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.
Getting the right nutrients from a vegan diet
With good planning and an understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegan diet, you can get all the nutrients your body needs. If you do not plan your diet properly, you could miss out on essential nutrients, such as calcium, iron and vitamin B12.
Vegans who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- During pregnancy and when breastfeeding, women who follow a vegan diet need to make sure they get enough vitamins and minerals for their child to develop healthily.
- If you’re bringing up your baby or child on a vegan diet, you need to ensure they get a wide variety of foods to provide the energy and vitamins they need for growth.
Vegan sources of calcium and vitamin D
Calcium is needed to maintain healthy bones and teeth. Non-vegans get most of their calcium from dairy foods (milk, cheese and yoghurt), but vegans can get it from other foods.
Good sources of calcium for vegans include:
- green, leafy vegetables – such as broccoli, cabbage and okra, but not spinach (spinach does contain high levels of calcium but the body cannot digest it all)
- fortified unsweetened soya, rice and oat drinks
- calcium-set tofu
- sesame seeds and tahini
- brown and white bread (in the UK, calcium is added to white and brown flour by law)
- dried fruit, such as raisins, prunes, figs and dried apricots
A 30g portion of dried fruit counts as 1 of your 5 A Day, but should be eaten at mealtimes, not as a snack between meals, to reduce the impact of sugar on teeth.
The body needs vitamin D to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. These nutrients help keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy.
Good sources of vitamin D for vegans include:
- exposure to sunlight, particularly from late March/early April to the end of September – remember to cover up or protect your skin before it starts to turn red or burn (see vitamin D and sunlight)
- fortified fat spreads, breakfast cereals and unsweetened soya drinks (with vitamin D added)
- vitamin D supplements
- Read the label to ensure the vitamin D used in a product is not of animal origin.
Vegan sources of iron
Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells. A vegan diet can be high in iron, although iron from plant-based food is absorbed by the body less well than iron from meat.
Good sources of iron for vegans are:
- wholemeal bread and flour
- breakfast cereals fortified with iron
- dark green, leafy vegetables, such as watercress, broccoli and spring greens
- dried fruits, such as apricots, prunes and figs
Vegan sources of vitamin B12
The body needs vitamin B12 to maintain healthy blood and a healthy nervous system. Many people get vitamin B12 from animal sources, such as meat, fish and dairy products. Sources for vegans are limited and a vitamin B12 supplement may be needed.
Sources of vitamin B12 for vegans include:
- breakfast cereals fortified with B12
- unsweetened soya drinks fortified with vitamin B12
- yeast extract, such as Marmite, which is fortified with vitamin B12
Vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, primarily those found in oily fish, can help maintain a healthy heart and reduce the risk of heart disease when eaten as part of a healthy diet.
Sources of omega-3 fatty acids suitable for vegans include:
- flaxseed (linseed) oil
- rapeseed oil
- soya oil and soya-based foods, such as tofu
Evidence suggests that plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids may not have the same benefits in reducing the risk of heart disease as those in oily fish. But if you follow a vegan diet, you can still look after your heart by eating at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day, cutting down on food that’s high in saturated fat, and watching how much salt you eat.