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5 foods essential for a healthy vegan diet

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Smiling woman in a vegan food truck

A vegan, vegetarian or plant-based diet can be healthy and nutritious if planned properly.  Dietitian Catherine Saxelby shares five essential foods to include to help you meet your nutrient requirements.

Have you thought about going vegan? The number of people eating a vegan diet has been significantly on the increase over the past six years and motivations span from animal rights and environmental emissions to health and weight loss.

Two recent studies found those on a vegan diet lost more weight in the short term (2.5kg more than their non-vego counterparts) and at a six-month follow-up, thanks to the diet’s ample fibre.

Here are five vital foods to include when on a vegan diet:

1 Chia seeds

Loaded with the plant form of omega-3, these oilseeds from Central America are important for brain and eye development. They’re also a good source of protein, calcium and soluble fibre — which makes them a nutritional powerhouse.

But you’ll need to grind or soak them to access these nutrients.

Blitz a tablespoon of seeds into your smoothie — or make a chia pudding and top with fruit for breakfast or dessert.

2 Fortified soy milk

Soy milk is a good source of everyday plant protein, but to ensure you don’t miss out on valuable nutrients, make sure you are buying it fortified with calcium and vitamin B12.

Vitamin B12 is the main at-risk nutrient for vegans because there are no reliable plant sources of its active form — in fact not even from mushrooms, unless you eat over 20 cups a day!

Your body needs B12 for healthy blood cells and nerves: a deficiency can result in a type of anaemia and nerve damage. If your B12 levels are low, your doctor might recommend a supplement.

3 Blueberries

Plant sources of iron are harder to absorb than animal sources, which is why some vegans can become iron-deficient and even experience anaemia or find themselves feeling tired.

Good news: adding vitamin C-rich blueberries to a meal increases the iron you absorb. You could also add lemon or lime juice, orange, mandarin, broccoli or tomatoes.

There’s even better news: blueberries’ red-blue pigments, known as anthocyanins, can boost memory and eyesight.

4 Tahini

Around four tablespoons of this Middle Eastern sesame seed paste has the calcium equivalent found in a standard glass of milk. It’s also rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats and protein — reason enough to include a jar of tahini as a standard item on your weekly shopping list.

Stir tahini through your morning porridge, spread it on bread or crackers, add it to dips (think of hummus), shake it into a salad dressing, or make your own ‘satay’ dipping or stir-fry sauce.

5 Tofu

This versatile Japanese soybean curd arrives laden with high-quality plant protein and zinc to boost your immune system and aid healing.

When the curd is set firm with calcium chloride, tofu is also a rich source of calcium, so be sure to choose a brand that lists it in the ingredients (keep a look-out for code 511).

Tofu tastes neutral in flavour and comes in a variety of textures, which makes it an incredibly versatile ingredient to cook with. Slice and dice firm tofu and add to soup or a stir-fry; scramble smooth and silky varieties as an alternative to eggs, or whip them into vegan ice cream.

The bottom line

It is 100 per cent possible to enjoy all of the health benefits of eating a balanced vegan diet, especially if you boost your daily intake with these five nutritious super-heroes.

This is especially important during pregnancy, when breastfeeding, or cooking for fussy eaters who may need support to meet their extra daily needs. If in doubt, speak with your doctor and ask for a referral to see an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

First published: May 2021

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