A vegan diet contains only plants, such as vegetables, grains and fruits, and foods made from plants. Vegans don't eat foods of animal origin, including dairy products.
With good planning and an understanding of what the body needs, a vegan diet can be nutritionally complete and healthy.
You should be able to find most of the nutrients you need from natural sources, although supplements may be needed to ensure you get enough vitamins B12 and D.
During pregnancy, breastfeeding and weaning, women require sufficient vitamin B12 and D for their child to develop. See Vegetarian mums-to-be.
Children need plenty of energy for their growth and development. A diet that is high in fibre but low in fat may not provide them with sufficient calories.
"Very young children need concentrated sources of energy, so fat is an important source of calories," says registered dietitian Sandra Hood, a spokesperson for the Vegan Society. "Fat contains more calories per gram than other nutrients."
High energy foods include:
- nuts and seeds, and
- dried fruit.
Below, Sandra Hood explains which five nutrients need careful consideration when following a vegan diet.
Protein is essential for growth and development. Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Include at least one protein-rich food with each meal. To ensure you get a range of nutrients, vary the type of protein you eat.
The following are good sources of protein for vegans:
- Pulses: beans, peas and lentils.
- Soya products: soya milk, yogurt and cheese, and tofu.
- Products made from grains (cereals): breads, breakfast cereals, flour.
- Nuts and seeds.
Calcium and vitamin D Calcium
is needed for strong and healthy bones and teeth. Non-vegans get most of their calcium from dairy foods (milk, cheese and yogurt).
Good sources of calcium for vegans include:
- fortified soya milk,
- calcium-set tofu,
- sesame seeds and tahini,
- white bread (in the UK calcium is added to flour by law), and
- dried fruit such as raisins, prunes and dried apricots.
The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. Vegan sources of vitamin D are:
- exposure to summer sunshine,
- fortified breakfast cereals (with vitamin D added), and
- vitamin D supplements.
is essential for the production of red blood cells. A vegan diet can be high in iron although iron from plant-based food is less well absorbed than iron from meat.
Good sources of iron for vegans are:
- wholemeal bread and flour,
- breakfast cereals fortified with iron,
- dark green leafy vegetables (for example spinach),
- dried fruits such as apricots, prunes and figs,
- yeast extract (for example Marmite), and
- vegetable stock (for example Vecon).
It's easier to absorb iron from food if it's eaten with foods that contain vitamin C, so have some fruit or vegetables, or a glass of fruit juice with your meal.
The body needs vitamin B12 to maintain a healthy blood and nervous system. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in foods from animal sources. Sources for vegans are therefore limited and a vitamin B12 supplement may be needed.
Sources of vitamin B12 for vegans:
- breakfast cereals fortified with B12,
- soya milk fortified with B12, and
- yeast extract (for example Vecon, Vegemite or Marmite).
Diets of vegans and non-vegans contain similar amounts of zinc
, but because zinc from plant foods is less well absorbed by the body, vegans may be low in zinc.
Good sources of zinc for vegans include:
- yeast extract,
- nuts and seeds (for example pumpkin seeds), and
- wholegrain cereals.