According to a November 2021 survey, more than 47% of Indian participants had switched to plant-based food products and diets due to their concerns regarding animal welfare in food production (1). While a 2021 research shows 39% of Indians identify themselves as vegetarians, many over the years have taken a step ahead toward veganism (2). And although this practice certainly has several benefits in different areas of life, it may dampen one's general nutrition intake, especially if you aren’t able to plan a balanced, nutrient-rich vegan diet (3).
This gap can be bridged with a little bit of awareness and conscious planning around what you eat. So get ready to jot down pointers as we introduce you to some of the most nutritional foods for vegans.
One of the healthiest foods for vegans is legumes. Rich in protein and iron, peas, lentils, and beans can add immense value to a vegan diet. A cup of cooked legumes/pulses provides around 15g of protein (4). Research indicates that with proper planning, one can increase the intake of nutrients such as fibre, protein, B-vitamins, and iron from these plant-based foods (5). Examples of legumes include soybeans, lentils, white beans, split peas, pinto beans, and kidney beans.
To ensure you get the most out of these plant-based nutritious foods, try soaking or fermenting them before consumption (6). Preparing soups with legumes or adding beans to your salads can be an easy way to ensure these protein giants have a place in your daily diet.
Chia, Flax, and Hemp Seeds
These tiny seeds are considered superfoods and are highly nutritious. They are an affordable and rich source of fish-free omega-3 fatty acids, which enhance your immune function as well as brain function.
Chia seeds are high in antioxidants but what truly makes them so special is their high omega-3 fat (ALA) and fibre content (7,8). In merely two tablespoons of chia seeds resides 8g of fibre which is amazing (9). Chia seeds are also credited to be effective in managing diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure), among others.
Another great source of omega-3 fat ALA for vegans is flax seeds (10). Studies show that consuming flax seeds daily may reduce the risk of breast cancer in women (11). This is due to the high omega-3 fatty acid and phytoestrogen content (lignan) in flaxseeds which is attributed to a reduced risk of breast cancer as well as less aggressive tumours (11, 12, 13).
Add them to your salad dressing, smoothies, or yoghurt to include them in your diet. A pro tip, roasting flax seeds brings out their flavour and texture.
Coming to hemp seeds, while they may be lower in fibre than flax and chia seeds, they have the most protein content among the three. They are also a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have beneficial effects on our cardiovascular health and are present in very low amounts in general plant-based diets (14).
Pseudocereals (Quinoa, Amaranth, and Buckwheat)
In case you were wondering what pseudocereals are, these are plants with seeds and fruits that can be consumed as grains. However, pseudocereals are botanically neither grass nor true cereal grains. Foods like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat are all known representatives of pseudocereals.
They are also reliable sources of starch, fibre, protein, minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals (chemical compounds prepared by plants to ward off harmful fungi or bacteria). Phytochemicals are believed to have anti-cancer properties (15).
In addition to this, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat are all gluten-free. Rich in protein, these foods bring lots of nutritional value to your diet while also serving as substitutes for wheat and rice (16).
They say a handful of nuts a day gives you the required dose of good fats. With just 28g of nuts, you can find up to 12g of protein content. Rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, zinc, phosphorus, and various vitamins like vitamin A, D, B6, K1, and E, eating dry fruits has many health benefits. The best part? They are very easily available everywhere.
Nuts are also rich sources of dietary fibre as well as healthy fats such as omega-3 fats and MUFAs (17).
Nutrients in nuts are known to reduce cholesterol levels, are beneficial in fighting type-2 diabetes, play a role in supporting our immune system, skin, and hair, and help improve your overall heart health (18).
Tofu & Other Meat Substitutes
Among several nutritious foods for vegans, foods like tofu and tempeh stand out. Why? Because besides being healthy and high in protein, they can easily be incorporated into any dish. With protein content ranging between 9-20 grams/100g, tofu and tempeh are blessed with essential amino acids (19, 20). Combined, they are good sources of iron, calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin B3. They are both healthy vegan alternatives; tempeh has an upper hand though, because the fermentation process reduces the antinutrients present in soybeans, making it more bioavailable. Both these foods are also attributed as being effective in reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases (21).
Miso and Natto
Speaking of delicious fermented foods, how could we not include fermented Japanese foods, miso, and natto? Like all soy-based foods, miso and natto are high in protein and fibre. They are known to reduce cholesterol and also improve gut health among other health benefits (22, 23).
Natto and miso are extremely nutritious, and fermentation makes these nutrients easier for us to absorb. Moreover, natto is also high in calcium, which makes it great for our bones, and it is one of the rare plant-based sources of vitamin K2, which activates the bone-building process.
Having said that, miso has high-salt content so we should keep that in mind while choosing portions, as high salt intake may have its own downsides.
Foods Rich in Choline
In 1998, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recognised choline as an essential nutrient for humans (24). Choline has a complex role to play in our body’s biological processes, and it is considered integral for the proper functioning of the brain and the liver. Lack of choline in the human body may have an impact on diseases such as liver disease, atherosclerosis, and neurological disorders (25).
Foods rich in choline are tofu, broccoli, peanut butter, beans, mushrooms, and quinoa - they are great additions to a vegan diet in general as well.
Pro tip: sprouting and fermenting plant-based foods
Plant-based foods are usually rich in nutrients but often the antinutrients in these foods can affect the body’s ability to efficiently absorb the good nutrients. Sprouting and fermenting can aid in reducing the antinutrients in these nutritional foods (26, 27).
Sprouting plant-based foods such as grains can help increase the fibre content in these foods, while fermented foods are attributed to positively impacting gut microbiota and improving digestion (28). You can easily sprout most foods at home.
Some of the nutritious and fermented options are kombucha, yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, and pickles. Indian drink kanji is a great example of a healthy fermented drink as well.
While following a vegan lifestyle may have limitations to what one can eat, over the years many plant-based versions of animal-based products have been created. These innovations allow vegans to enjoy the taste and texture of animal-based products without compromising on their diet.
Egg, meat, and dairy analogs are great examples of the same. In case you are wondering how vegan meat alternatives are made and how healthy it is to consume, we at Nutrova, have put together an entire guide for you to browse through.
Being a vegan may come with the concern of missing out on an ideal nutritional diet. However, with proper planning and a little bit of awareness, you may be able to bridge the gap.