- RECIPES BY COURSE
- RECIPES BY DIET
- RECIPES BY SEASON
by Holly Kalyn, Editorial Intern for Compassionate Cuisine
Whether you’re a seasoned vegan looking to step up your health game or you’re just flirting with the idea of going vegan, it’s really never the wrong time to understand how to bite into a healthy vegan lifestyle and nourish yourself from the inside out.
Instead of loading up your shopping cart with boxes from the frozen aisle, or making meat or chicken the centerpiece of your plate, try steering yourself to the produce and bulk sections of the store. Believe it or not, a vegan diet filled with whole foods is affordable and easy to maintain. It’s also the perfect way to introduce a balance of nutrients into your diet that will keep you high on energy and feeling your best. Getting started requires only a small shift in thought and planning. Once you learn the food group basics, you’ll probably even find that you already have most of the items in your fridge and pantry and that the combinations are limitless and infinitely flexible! Read more about how to stock a healthy vegan pantry.
To get started on your path towards a healthy, vegan lifestyle, it helps to understand how to create balanced meals. The Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) updated the USDA’s ChooseMyPlate tool, which many of us learned about in school years ago. The graphic image divides up a plate into the proportions of food groups recommended to maintain a well-balanced diet. Print out MyVeganPlate to post on your fridge to remind you how to maintain balance in your meal planning, and get started now by learning about the important plant-based food groups.
Whole grains, being complex carbohydrates, deliver lots of fiber and provide us the energy we need to function throughout the day. Notably different from refined grains, which are more heavily processed and stripped of many of their health benefits, whole grains retain their entire composition of bran, germ, and endosperm and are recommended to make up at least half of our total grain intake. Whole grains include many varieties such as oats, brown rice, and barley. In recent years, you may have even heard the term ancient grains in passing. This refers to grains such as quinoa, teff, and amaranth, cultivated since early civilization in various parts of the world and known to have an impressive profile of nutrients and antioxidants. Try our gluten-free Tabbouleh, made with quinoa, Cashew Fried Rice using brown rice and quinoa, or Lentil, Amaranth & Walnut Portobellos.
An essential component of the vegan diet, whole grains are a very useful pantry staple to have on hand. Not only are they easily transformed into anything from patties to risotto to grain-and-nut-loaf, but in a pinch, they’re also incredibly easy to measure out, simmer, and use as a base for any meal.
Whole Grains: amaranth, barley, bulgur (cracked wheat), farro, freekeh, kamut, kaniwa, quinoa, millet, oats, spelt, brown rice, teff, and wild rice.
An important building block of muscles, bones, and even skin, protein is involved in a large portion of the body’s structure. Also interesting is that, despite protein’s central role in the body, we don’t necessarily need to consume massive amounts of it. In fact according to the VRG, diets too high in protein may actually cause kidney disease and osteoporosis. Contingent with age, sex, and physical activity, daily protein requirements do vary, so it’s best to figure out your individual needs. (To determine your recommended protein serving in ounces, see the USDA’s chart).
With so many protein-rich plant-based food sources available, daily requirements are easily met eating a vegan diet. One of the highest-protein vegan food sources is tempeh, a soy product made with whole, lightly fermented soybeans, and packs about 15.5 grams of protein per ½ cup serving. Try recipes like Tempeh Piccata, or Tempeh and Peppers. Seitan, made from cooked wheat-gluten, is another high-protein vegan food source delivering a whopping 21 grams of protein in just one 3-ounce serving. Try it to make “meatless meatballs”, General Tso’s Seitan or Jamaican Jerk Seitan Kebabs. You may also be surprised to know that and many vegetables also contain protein. For example, one cup of cooked broccoli contains about 4 grams of protein and one cup of cooked spinach holds 5 grams of protein. Oh, and you can forget about the myth regarding the need to eat complete proteins at every meal. Scientists have debunked it, recognizing now, that your body can store amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein so that it can make complete proteins over the course of 24-48 hours.
Vegan proteins: soy (tempeh, edamame, tofu, textured vegetable protein (TVP), seitan/wheat gluten, lentils, black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, hempseed, chia, Ezekial bread, quinoa, select varieties of veggie burgers, sunflower seeds, nuts, and nut butters. Some sources are much healthier than others, so try to choose whole foods, or foods in their most natural state with all their edible parts, when possible.
Fruits and Vegetables
Across the spectrum of fruit and vegetables exists an extensive range of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. And although there are many synthetic, pill-form vitamins on the market, experts still recommend getting our vitamins through the food we eat.
According to the USDA, adult women need 2-2/12 cups of vegetables and 1 ½ -2 cups of fruit per day. The same source estimates that adult men, on average, need 2 ½ -3 cups of vegetables and about 2 cups of fruit a day. Adding to each meal a different whole fruit and a different vegetable from one of the 5 subgroups (dark-green vegetables, starchy vegetables, red and orange vegetables, beans and peas, other vegetables) is a great way to increase the variety of nutrients we put into our bodies. It’s no coincidence that fruit and vegetable groups encompass the highest number of superfoods. Eating what’s in season and available locally is the best way to make sure you’re getting the freshest possible produce. Try eating fruits and veggies raw, steamed, sautéed, baked, and roasted. Avoid boiling fruits and vegetables as it strips much of their usable nutrients.
Fruits: lemon, apples, avocados (yes, these are technically a fruit), bananas, grapefruit, blueberries, cantaloupe, cherries, grapes, blackberries, kiwi, oranges, pomegranate, strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, pineapple, pears, acai berries, and peaches.
Vegetables: mushrooms, cucumbers, red and green cabbage, kale, asparagus, beets, eggplant, peas, carrots, radishes, broccoli, broccoli rabe, radicchio, pumpkin, tomatoes, squash of all kinds, turnip greens, Swiss chard, spinach, sweet potato, russet potato, mustard greens, onions, garlic, bok choy, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
Both the fruit and vegetable family extend way beyond what’s been listed. Eat the healthiest ones, as well as your favorites! Check out our Eat the Rainbow guide to colorful foods to learn about each color and its respective health benefits.
Like protein, calcium serves as an integral part of our bone structure, helps to maintain bone mass, and supports other nerve functions in our body. While dairy is often thought to be the only source of calcium, this mineral actually exists in many plant-based foods, some which are enriched and others which have intrinsic sources. According to the CDC, the RDA for calcium for adults between the ages of 18-70 is anywhere from 1000-1300 mg.
Vegan Calcium Sources: Calcium-fortified plant milk, juices, and tofu (check the labels), soybeans, blackstrap molasses, cooked collard greens, soy yogurt, cooked turnip greens, tempeh, cooked kale, cooked bok choy, cooked mustard greens, cooked okra, sea vegetables, and tahini.
With an understanding of both the basic infrastructure of a vegan diet and the abounding nutrients in plant-based foods, you can approach your healthy, vegan diet with confidence and intention. To further round out your knowledge on vegan nutrition, explore our other guides to Eating the Rainbow and Vegan Vitamins and learn how to optimize every area of your diet and lifestyle. With the right shopping list, your home will be filled with the healthful foods that your body needs most. And with a little prepping ahead, like meal planning, vegan meals can be both time-efficient and cost-effective.