Not all vegan food is automatically healthy. You could eat a dozen delicious flavors of vegan ice cream for breakfast, a stack of pancakes doused in syrup for lunch, and a dinner of cakes, cookies, pies, and cheesecakes. It’s great that we can make or buy all of these wonderful vegan treats, but no one would think for a moment that they are healthy.
A healthy diet must include putting plants at the center of our meals, though this does not mean we have to sacrifice pleasure or flavor. And if we choose whole foods, legumes, nuts, fruits, spices, herbs, and some of the 20,000 edible plants that exist in the world, we can experience an incredible improvement in our health while enjoying some wonderful flavors.
Dr. Michael Greger is an internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health. He has devised a list of foods we should all aim to eat every day for optimal health. This is Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen.
The first question asked of vegans is often “where do you get your protein?” This is really surprising, because protein is in almost every single food we eat. Of course, some sources are better than others, but it is not difficult to reach the recommended daily intake as a vegan.
Some of the best sources include tofu, tempeh, meat alternatives made from soy or grain protein, lentils, chickpeas, black beans, baked beans, edamame, seeds, nuts and nut butters, quinoa, oats, rice, and grains. Even vegetables contain some protein!
A typical day’s food that exceeds protein requirement might be:
Oatmeal with a sprinkle of almonds or seeds – 12g
One hummus and falafel wrap with a three-bean salad – 24g
Veggie sausages with potatoes, peas and broccoli – 30g
Just as meat does not have the monopoly on protein, milk does not have the monopoly on calcium! Beans and greens tend to be calcium-rich, so eat plenty, including black beans, kidney beans, soybeans, kale, watercress, okra, and broccoli.
You’ll also find calcium in sweet potato, butternut squash, and tofu, and if you snack on dried figs and almonds, you’ll be getting a calcium hit again. Plant milks and yogurts are often fortified with it, too.
Vitamin D helps absorb calcium, and many people are low in this vital vitamin particularly in the winter months, irrespective of their diet. Get plenty of sunshine and look out for dairy-free spreads, breakfast cereals, and breads that are fortified with it. In the winter months, people in cooler climates may benefit from a Vitamin D supplement.
Although iron-deficiency anemia is not uncommon, research suggests that those who eat a plant-based diet are no more at risk than those who eat meat.
Start your day with a breakfast of oats or a cereal that is already fortified with it. Sprinkle some seeds and dried fruit on top, and you may just have reached your daily intake before you even leave the house!
Other foods to help boost your iron intake are: Edamame, lentils, chickpeas and beans, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, blackstrap molasses, watercress, kale, and other dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, sesame seeds, and dark chocolate.
Be sure to eat plenty of vitamin C to help you absorb the iron in your food and avoid drinking coffee or tea with your meal, as this can reduce absorption.
Our bodies are able to make almost all the fats we need for the proper functioning of our tissues, but there are two we must get from our food, and for this reason they are known as essential fatty acids.
Omega-6 can be found plentifully in leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains, and most vegetable oils. It is very easy to get sufficient omega-6 on a balanced vegan diet, but this fat competes with omega-3 for use in the body, so we need to make sure we are getting sufficient omega-3 every day.
The best sources are: Leafy green vegetables (Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach), walnuts, grapeseed oil, ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil, soybeans, and tofu. However, omega-3 is not available in sufficient quantities from plant-based food, so vegans must take it as a supplement. Look for a brand made with EPA and DHA from microalgae.
Iodine can be tricky to get right because having either too much or too little can cause thyroid problems. There are small amounts in nuts, bread, fruit, vegetables, and beans but the best plant sources are seaweed and iodized salt, though the amounts in seaweed can vary quite widely.
Brown seaweeds can contain a lot of iodine so eating them just once a week should be sufficient. Those who dislike seaweed or need to reduce salt intake should consider a supplement.
This is the one vitamin that is tricky to obtain on a vegan diet. It is present in animal products, but it isn’t made by the animals themselves but by the bacteria inside of them.
Vegans can get vitamin B12 by eating nutritional yeast (aka nooch), and breakfast cereals and plant-based milks that are fortified with it.
However, it is recommended that everyone on a vegan diet takes a supplement of this important vitamin to be sure they are getting a sufficient amount.
Of course, everyone is different, and some people have special nutritional requirements (e.g. pregnant women, athletes, those with chronic illnesses or nutrient absorption problems). For specific nutritional or health concerns you should speak to your physician or a registered nutritionist. You can find a directory of plant-based health professionals here: https://www.plantbaseddoctors.org/find.
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