Vegan 101: Planning Healthy Vegan Diets

by JL Fields on April 22, 2011

Folks, I cannot begin to describe how happy I am to share this latest post in the Vegan 101 series.  I have been reading The Vegan RD since I made the decision to go vegan!  Ginny Messina offers no-nonsense, thoroughly researched information regarding the vegan diet. I respect her immensely and I am so honored that she agreed to write a nutritional piece for the series.  I think you’ll agree that Ginny provides solid, important information for new (and old) vegans.

***

Virginia Messina, MPH, RD is a dietitian and public health nutritionist specializing in vegan nutrition. She is co-author of Vegan for Life, a comprehensive guide to vegan nutrition scheduled for publication in July, 2011.

Ginny has worked as a dietitian for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, taught nutrition to dietetics students at the university level, and served as director of nutrition services for a medical clinic serving 50,000 patients at George Washington University.   She is a former co-author of the American Dietetic Association’s position on vegetarian diets and of the first textbook on vegetarian diets written for health professionals and of peer-reviewed papers on vegan nutrition.

Her goal is to share the best and most up-to-date information on vegan nutrition and to make ethical eating an easy and realistic option for everyone. She writes about a variety of issues related to health and animal rights on her blog The Vegan RD and as the National Vegan Examiner at National Examiner and consults with a variety of organizations on nutrition.

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It doesn’t matter what type of diet you choose, a little nutrition-know-how is always needed. Omnivores have to strive for food choices that reduce their intake of saturated fat and cholesterol and that maximize compounds that might fall short like fiber, folate, antioxidants, and potassium. Vegans need to give a little bit of extra attention to vitamin B12, calcium, and vitamin A. And omnivore or vegan, everyone needs to identify good sources of vitamin D, and maybe omega-3 fats.

Here is a quick guide to meeting nutrient needs on vegan diets:

Eat at least 3-4 servings of legumes every day
These foods—which include beans, soyfoods, and peanuts—are the richest sources of protein among plant foods. It’s possible to meet requirements for essential amino acids without legumes, but they definitely make it a lot easier. A serving of legumes is just ½ cup of cooked beans, tofu or tempeh, 1 cup of soymilk, 1 oz of veggie meat, or 2 tbsp peanut butter. (Note: other types of nuts don’t count toward servings of legumes, but they are still good for you as you’ll see below.)

Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables (and lots of them)
Fruits and veggies are the only good sources of certain nutrients and they are packed with phytochemicals, which may reduce disease risk. Choose both cooked and raw vegetables in your diet since both have benefits. Include a serving of a vitamin C-rich food at every meal to boost absorption of iron. Good choices are broccoli, kale, collards, swiss chard, bell peppers, cauliflower, citrus fruits, strawberries, and potatoes. Make sure your diet also includes foods that provide beta-carotene which is a precursor to vitamin A—dark yellow winter squash, pumpkin, carrots, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe.

Aim for around 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day
While older studies suggest that vegans could need less calcium than those who eat meat, newer research challenges that idea—so vegans should aim for the RDA. You don’t have to hit that number on the nose every day, but try to eat 6 to 8 servings of foods that provide about 100 to 150 milligrams each of well-absorbed calcium: ½ cup firm tofu made with calcium-sulfate, ½ cup fortified soymilk or other plant milks, 2 tbsp almond butter or tahini, ½ cup cooked kale, bok choy, turnip, collard or mustard greens, ½ cup fortified juice, 2 navel oranges, or 1 tbsp blackstrap molasses. If you fall short in your intake, it’s okay to make up the difference with a low-dose supplement, but try to get most of your calcium from food.

Choose supplements or fortified foods that provide vitamin D, vitamin B12 and iodine.
Don’t take chances with vitamin B12; it’s not true that you can get enough from unwashed organic veggies or fermented foods. Opt for a chewable or sub-lingual (the kind that dissolves under the tongue) B12 supplement providing 25-100 micrograms every day. Or include two to three servings of foods fortified with at least 1.5 micrograms of B12 in your daily menu.

If you live in a warm, sunny climate and you spend time outdoors during the middle of the day, chances are that you don’t need to worry about vitamin D. But everyone else—and this includes omnivores as well as vegans—needs a supplemental source of at least 600 IUs of vitamin D. Vegans can choose supplements of vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) which comes from plants.

Iodized salt remains the most reliable source of this mineral for everyone. (People who eat dairy foods get enough only because milk is contaminated from iodine-containing cleaning solutions.) It’s possible to get adequate iodine from either land or sea vegetables, but the amounts are so variable that it makes better sense to consume about ¼ teaspoon of iodized salt every day or an iodine supplement providing around 75 micrograms several times a week.

Meet needs for the essential omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid
Although only a handful of plant foods contain alpha-linolenic acid, it’s easy to meet needs. You can do so by eating 3 to 4 servings per day of any combination of the following: 1 teaspoon canola oil, walnut oil, or ground flaxseeds; ½ teaspoon hempseed oil; a few drops of flaxseed oil; 1 walnut half; 1 cup tofu or tempeh.

Consider a supplement of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids
The long-chain omega-3 fats—DHA and EPA—which are commonly associated with fish oils, are a complicated story. Technically, you can manufacture these in your body from alpha-linolenic acid. But the ideal conditions and diet for doing so haven’t been identified. It’s not clear that anyone actually needs these fats in their diet, but to be on the safe side—and especially if you suffer from depression or are at risk for heart disease—you might want to take a vegan supplement providing 200 to 300 milligrams of DHA (or DHA/EPA combined) a few times a week.

Choose healthy fats
Vegan diets are naturally low in saturated fat and free of cholesterol—a big advantage. It’s still a good idea to give some attention to choices regarding sources of fat. Nuts are high-fat foods with demonstrated health benefits, and they are also good sources of minerals like zinc. As long as you aren’t allergic to them, a serving or two of nuts every day is a great fit to healthy vegan eating. One-quarter cup of whole nuts or 2 tbsp nut butter equals a serving.  If you cook with added fat or use it in dressings, choose extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil since both are good sources of healthy monounsaturated fats.

Go for whole grains
There is no dietary requirement for grains, but eating 5 servings a day or so (1/2 cup whole grains, pasta or a slice of bread is a serving) is helpful for meeting iron and zinc requirements.  They are also good sources of protein and fiber. Include a serving or two of whole grain bread made with yeast in your diet since iron and zinc are especially well-absorbed from yeast-leavened foods.

That’s vegan nutrition in a nutshell. And while it’s wise to base your menus on whole (and gently-processed) plant foods, if you follow these guidelines and include healthy exercise in your routine, you’ll have room for a few discretionary calories from desserts, alcohol or snack foods, too.

***

Ginny, thank you, thank you!  This is such great information for new vegans and for vegetarians considering a vegan diet.

Readers, what are your thoughts? Please share your tips on how to eat a healthy, balanced vegan diet.

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  • http://twitter.com/keephealthstyle Laura Agar Wilson

    Excellent Post! This is so helpful for me as a new vegan, its certainly highlighted that I need to make sure I pay attention to Vit D and iodine :-)

    • http://www.jlgoesvegan.com JL goes Vegan

      I found the iodine information interesting, too. I try to include sea vegetables in my diet but certainly not on a daily basis!

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  • http://www.choosingraw.com Gena

    Great post! I love Ginny’s work; not only her nutrition info, which is invaluable, but her wonderful thought-provoking and hot topic posts, too.

  • Elizabeth @ RunWithSneakers

    Really great information. Thanks!

  • http://veggieburgher.blogspot.com/ Jennifer

    Great info! Nice to see confirmation that my diet is nutritionally complete because this is generally what I eat daily…except for the DHA supplement. I’m going to look into that. Thanks for the info!

  • Megan

    This is good information, but I struggle with taking all of that and turning into full on meal plans that I can follow. How about some sample menus?

    • http://www.jlgoesvegan.com JL goes Vegan

      Megan, I’ll share a typical day of food for me and let’s see how it stacks up to Ginny’s recommendations. Breakfast: green smoothie (nut milk, greens, fruit, flax seed, and, sometimes, protein powder; sometimes I also toss in uncooked rolled oats) Snack: green juice: usually 2 – 3 vegetables and 1 -2 fruits + ginger. Lunch: Massage kale salad with sprouted lentils and sprouted buckwheat with a nut-based dressing. Snacks (2-3 a day) fruits and veggies, sometimes with humus or nut butter. Dinner: Tofu, quinoa, baked sweet potato and green veggie OR beans in a sprouted tortilla wrap with kale and onion and a side of brown rice. Dessert: dark chocolate or fruit. Does this help? Anyone want to offer other sample menus?

  • Sayward

    This is such a great, straightforward primer. I love Ginny’s work and appreciate her honest approach. I’m bookmarking this to share!

    Thanks to both of you for helping get real, solid info out on the crazy Internets. ;-)

  • Vegnlinda

    I always love Ginny’s posts, but I’m even happier to discover your blog!

    • http://www.jlgoesvegan.com JL goes Vegan

      Thank you! I’m so glad you stopped by!

  • http://theradioactivegan.blogspot.com radioactivegan

    Thanks for a lot of great advice. I feel like I should print this out and post it on my fridge! This is probably the most actionable list I’ve seen so far.

  • http://www.theveganrd.com Ginny Messina

    Here is a typical day for me:

    Breakfast:
    Scrambled tofu with nutritional yeast and veggies cooked in olive oil
    Whole wheat toast or baked sweet potato
    Calcium-fortified orange juice

    Snack:
    Apple slices with hummus

    Lunch:
    Huge amount of salad greens and raw or blanched veggies with vinaigrette dressing
    Homemade veggie burger or ½ Field Roast or Tofurky sausage or lentil or black bean soup
    Low-sodium spicy V-8 juice

    Snack:
    Toast with peanut butter

    Dinner:
    Lots of steamed green veggies topped with cashew or peanut sauce
    Brown rice, sweet potatoes or quinoa
    Maybe some leftover beans from lunch
    Red wine

    I might sneak a sweet dessert in there somewhere, too, especially on the weekend :)

    • http://www.jlgoesvegan.com JL goes Vegan

      Oops, I should have stated the obvious…I enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner, as well! ;)

      Thank you for posting a sample menu, Ginny!

      • Megan

        Thanks, both!

  • http://healthygirlskitchen.blogspot.com Wendy (Healthy Girl’s Kitchen)

    Thank you for this very informative blog posting!

  • http://bittsblog.blogspot.com bitt

    Thank you for the tips. It always surprises me that vegans don’t want to take supplements, I finally convinced my husband after over a decade. Even other vegan nutritionists don’t push taking B-12 and vitamin D. I think it’s irresponsible.

    • http://www.jlgoesvegan.com JL goes Vegan

      Agreed! When I decided to go vegan I discussed it with my nutrition counselor and I started taking a Calcium/Vit D/Magnesium supplement and a weekly (3,000 mg) B-12 lozenge. During my last check-up with my GP my bloodwork results-from cholesterol to iron to Vit D and B’s-were excellent.

  • http://twitter.com/amyoh2 Amy Oh

    Great info from Ginny – I always appreciate reading her advice which seems very straightforward and grounded in reality. I also recently started entering in my food intake into a computer software program (I use http://caloriecount.about.com/). It has been very helpful to see where I am measuring up in terms of fats, calcium, and iron, and what I can tweak here and there that will make a difference. I always take B12 supplements.

  • http://twitter.com/therawproject Christine

    Wonderful post, very helpful! I need to check out her blog!

  • http://twitter.com/carrieonvegan Carrie

    Great post with important information. But, I’m concerned about acrylamides in peanut butter and other roasted nuts. Ginny, do you have thoughts on this issue?

    • Ginny Messina

      Carrie, the risks associated with eating roasted nuts and other foods that produce acrylamide have been really overstated. I tend to cook with raw nuts, but I eat peanut butter nearly every day and I don’t think twice about it!

      • Karen

        I’ve read some people don’t eat nuts because,other than walnuts,they have very bad omega-6 to omega-3 ratios. What do you think about this?

        • Ginny Messina

          I don’t worry about this too much. It’s the total ratio in your diet that matters, not the ratio in individual foods. And the real issue here is on getting the right ratio in order to maximize production of long chain omega-3 fats (DHA and EPA). But it’s not clear that strategies to get the right ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats works very well anyway. I do think it’s a good idea to emphasize monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados since they don’t affect the ratio. But overall, nuts have health benefits, so I think it’s fine and probably beneficial to include a few servings ever day.

      • http://twitter.com/carrieonvegan Carrie

        Thanks for your response Ginny. I respectfully disagree with your comment about the risks of acrylamides, especially when people are consuming foods with them on a daily basis. At best, we don’t know enough and should be cautious about overconsumption.

      • http://twitter.com/carrieonvegan Carrie

        Thanks for your response Ginny. I respectfully disagree with your comment about the risks of acrylamides, especially when people are consuming foods with them on a daily basis. At best, we don’t know enough and should be cautious about overconsumption.

  • http://www.vegangela.com Angela

    Great info here! You’re very right, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been vegetarian or vegan, we all need a reminder sometimes! One thing that I do is that if I know I’m going out for dinner and may not get a lot of protein at that meal, I try to eat a lot at home for my other meals… it’s not something I used to do, but I’ve increasingly been paying more attention to make sure I get all my protein and vegetables. Even as a vegan, it’s still rather easy to go a whole day and not make your veggie-quota!

  • http://www.love-life-project.com Stephanie

    Thank you for this! I’m (trying to be) vegan, and I’m planning on getting pregnant (if the universe cooperates). It’s good to have some solid nutritional information for all of the well-meaning people who are going to question my choices. Not to mention for myself, so that I can feel more secure in my lifestyle! Thanks!

    • http://www.jlgoesvegan.com JL goes Vegan

      I’m so glad Ginny’s post will help you on your journey! Good luck to you!

  • http://profiles.google.com/denarosko Dena Rosko

    I eat few grains, but follow the rest. Do you have any recommendations for low glycemic, non-wheat, low–refined grains? I’m concerned about sugar and allergy issues. Thanks!

    • Ginny Messina

      Dena, have you been diagnosed with specific allergies? Most people aren’t allergic to either wheat or gluten. But generally, any grain can be consumed in an unrefined state. Regarding glycemic index, the actual size of the grain particles matters a lot. So steel cut oats are better than rolled oats, for example, and cooked wheat berries are better than bread made from whole wheat flour. But, it’s really not necessary to worry too much about all of those details. It’s what you eat most of the time that really matters–so basing most of your diet on whole plant foods is important, but it’s okay to have a few refined foods, added fats and treats.

  • Jodu16

    Hello,
    I have been on a vegan, gluten free, dairy free diet for 8 months. I have experienced excessive hair loss and my thick hair has become limp and unhealthy. Can anyone help me with suggestions on what I’m missing in my diet and how to correct it quickly! I drink 3 16 oz glasses of green juice daily- 40 % fresh sunflower sprouts/30% each cucumber and celery. I eat some nuts, quinoi, lentils, salads daily.
    Thank you

    • Ginny Messina

      Jodu16, there are lots of potential reasons for hair loss that have nothing to do with diet–stress and thyroid function among them. But it can also be due to an iron deficiency. You might want to see a dermatologist and have an “allopecia blood panel” done to look for potential problems associated with hair loss.

      And I’m wondering why you are drinking all of that green juice? A little bit is fine, but it could be replacing more nutritious foods in your diet. Your diet sounds like it might also be a little low in protein.

      • Joyce

        Thank you, Ginny. I attended Hippocrates Health Institute when they were in CA last November. I continued w/ the 3 green drinks a day as we had then because I liked them and I felt good while drinking them. I have also thought I may be low on protein and am addressing that each day. I have one for my breakfast along w/ wheatgrass, one at 11 and one at 4-5. I do eat lunch and dinner. Lunch is usually guinoa or some leftover veggie dinner. Dinner is often sweet potato w/ other veggies and salad. Over the course of the winter I was making home made soups each week for dinner. I may have lost my way at dinner time w/ soup not having enough protein.
        I was told at Hippocrates that the green drink (sunflower sprouts, etc) had all the protein I’d need in the course of a day.
        I’m very interested in your comments and also if you have a weekly meal planner that’s available.
        Thank you for your time.

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  • Brandy Java Boley

    Pinning and commiting to memory. Thanks!

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