Trying to follow a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet? Thinking of going plant-based? Whatever diet you're following, it's important to remember 'variety' is at least as important as 'healthy', and to include certain foods that are rich in key nutrients you may otherwise lack.
Our expert nutritionists explain the best foods to reach for if you're following a plant-based or vegan diet.
6 best foods for vegans
Hummus is a vegan’s best friend. Just half a cup of hummus contains 2.3mg of Zinc, a mineral that is absolutely essential for a proper functioning immune system, and is involved in over 300 enzyme reactions in the body. A deficiency in Zinc can result in hair loss, dermatitis (irritation of the skin), weight loss, delayed wound healing, and a lack of memory, concentration and focus.
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The NRV (nutrient reference value) for Zinc is 11mg daily for men and 8mg daily for women, so with 2.3mg, a half cup of hummus is providing a good chunk of that. However, most health experts agree that Zinc requirements of those following a veggie diet should go up by 50%. This is due to phytates, a compound found in legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds which bind to Zinc in the digestive system and prevent absorption.
Unfortunately there is no single plant food that is exceptionally high in Zinc, so vegans must ensure they eat a wide variety of wholefoods to meet their needs.
Try this fabulous Beetroot Hummus recipe.
It is true that tofu is the king of soya foods in the veggie protein world. However, tofu is slightly more processed than its soya cousin, tempeh, which is actually made from the whole bean. This means tempeh offers up more hefty amounts of nutrients, including protein, fibre, minerals and antioxidants. Learn more about tempeh in 'Best protein sources on a plant-based diet'.
In addition, unlike tofu, tempeh is fermented and provides tons of digestive enzymes which means it’s much easier to digest and better for your gut health. You can learn more about digestive enzymes in 'How to look after your gut through your diet'.
Tempeh has a nice chewiness to it – and like tofu, it takes up whatever flavour that surrounds it. The key to enjoying tempeh is to get creative in the kitchen and experiment with various marinades. Tempeh is a nutritional heavyweight and you can add it to sandwiches, stir-fries, curries and salads, or this fabulous 'Miso glazed aubergine, mushroom and tofu bowl' - just swap tofu for tempeh.
Tahini (aka sesame butter) is incredibly good for you. It is a thick nutty-tasting paste containing more protein and calcium than cow’s milk, and is loaded with other essential minerals such as magnesium and iron, earning it a permanent place in the plant-based and vegan larder.
Tahini has an intense nutty taste but is also extremely versatile. Try mixing a dessert spoon with water, lemon juice and a touch of garlic for a lip-smacking dressing for salads, veggies and falafels. Garlic is also one of our top 6 plant-based foods to support your immune system.
4. Ground flaxseeds
Flaxseeds provide the highly anti-inflammatory and healthy Omega 3 fats, which is an extremely important nutrient for vegans. Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for the proper functioning of every system in the body, particularly the nervous system and brain, hormonal system, the heart and for maintaining healthy and glowing skin. Learn more in 'What is Omega 3 good for'.
Unfortunately however, studies show that vegans tend to have lower blood levels of these healthy fats than those who eat oily fish, which may cause health problems in the long run. Therefore, those on a plant-based diet and vegans should be sure to include ground flaxseeds daily, sprinkled onto porridge, in smoothies or in baked goods.
5. Nutritional Yeast
Despite it’s rather unappealing name and appearance (it can resemble fish food), nutritional yeast should not be underestimated as a delicious seasoning for foods. It can have a similar strong taste as cheese, so it’s great for newbie vegans who miss that bold flavour that cheese can offer.
It is also a powerhouse of nutrition. Just one heaped tablespoon of nutritional yeast contains well over a couple of days’ worth of B Vitamins, including the ever-elusive nutrient in vegan diets, Vitamin B12.
Learn more in '5 signs you may be low in Vitamin B12'.
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Nutritional yeast also packs a decent amount of fibre and protein into a pretty small, low-calorie package. To really get your faux-cheese on, sprinkle nutritional yeast on roasted veggies, pasta, pesto and pizza – or use it to make delicious cheesy sauces. Oh, and it’s also delicious sprinkled on popcorn! In short, nutritional yeast = game changer.
6. Green Leafy Vegetables
It goes without saying, leafy greens are essential. In particular, cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts, are powerhouses of nutrition!
They’re rich in Vitamin C, Vitamin K and the minerals Iron and Calcium, fibre and folate. They also contain lots of carotenoids, antioxidants and phytochemicals (plant-based nutrients) which are good for our immune system and help protect us from disease.
A diet rich in leafy greens lowers risk of obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease. They’re easy to add to your smoothies but also try gently frying cauliflower and mixing it with pasta in a white sauce, using Kale as a base for your salads, and rather than boiling your Brussels sprouts try roasting them – delicious!
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By Rose Glover, RoseGlover Nutrition