The vegan food plate: A simple guide to healthy vegan nutrition

The vegan food plate provides a simple guide to making healthy food choices, and corresponds to current scientific knowledge regarding the health effects of what we eat and drink. Endorsed by various nutrition societies and national governments, it is a more up-to-date version of the traditional food pyramid.

How the food plate differs from the nutrition pyramid

The food plate is a replacement for its predecessor, the well-known food pyramid, and was developed by nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health.1 Since June 2011, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been using a food plate instead of the previous pyramid model.2 The plate illustrates what proportion of each food group should be consumed per meal. The straightforward presentation in the form of a ‘healthy plate’ is intended to help consumers develop healthy eating habits with greater ease than with the previous model.

The following items belong on a healthy vegan food plate

Mainly vegetables and fruit with every meal – 1/2 of the vegan food plate

Fruit and vegetables are an important source of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fibre. When it comes to food choices, variety plays as important a role as quality, since no fruit or vegetable can provide all the necessary nutrients by itself. More vegetables than fruit should be consumed – of the recommended five servings per day, three should be in the form of vegetables and two in the form of fruit.3

Wholegrain foods – 1/4 of the vegan food plate

Wholegrain cereals such as oats, rye, spelt, wheat, barley, millet, and rice, along with pseudocereals such as quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat, provide complex carbohydrates, fibre, and phytochemicals. They also contain important vitamins (especially B vitamins) and minerals (for example, iron, zinc, magnesium). By contrast, refined cereals such as white flour and white rice lack important nutrients.4 In addition, they increase blood sugar and insulin levels faster, which can increase the risk of obesity and diabetes.5

Choose protein from plant sources – 1/4 of the vegan food plate

Among plant foods, the main sources of protein are pulses (lentils, peas, beans, and lupins) and cereals (rice, oats, millet, wheat, spelt, and rye), as well as soya products such as tofu and tempeh. Pseudocereals (amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa), nuts, almonds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, and chia seeds also contain particularly high proportions of protein.6 By combining various plant proteins – for example, cereals with pulses – the supply of all essential amino acids can be optimised. It is sufficient to eat protein from different sources throughout the day.7 8

Healthy vegetable oils in moderation

A plant-based diet can provide good sources of the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Linseed oil (also known as flax oil or flaxseed oil) has the highest content of omega-3 fatty acids. Other such foods include rapeseed, walnut, and hemp oil. Olive and rapeseed oil also have a good ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.9 Coconut oil, soya bean oil, and high-oleic frying oils are particularly suitable for frying. High-oleic oils are oils that are high in monosaturated fats (oleic acid), and include varieties of sunflower and thistle.10

A sufficient intake of water – 2-2.5 litres per day

The recommended amounts for total water intake include the moisture content of food and only apply in relation to moderate temperatures and moderate physical activity levels. You should preferably drink water, non-caffeinated unsweetened tea, and other non-alcoholic, low-calorie beverages such as juice spritzers. In high temperatures or if you exercise, the amount of water you need may increase.11

Other important nutrients on the vegan food plate

With every diet – whether vegetarian, vegan, or non-veggie – good planning is essential to avoid nutritional deficiencies. Optimal vegan nutrition is ensured by eating a balanced and varied diet without losing sight of critical nutrients. Nutritionists also recommend having a blood test done every year or two.

Vitamin B12

Those eating a vegan diet should ensure a proper supply of vitamin B12 by taking dietary supplements and/or using vitamin B12 toothpaste.

Calcium

In order to meet one’s calcium needs, one should deliberately consume calcium-rich plants (for example, dark green vegetables, citrus fruits, nuts, seeds, raisins, tofu), calcium-rich mineral waters, and calcium-fortified products (for example, plant milk).

Iodine

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about a third of the world’s population is affected by insufficient iodine intake. In Europe, as much as half of the population is affected.12 The body can receive an adequate supply of iodine by consuming algae or algae-based supplements such as spirulina. In order to ensure a sufficient supply of iodine, iodised salt can also be added to one’s diet. However, an overdose of iodine can cause health problems.

Iron

Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide.13Since the body cannot produce iron, it must be ingested in sufficient quantities through food.14 15 Iron deficiencies can usually be counteracted by maintaining a healthy and varied diet, and by regularly eating iron-rich foods such as sesame, red lentils, kidney beans, or tofu.

More tips for a healthy diet and lifestyle

  • Ready meals, sweets, and alcohol are not an obligatory part of a healthy food plate. They can, however, be enjoyed in moderation.
  • Choose natural, unprocessed foods, and buy local and organic whenever possible.
  • Ensure that you exercise regularly, engage in outdoor activities, and get plenty of sleep.

References

1.Harvard T. H. Chan: Healthy Eating Plate & Healthy Eating Pyramid, Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/ [05.03.2018]

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