This is how I imagine a balanced vegan food pyramid. Please feel free to let me know if you would add or change anything. A balanced nutrition is very important for our health as well as our well-being. Not only people who eat vegan should be on guard against nutrient deficiencies. Many diseases could be prevented and even healed with a better nutrition. Unfortunately, that is often overlooked and the symptoms are treated with medicines rather than actually fixing the cause in a natural and sustainable way.
Through a vegan diet you consume less hormones, less antibiotic (75% of all antibiotics prescribed in Germany are taken by animals. No wonder more and more people are developing resistance to antibiotics), less carcinogens, less LDL cholesterol and less saturated fats. This results in less heart problems, less cancer, less type 2 diabetes, less overweight, and better cholesterol level. Sources are at the end of the post.
It is possible to eat vegan and stay healthy if you eat balanced and supplement vitamin B12 (every other day) and vitamin D when the synthesis is reduced (e.g. weak sunlight, age and darker skin). Below you will find information and a list of foods which are good source for some of the macro (protein and fat) and micronutrients (minerals and vitamins) that most people worry about when going vegan such as protein, calcium, iron, omega 3 and B12. I used nutritiondata.self for the nutritional data.
Read here more about why vegan is healthy: Vegan (with sources).
Proteins (Amino Acids). 20 different amino acids (building blocks) are required to build human proteins. Nine of these are essential (cannot be made by the body). Legumes, oats, nut, seeds and even some vegetables provide all essential amino acids, but are low in one or more. The combination of grains (low in lysine but high in methionine, tryptophan, phenylalanine and valine) and legumes (low in methionine and tryptophan, but high in lysine and isoleucine) therefore represents a way to complete the amino acid pattern. If you eat enough and balanced, you get enough amino acids. It is not necessary to balance the amino acid profile in every meal (Young & Pellett, 1994). The benefits of eating proteins from plants are not getting any Cholesterol from the meat but also getting more valuable nutrition. For example beans contain more calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium than chicken meat.
- Daily requirement: There is a lot of mixed information about how much protein we actually need but in general, we don’t need as much as you might think. 0.55 – 0.8 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day seems to work for most people. More if you are very active and/or want to gain muscle or during growth phase, infants, children, and during pregnancy and lactation.
- Foods that contain a complete protein: goji berries, pseudo grains (Quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, chia seeds), millet, hempseed, soybean products (tofu, edamame, tempeh).
L-Tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is important for serotonin and therefore for our wellbeing. L-tryptophan is first converted into 5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5-HTP). 5-HTP is then converted into serotonin.
- Occurrence: nuts (e.g. walnuts, cashews), seeds (e.g. sesame, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds), grains (e.g. quinoa, millet, wheat germs), legumes (e.g. beans, organic/non-GMO soy beans), vegetables (e.g. potatoes, cauliflower), seaweed (e.g. spirulina).
Fats. Fats are an important and essential part of a balanced diet. Healthy unsaturated fat does not make you fat. It actually provides a natural feeling of satiety. Eating more fats helped many women to get back their period.
- Daily requirement: Maximum 30% of your energy demand. More when you are following a keto diet, if you are a child/baby or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Occurrence monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat: Seeds, nuts avocado, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, berries (e.g. raspberries), leafy greens (e.g. kale), vegetable oil (e.g. olive oil), wild rice, winter squash, and to a lesser extend mango, legumes, and olives.
Saturated and unsaturated fatty acids and their effect on Cholesterol
Fats can be categorized into saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Saturated fatty acids are found in animal products such as dairy products, meat, palm oil, and to a lesser extend in eggs. Saturated fats increase the LDL-cholesterol. Cholesterol is a blood fat. A distinction is made between HDL-cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol. Only the LDL-cholesterol is deposited on the walls of the blood vessels. It can lead to hardening of the arteries and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. The HDL-cholesterol, on the other hand, even has a favourable effect on the cholesterol level, since it collects the LDL-cholesterol in the bloodstream and transports it to the liver.
Omega 3. Omega 3 is an essential polyunsaturated fatty acid. There are three types of omega 3s in the diet: ALA (in plants) and DHA and EPA (in seaweed and fatty sea food). ALA converts in DHA and EPA in the body. It seems that the gender plays a role how efficient the conversion is. In women, 21% of ALA is converted into EPA and 9% of ALA into DHA. In men, 8% of ALA into EPA and 0-4% of ALA into DHA. I recommend supplementing if not eating bunch of seaweed. Fish don’t produce omega 3, instead they get it from the microalgae, plankton or other smaller fish they eat.
- Daily requirement: 2–19 years old: 1320 mg (females) and 1550 mg (males) ALA / over 20 years old: 1590 mg (females) and 2060 mg (males) ALA. For EPA and DHA: 250–500 mg. If you supplement (e.g. micro algae oil) don’t take it on an empty stomach.
ALA rich foods: Seeds (e.g. chia, flaxseed and to a lesser extent hemp, sesame, and pumpkin seeds), walnuts, avocado, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, berries (e.g. raspberries), leafy greens (e.g. kale), olive oil, wild rice, winter squash, mango, legumes (e.g. lentils), and olives.
Calcium. The calcium absorption of milk is about 30 %, while the corresponding numbers for broccoli, Brussels sprouts, turnips, kale and some other green leafy vegetables are between 40 and 64 %. Calcium is only properly absorbed into the bones with sufficient vitamin D. If the calcium content in the blood drops, the body uses the calcium storage in the bones to compensate for the deficit.
- Daily requirement: 500-700 mg.
- Occurrence: Leafy greens (e.g. Bok choy, collard, kale, turnip greens, broccoli, leek, okra, arugula, spinach), legumes (e.g. soybeans, tofu, white beans), nuts and seeds (e.g. almonds, sesame, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, poppy seed), fruits (e.g. fig, orange), whole wheat bread.
Potassium. Not a problem if eating enough vegetables (e.g. potatoes, spinach, okra), beans, lentils, mushrooms, fruits (e.g. bananas), avocados, whole grains and nuts (e.g. walnuts).
Magnesium. Not a problem if eating enough ancient grains (amaranth, millet, quinoa, buckwheat), nuts and seeds (e.g. almonds, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, sesame, poppy seed, flaxseed), legumes (e.g. white beans, chickpeas, peas, soybeans, lentils), cacao, fruits (e.g. bananas, raspberries, blackberries, kiwi, pineapple, apricots, dates), dried fruits (often more magnesium than fresh ones), avocado, and vegetables (e.g. spinach, broccoli, kohlrabies, okra).
Iron (Trace Element) ⇒ Be aware
Young women with heavy periods may have a tough time keeping up with iron needs. This is not a problem that is specific to vegans. There can be negative health consequences to taking in too much iron. Therefore, supplementation is only required if you have been diagnosed with deficiency. If so, take the supplement 30-60 minutes before eating. If you check your iron also check your ferritin (stores iron)
- Recommended: Eat together with vitamin C (e.g. orange juice, paprika) to boost absorption. There is some evidence that taking supplements of the amino acid L-lysine boosts absorption as well.
- Not recommended: Don’t consume caffeine (coffee or tea, or chocolate) with your main meals as that can hinder the absorption of iron.
- Occurrence: dried apricots, amaranth, millet, cacao, goji berries, seaweed, sourdough bread, white beans, soybeans, Black-eyed peas, lentils, parsley, cinnamon, turmeric, yeast, nuts (e.g. pistachios, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds), black salsifies, spinach, and okra.
Iodine / Iod (Trace Element). Iodine can be found in sea weed, kelp, and hijiki. However those are not reliable sources of iodine. The recommendation for iodine intake as a vegan is to eat 0.25 to 0.5 TSP iodized salt daily.
Zinc (Trace Element) ⇒ Be aware
Zinc from plant foods is less well absorbed by the body than from animal foods. This is mainly due to phytic acid in plant foods, which binds the zinc and thus reduces its availability. By soaking, germinating, fermenting or sour-sourcing cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds, the phytic acid content is reduced, thus improving zinc absorption.
- Daily requirement: 7 mg (women) / 10 mg (men) / 11 mg (pregnancy & breastfeeding).
- Recommended: The simultaneous intake of protein and citric acid (Vitamin C) improves zinc absorption.
- Not recommended: Tannins (tea, coffee) inhibit zinc absorption. Therefore, this drink should be consumed at least at an interval of one hour of zinc-containing meals.
- Deficiency symptoms: growth inhibition, reduced wound healing, lack of appetite resp. restriction of the sense of smell and taste, skin and cornea changes, impaired vision, disturbed glucose tolerance, frequent colds and slow recovery from illness, reproductive disorders (testosterone deficiency).
- Occurrence: Whole cereals, seeds, nuts, yeast and to a lesser extent legumes.
Selenium (Trace Element) ⇒ Be aware
Even though we only need a tiny amount of selenium it is very important for our health. Two Brazil nuts (180 mcg) a day cover the selenium recommendation. Soak them for six hours, rinse them, and let them dry in the sun to reduce the amount of anti-nutrients. Tofu (100 g: 13 mcg), bread, flaxseed (1 TBSP: 1.8 mcg), and sesame (1 TBSP: 0.5 mcg) don’t contain enough. It is recommended to supplement if you don’t eat Brazil nuts.
- Daily requirement: 55 mcg / day for adults, 60 mcg / day for a pregnant woman and 70 mcg / day while breastfeeding.
- Overdose: Intake of more than 0.6 mg daily over a longer period of time can lead to acute poisoning with selenium.
Folate (Vitamin B₉) ⇒ Be aware
Folate is one of the most important vitamins to make sure you are getting enough of, especially if you are pregnant or have plans to get pregnant as it reduces the risk of neural defects such as spina bifida. If you eat a variation of the foods below every day you easily get enough. 100 g beans (around 150 mcg), broccoli (108 mcg) and beets (109 mcg) contain the most folate and one orange contains 39 mcg.
- Daily requirement: 300-400 mcg / day and 400-800 mcg / day for a pregnant woman.
- Occurrence: beans (lentils, chickpeas, black beans, soy beans, peas, peanuts), broccoli, cabbage, okra, beets, cauliflower, leek, yeast, fruits (e.g. avocado, orange, mango), nut and seeds (sunflower seeds, sesame, hazelnuts), quinoa, and leafy greens (e.g. spinach). Tomatoes, flaxseed, walnuts also contain useful amounts of folate.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) ⇒ Be aware
Through a well-balanced diet you can get all the vitamins and minerals you need except for B12 vitamin. You can get small amounts of B12 through fortified products, unwashed organic mushrooms, seaweed (e.g. nori, spirulina, chlorella powder). However, the absorption rate of them is unclear and it is not a reliable source of B12. Animals don’t produce B12. It is synthesized by bacteria found in dirt and soil and animals get B12 either from fortified food or from grass and soil where the bacteria are found. In the past humans got their B12 by eating soil-grown vegetables and roots that had dirt on them for thousands of years. Today the soil is so depleted that it is no longer an adequate source of B12. EVERYONE over the age of 50 should use a B12 supplements due to impaired B12 absorption that occurs with aging. Vitamin B12 is a key nutrient needed for red blood formation, neurological function and DNA synthesis.
- Daily requirement: 3 mcg (cyanocobalamin). Take it half an hour before your first meal.
- Deficiency symptoms: Deficiency can lead to damage of the nervous system as well as dizziness, blurred vision, confusion, hallucinations, extreme tiredness, and personality changes. Because B12 is stored in the liver it can take up to 5 years for symptoms of deficiency to show. The damage is irreversible.
Niacin (Vitamin B3). Not a problem if eating enough broccoli, tomatoes, dates, mushrooms, asparagus, Swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, sweet potatoes, carrots, okra, almonds, avocado, and spinach. Large supplemental doses can cause various side effects, including nausea, vomiting and liver toxicity. There’s no danger in consuming niacin in the amounts found in food.
Vitamin A (fat-soluble). Not a problem if eating enough carrots, sweet potatoes, squash (e.g. butternut), spinach, collards, kale, sunflower seeds, goji berries, peas, and rock melon. Excess vitamin A is toxic. This can occur if you consume too many supplements. The advantage of dietary beta carotene is that the body only converts as much as it needs.
Vitamin D (fat-soluble). Only a small amount can be absorbed with food (e.g. mushrooms). It is largely produced in the skin with the help of ultraviolet beta rays. 15 minutes direct sunlight (not behind a window) per day on your face and hands are enough. Solarium light consists mainly of ultraviolet alpha rays which does not support the vitamin D synthesis. Smog, clouds, sunscreen, darker skin, age and weak sunlight (northern latitudes in winter) reduce vitamin D synthesis. It is recommended to supplement then. Even for omnivores!
Vitamin E (fat-soluble). Not a problem if eating enough nuts and seed (e.g. sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds), peanuts, spinach, broccoli, kiwi, mango, and tomatoes.
Vitamin K (fat-soluble). Not a problem if eating enough leafy greens, cabbage, sauerkraut, olive oil, champignons, strawberries, Brussel sprout, chives, asparagus, and potatoes.
Vitamin C (sensitive to heat, light and oxygen). Not a problem if eating enough citrus fruits (e.g. lemon; not the one in the plastic bottle (E 300), orange, grapefruit), Strawberries, bananas, goji berries, okra, leafy greens, peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, kiwi, sea buckthorn, broccoli. We need around 1000 mg per day. Our body cannot store more than 200 mg. That’s why repeat. Since it has a stimulating effect some people cannot sleep if taking in the evening.
- Nutrition data. Retrieved February 2020 from: https://nutritiondata.self.com/.
- Amino Acids / Aminosäuren. Retrieved February 2020 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8172124.
- Calcium. Retrieved February 2020 from: https://www.vrg.org/nutrition/calcium.php.
- Niacin. Retrieved February 2020 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK114304/.
- Zinc. Retrieved February 2020 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10801947.
- Essential fatty acids. Retrieved February 2020 from: https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3138/2 and https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids.
- Lauric acid. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC444260/.
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