How to be a vegan: nutrition in a balanced plant-based diet

6-min read • Find out what’s in a vegan diet, and how to stay healthy with one.

how to be vegan feature

This article is part of the Vegan Beacon, a series detailing the what, why and how of being a vegan.

In asking the question of what veganism is, we learned that it is an entire lifestyle. While vegans reject leather and animal performances,  the largest lifestyle change that comes with becoming one is in your diet.

The first concern many people have when they hear about a vegan diet is whether your body can get all the nutrition it needs without animal foods. While it’s certainly true that a well-planned plant-based diet can in fact be healthier than an omnivorous diet, conscious effort has to be taken to make sure that your nutrition is well taken care of.

Nutrition for vegans 101

For starters, the list below is by no means complete with all the vitamins and minerals that you’ll need (the ones excluded are usually not found lacking), but those listed are the ones that vegan diets tend to be deficient of (e.g. vitamin B12, omega-3, zinc) and also keystone ones that people have concerns about (protein, calcium).

Protein

Recommended dietary allowance (RDA): 60–70g per day

What is protein for?

  • building blocks of cell and tissue
  • muscle growth and repair
  • energy fuel

Where to get protein?

  • soy legumes — tofu (also known as beancurd), tempeh, soy bean (incl. soy milk), edamame
  • non-soy legumes — beans (red bean, green bean, kidney bean), peas (green pea, chickpea, black eyed pea), lentils, peanuts (incl. peanut butter)
  • grains — wholegrain rice (brown rice, red rice, black rice), wholewheat bread/pasta/noodles, oats (incl. oat milk), barley, millet
  • nuts — walnut, almond (incl. almond milk), cashew, macadamia
  • seeds — quinoa, sunflower seed, sesame seed, flaxseed, chia seed, pumpkin seed

Humans do not need to consume animal protein, even if you’re into physical fitness and performance. But, it’s also true that you should get your protein from a variety of (plant-based) sources, with emphasis on legumes in particular, to effectively combine the different amino acids that form protein.

Calcium

Recommended dietary allowance (RDA): 1,000mg per day

What is calcium for?

  • bone and teeth health
  • essential for muscle contraction, including heartbeats
  • enables blood to clot

Where to get calcium?

  • leafy greens — kale, bok choy, cabbage, broccoli, turnip greens, rocket
  • calcium-set tofu
  • fortified plant foods and milks (soy milk, almond milk, oat milk)

While calcium intake is essential, make sure to match it with vitamin D (sunlight and fortified foods) to maximise absorption.

Iron

Recommended dietary allowance (RDA): 8mg for males, 18mg for females per day

What is iron for?

  • formation of haemoglobin in red blood cells, which transport oxygen around the body

Where to get iron?

  • soy legumes — tofu (also known as beancurd), tempeh, soy bean (incl. soy milk), edamame
  • non-soy legumes — beans (red bean, green bean, kidney bean), peas (green pea, chickpea, black eyed pea), lentils, peanuts (incl. peanut butter)
  • grains — wholegrain rice (brown rice, red rice, black rice), wholewheat bread/pasta/noodles, oats (incl. oat milk), barley, millet
  • leafy greens — kale, bok choy, cabbage, broccoli, turnip greens, rocket

Pair iron intake with vitamin C (citrus fruit and juice, tomato, peppers) to maximise absorption. Also, avoid taking tea or coffee at the same time as your iron sources, as they inhibit iron absorption.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Recommended dietary allowance (RDA): 0.25–0.50g of combined EPA and DHA; 1.6g of ALA for males, 1.1g of ALA for females per day

What is omega-3 for?

  • brain development and health
  • preventing and managing heart disease
  • brain development in fetuses during pregnancy and in babies

Where to get omega-3?

  • walnuts
  • seeds — chia seed, ground flaxseed, hemp seed
  • algae-derived DHA/EPA supplement

There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, EPA and DHA.

The list above are good sources of ALA, the only truly essential omega-3 fatty acid. On the other hand, DHA and EPA aren’t considered essential parts of a diet, because our bodies can synthesise them from ALA. However, such conversions are inefficient, so depending on your intake of ALA and your biology, you may be advised to take small amounts of DHA/EPA supplements.

Vitamin B12

Recommended dietary allowance (RDA): 2.4mcg per day

What is vitamin B12 for?

  • nervous system health
  • formation of red blood cells
  • formation of DNA and RNA

Where to get vitamin B12?

  • fortified plant foods and milks (soy milk, almond milk, oat milk)
  • vitamin B12 supplement

Vitamin B12 is the only nutrient that cannot be naturally acquired by a vegan, as it’s produced by bacteria and found in soil. So pay careful attention that you’re getting enough from fortified foods and/or supplements, as vitamin B12 is absolutely vital in nutrition.

Note that vitamin B12 is best absorbed in small doses, so the less frequently you ingest vitamin B12, the more you need to take each time. To easily meet your requirement, you can take a vitamin B12 supplement of 1,000mcg twice a week.

Vitamin D

Recommended dietary allowance (RDA): 2.5mcg per day

What is vitamin D for?

  • enhances absorption of calcium
  • bone and teeth health

Where to get vitamin D?

  • Sunlight!
  • fortified plant foods and milks (soy milk, almond milk, oat milk)
  • vitamin D supplement

Vitamin D, along with vitamin B12, are the only essential nutrients that have no plant food sources. But thankfully, humans have evolved to synthesise vitamin D from sunlight.

Exposing large surfaces of your skin (like your face and arms) without sunscreen for 15–30 minutes a day is typically enough for your body to generate the required amount of vitamin D. Just note that darker skin requires more sun exposure.

If you’re not regularly getting enough sun, you’ll need to acquire vitamin D from fortified foods or supplements, like vitamin B12.

Zinc

Recommended dietary allowance (RDA): 8mg for males, 11mg for females per day

What is zinc for?

  • functioning of immune system
  • enhances healing of wounds
  • functioning of senses of taste and smell

Where to get zinc?

  • seeds — quinoa, sunflower seed, sesame seed, flaxseed, chia seed, pumpkin seed
  • grains — wholegrain rice (brown rice, red rice, black rice), wholewheat bread/pasta/noodles, oats (incl. oat milk), barley, millet
  • soy legumes — tofu (also known as beancurd), tempeh, soy bean (incl. soy milk), edamame
  • non-soy legumes — beans (red bean, green bean, kidney bean), peas (green pea, chickpea, black eyed pea), lentils, peanuts (incl. peanut butter)
  • nuts — walnut, almond (incl. almond milk), cashew, macadamia

Like iron, zinc has phytates that reduce absorption. Soaking, cooking, fermenting or sprouting can help to unlock zinc absorption. Just think about mixing chia seeds with your drinks, or eating fermented soy products or breads made with yeast or sourdough.

Iodine and selenium

Recommended dietary allowance (RDA): 150mcg of iodine; 55mcg of selenium per day

What are iodine and selenium for?

Iodine

  • production of thyroid hormones, which control metabolism and heart health
  • brain development in fetuses during pregnancy and in babies

Selenium

  • production of thyroid hormones, which control metabolism and heart health
  • enhances fertility in both men and women

Where to get iodine and selenium?

Iodine

  • iodised salt
  • sea algae — seaweed, kelp (kombu), wakame

Selenium

  • Brazil nuts
  • grains — wholegrain rice (brown rice, red rice, black rice), wholewheat bread/pasta/noodles, oats (incl. oat milk), barley, millet

We require iodine and selenium in very small amounts for thyroid health, but they’re nevertheless essential. Add iodised salt or seaweed to some of your weekly meals, and snack on brazil nuts—just 1–2 a day and you’re good to go.

The vegan plate

vegan plate
Graphic from “Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition” (2014) and “Becoming Vegan: Express Edition” (2013), by registered dieticians Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina

The vegan plate is a simple visualisation of the food types and their relative amounts that you should consume to meet your body’s nutritional needs in a vegan diet. The recommended intakes per day are:

  • 5 or more servings of vegetables (incl. min. 2 servings of calcium-rich greens)
  • 4 or more servings of fruits
  • 3 or more servings of legumes
  • 3 or more servings of grains (whole grains as much as possible)
  • 1 or more servings of nuts and seeds (particularly walnut, chia seed, flaxseed and brazil nut)
  • a daily vitamin B12 supplement of ≥25mcg (or semi-weekly vitamin B12 supplement of 1,000mcg)
  • 15–30min of sunlight, or a daily vitamin D supplement of ≥15mcg
  • 2 teaspoons of iodised salt, or a daily iodine supplement of 150mcg

vegan nutrition matrix

Eating guidelines

Besides keeping to the recommended serving sizes above, here are some additional tips for healthy eating:

  • Eat a rainbow-esque variety from each food group. Not only is it more nutritionally beneficial, it also enhances the multi-sensory experience of your meal.
  • Eat starchy carbohydrates at mealtimes, choosing wholegrain varieties whenever possible.
  • Pair your iron-rich foods with good sources of vitamin C—e.g. peppers, a drizzle or twist of lime or lemon, or citrus fruit juices—and avoid tea or coffee at the same time.
  • Drink 6–8 glasses of water per day, of which you can include 1–2 glasses of fortified plant milks.
  • Get your fat from healthy sources like avocados, nuts, nut butters, seeds and seed oils.
  • Limit food with added fat, sugar and salt.
  • Opt for whole foods over processed foods, but not obsessively. A little bit of gently processed foods can be good for you.

Switching to a vegan diet can be life-changing, both in the good and bad sense. If you find the switch intimidating, you always have the option of easing yourself in, or even settling at, alternative plant-based diets. As part of the Vegan Beacon series, we’ll next look at what different types of plant-based diets there are.