for other women and men.
It is good to eat something rich in vitamin C with your food, as it increases iron absorption. Germination of legumes and seeds also makes it easier for the body to absorb iron.
- Try to make sure the meal contains an iron source, such as falafel, lentil curry, vegan sausage, or bean steaks.
- Eat something rich in vitamin C with your food, such as peppers, cabbage of various kinds, or citrus fruit.
- Feel free to choose whole grain varieties of pasta, bulgur and bread.
- Find some iron-rich toppings you like, such as hummus or peanut butter.
- Sprinkle nuts, sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds over the food or salad – it also gives a little crunch to the dish.
- Eat plenty of chopped nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
Calcium is needed for the skeleton and is found mainly in dairy products. In the plant kingdom, calcium is found in, for example, legumes, especially in soybeans, almonds, kale, broccoli, cabbage and sesame seeds.
Enriched vegetable drinks are a good source of calcium. Read the packaging to be sure that the drink is enriched. An unenriched oatmeal drink contains only 25 milligrams of calcium per pint, while a fortified one has about 600 milligrams per pint. The recommended daily intake of calcium for adults is 800 milligrams.
Meat, fish, eggs, and milk all contain selenium. Selenium is required for metabolism and is part of the body’s antioxidant defenses. It’s a good idea to vary your selenium intake by eating a variety of cereals, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
It can also be more challenging to get enough zinc if you don’t eat anything from the animal kingdom.
Zinc is required for wound healing, among other things. It’s found in many the same foods as iron, such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes like beans, peas, and lentils.
The Vegan Plate Model
It is just as good to eat according to the plate model if you are vegan or omnivorous. The point of the plate model is that it helps to get a good balance between different nutrients.
The Plate Model Has Three Parts
The first portion is vegetables and root vegetables. For those who do not move that much, this part can easily make up half the plate.
The next portion is potatoes, pasta, bulgur, bread or the like. Preferably whole grain products. For those who need a lot of energy, this part can be larger and the vegetable part smaller.
The last, slightly smaller portion is filled with protein sources such as legumes, vegan “meat” products, nuts and or seeds.
Use healthy plant oils to make dressings. Olive oil, rapeseed oil, and sunflower oil are all particularly good sources of unsaturated fatty acids.
A Sufficient Intake of Water
Total water consumption should be between 4-5 pints per day. This includes dietary moisture content and only applies to mild temperatures and moderate amounts of physical exercise. Water, non-caffeinated unsweetened tea, and other non-alcoholic, low-calorie beverages such as juice spritzers are the best options. The amount of water you require may increase in hot weather or if you exercise.