Being vegan doesn’t necessarily equate with eating a healthy diet. A vegan diet can be just as unhealthy as one full of fried foods, processed meats and bland beige foods. Chips, meat substitutes with questionable artificial ingredients and sugar-laden granolas; they’re all vegan but they’re not healthy.
Compare this with a diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds and we can see where we need to be for the ultimate, cruelty-free, healthy vegan diet. But aside from these staples, what else can we add to our diets as vegans, to enhance, spice up, nourish and treat?
Here’s our top five foods every health-conscious vegan should eat:
These little flakes of goodness should be a staple in every vegan’s food cupboard. Ok, they’re officially beige but they’re far from bland. Nutritional yeast is often called ‘noosh’ and is different from the yeast used in brewing or baking, it doesn’t fizz up when heated, and it tastes divine. Think creamy, think slightly salty, and most importantly, think cheesy. It’ll add a cheesiness to all kinds of sauces and dishes. Try sprinkling it on meals at the table too, just as a non-vegan would with parmesan cheese.
Nutritional yeast is a source of complete protein, essential for energy and muscle growth and repair. It’s also packed with B vitamins including B1 for a healthy nervous system. High levels of B2 and B3 also help a healthy nervous system and keep skin and eyes healthy. B6 and folate help in the formation of healthy red blood cells. The B vitamins also help to release energy from foods to keep us fuelled throughout the day. Nutritional yeast also contains selenium and zinc which keep our immune systems healthy and our inflammatory responses normal.
Many brands of nutritional yeast also fortify it with vitamin B12, which is an essential nutrient for vegans to include in their diet. Make sure you look out for this added extra. Vitamin B12 is essential for the production of red blood cells and for releasing energy from our food. A deficiency can lead to extreme tiredness caused by anaemia.
Spirulina is a form of freshwater blue-green algae absolutely packed with nutrients. So much so, it’s been hailed as a food of the future. It has more protein (60-70%) than any other plant-based food which means it keeps hunger at bay, balances blood sugar and is super energising.
This plant-based protein is easier to break down than animal protein, meaning its more ’bioavailable’. Spirulina is also full of:
- B vitamins for energy
- Iron which is essential for red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body
- Calcium for healthy bones and teeth
- Magnesium for protein building, healthy nerve function and normal blood sugar levels
- Vitamin E which is an antioxidant and is essential for healthy skin and eyes
- Selenium and zinc for a healthy immune system.
It contains all the essential amino acids we need to build proteins, and omega fatty acids for a healthy brain and heart. It’s also high in plant carotenoids which give it its amazingly deep bluey-green colour.
Due to its nutritional profile, it can easily become your daily multivitamin. It has a slightly sea-like taste and can take some getting used to, but a teaspoon added to a smoothie each morning is a great way of incorporating it into your diet.
Spirulina has been the subject of many scientific studies and has been linked with exciting, positive outcomes. A study in 2015 showed that spirulina can lower cholesterol and help suppress viral infections. It also acts as an antioxidant by reducing oxidative stress which can lead to tissue damage, changes in DNA and diseases such as cancer. Studies into the effects of spirulina on cancer are ongoing.
Spirulina is consumed regularly in many impoverished parts of the world, as its easy and cheap to harvest and its nutritional profile is life-giving. You only need to see how much space we’ve dedicated to it here to see how beneficial to health it is. A true ‘superfood’ by name and nature.
Dairy Free Milks
Or mylks as they’re often known. Dairy free milks can be used exactly as cow’s milk would be by a non-vegan. Almond milk is perhaps the most popular but there’s a whole array from oat milk to rice milk, to hazelnut, cashew and coconut. You can make your own by soaking your chosen nut or grain in water overnight, then blending and straining through a muslin cloth or sieve. You can add medjool dates as a natural sweetener.
Or, there are many shop-bought versions to choose from that in our opinion are just as good. Non-dairy milks are full of nourishing good fats and omega fatty acids. Our body uses these good fats as an energy source and to keep our nervous system working as it should. They’re also essential to produce hormones that keep the body regulated. It’s essential that we get omega fatty acids from our diet as our body cannot make them. We need these for healthy brain and heart cells.
Shop bought versions of non-dairy milks can be low in the nut or grain and contain added sugars and salts so try to choose versions with the highest levels of nuts and grains and watch out for additives.
Another thing to watch out for is carrageenan, a thickening agent and fat substitute often added to nut milks. A Cornucopia report in 2013 linked carrageenan with certain inflammatory conditions. In particular, problems in the bowel, causing gastrointestinal side effects such as bloating, cramping and diarrhoea.
As with most foods, organic versions of dairy free milks are healthier. Organic ingredients haven’t been grown, harvested or processed using harsh pesticides and chemicals.
The backbone of every vegan meal doesn’t have to be pasta. Whole grains are intensely filling and nourishing and can complement any plant-based meal. Absolutely packed with vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein, they go with absolutely anything. Our favourites are oats, brown rice and quinoa. All three happen to be gluten free (although take care with oats if you’re gluten free as they’re often cross-contaminated with gluten during processing), and are a great source of energy.
Oats can be made into homemade granola, porridge, flapjacks and biscuits. They’re high in fibre which keeps sugar levels regulated and therefore make a great breakfast that will keep you fuller for longer.
Oats contain a form of soluble fibre called beta-glucan. This beta-glucan becomes thick and sticky in the gut which can bind to cholesterol and prevent it from being absorbed into the blood stream.
Brown rice is far superior to white rice which has been refined so much that it’s lost 60-80% of its nutrients by the time it reaches our plate. Brown rice is full of B vitamins for energy metabolism and healthy red blood cells. It’s also high in essential minerals such as iron for energy, magnesium for the nervous system and selenium for good immunity.
Quinoa is a fairly new, but popular cooking ingredient in our kitchens. Technically a seed rather than a grain, it’s a quicker alternative to brown rice, only taking around ten minutes to cook, as opposed to half an hour.
Unlike white rice, white quinoa isn’t highly processed, it’s just naturally light in colour and you can also buy red or black quinoa which are nuttier in flavour. Quinoa is a complete protein source (essential for vegans to build muscle and maintain energy levels) and is high in fibre which helps maintain a healthy gut. It also has the same essential mineral benefits as brown rice.
Or, more specifically, cacao. Cacao is amazingly full of immune-boosting antioxidants and is the raw ingredient of chocolate before any of the fats, dairy and sugar is added. It’s fairly bitter, like very dark chocolate and can be eaten on its own in the form of cacao nibs (snack on a handful or sprinkle on to oats) or sweetened with date syrup to make delicious smoothies, brownies, cakes and mousses.
Cacao’s plant based antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities have led to many scientific studies, one in 2013 outlined potential uses for cacao in the fight against diseases such as heart disease and cancers. More studies are required but we could be looking at yet another plant based therapeutic food. So, by all means, go get your chocolate fix!