When most of us first go vegan, we kind of just eat whatever plant-based foods we have on hand and consider tasty. Not much thought is wasted on meeting all of our nutritional needs because we didn’t grow up worrying about this. But with all of the media attention veganism has been getting lately, more and more people are getting discouraged from trying to cut out animal products.
It can be confusing because we learned that animal products play such a “vital role” in our diet. So, if you’re interested in adopting a vegan lifestyle, you might, at some point, be wondering how to best replace the nutrients you’d get from meat, eggs & dairy. And this is where the vegan food pyramid comes in to give you a better understanding and offer you a general eating guideline.
But no need to stress over eating a “perfect diet” and following these recommendations all of the time – it’s what you put on your plate most days what matters. If you don’t feel like eating all of the suggested serving sizes each day or you don’t have access to these foods, it’s not a big deal. Most likely, it will balance out over the course of a few days.
If you’re a new vegan, this article will help you figure out what and how much to put on your plate – and if you’ve been on a plant-based diet for a little while already, you can compare how your diet stacks up to the expert’s recommendations.
Exclusive Bonus: CLICK HERE to download your FREE printable "Vegan Food Pyramid" & "How to Meet Critical Nutrients on a Vegan Diet" cheat sheet.
Also, we wanted to mention that during our research, we were so happy to see that large nutrition and health organizations have now modified their suggestions to include options for those choosing to eat plant-based diets! Choosing beans and nuts over meat is a very smart food swap and gets more and more recognition these days.
Why a vegan diet is smart & safe
Are you under the impression that following a vegan diet is very complicated and comes with a lot of pitfalls? We know that this message is all over the media and in most people’s heads, but let’s fact-check this.
In 2009, the American Dietetic Association published a position paper on vegetarian diets which stated that
"appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes."
It further says the following: “The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than non-vegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. Features of a vegetarian diet that may reduce risk of chronic disease include lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber, and phytochemicals.”
Similar associations formed by nutrition experts in other countries have come out with statements along those lines. What’s more, pretty much all major health organizations want us to eat more fruits, veggies, whole grains and legumes and less “saturated fat, trans-fat and cholesterol”. The last 3 nutrients are kind of code words for animal products since they are the main sources of these fats and the only source of dietary cholesterol.
But what exactly does a “well-planned” vegan diet look like? As for every healthy diet, whole foods should be the basis of your meals and are more important than macro ratios. They help you meet your requirements for fiber, minerals, and vitamins and don’t just fill you up with empty (aka nutritionally devoid) calories.
We didn’t mention treat foods like pastries or vegan ice cream in our vegan food pyramid because we wanted to set it up for an optimal diet that helps you maximize the quality of your life and these “fun foods” aren’t an essential part of a balanced vegan diet. This doesn’t mean that you cannot include them, of course.
Lastly, we also wanted to mention that plant-based diets and lifestyles make a huge difference not only to your own health but also to the survival of animals, whole species, and, ultimately, our planet at large. Ocean dead zones, deforestation, species extinction, and climate change are just a few of the consequences of our diets – more on that here.
How we came up with this vegan food pyramid
We’re not dieticians ourselves so we looked at what the experts like Brenda Davis, Ginny Messina, Michael Greger, and the people at PCRM were recommending. While they didn’t agree on all points, there were a lot of overlaps. But we also wanted to take into account the official guidelines and recommendations made by large organizations, such as the USDA, that are not specifically advocating for a vegan diet.
Interestingly enough, many of the sources mentioned above don’t use the pyramid form anymore and switched to plates, instead – because that’s what we actually put our food on, which makes sense. It can show a different way of balancing meals without putting too much focus on one food group only and we like this approach! But for the sake of familiarity (and because the numbers added up so nicely), we decided to stick to a pyramid for our demonstration. You could easily imagine the same on a plate, too.
The recommendations made by the plant-based experts built a great basis but weren’t sufficient to meet the daily caloric needs of the average adult – more on that below. That’s why we chose to create an actually doable, satisfying and nutritionally complete vegan food pyramid that you can stick to!
While some may think that just eating lots of veggies and fruit is ideal (yes, it may look good on paper!), it’s not what people eat day by day. We cannot get by with just huge green salads, some apples and seeds. Meals like these might be nutritionally very dense but aren’t satisfying or very sustainable. That’s one of the reasons why you will find starches at the base of our pyramid.
Since every diet comes with some “nutrients of concern”, we took those into account that you should focus on when eating a vegan diet. Funny enough, some of these nutrients are mentioned in the ”Dietary Guidelines for Americans“ (like calcium and iron) – meaning that not only those on a plant-based diet need to make sure to meet their recommended intake here. But since we’re aware of these critical nutrients, we highlighted some foods to emphasize on a vegan diet below the pyramid.
Explanation of the vegan food pyramid
Let's look at the different sections of the food pyramid and give you some more details about what each of them encompass.
Emphasize whole grains when possible and eat unprocessed grains like brown rice, quinoa, millet, wheat berries, or buckwheat. Other choices are hot or cold cereal, breads, and pasta. Reduce your intake of cookies, pastries, and cakes. Whole starches should provide you with the bulk of your calories, eat them until satiated and increase your daily servings to suit your energy needs.
Both raw and cooked vegetables are healthy and should be included in your daily diet. Eat the rainbow by choosing all kinds of colors. Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables are especially nutrient-dense and good to include but no need to skip the starchy root vegetables. If you cannot eat a large bulk of food, make vegetable smoothies or soups for an adequate nutrient intake. Eat abundantly from this category but make sure to have enough energy dense foods daily.
Enjoy the full spectrum and have fruit for breakfast, snack, or dessert. Choose fresh over dried, and include all the colors. Limit fruit juices. Increase your servings if you’re still hungry or have a huge sweet tooth!
This category includes cooked beans and lentils as well as hummus, bean burgers, tofu, and soy milk. Choose calcium-fortified when possible and limit vegan meat substitutes with isolated soy protein or protein powders. Emphasize the whole food here as well and increase your servings if wanted.
5. Nuts and seeds
Unless you find it hard to meet your caloric needs otherwise, we don’t recommend that you have more than 2 servings from this category on a regular basis. You can get enough essential fats by including just 1 tbsp of flaxseeds, chia seeds, or walnuts into your diet - the rest is for enjoyment and energy purposes.
Foods to emphasize in general
- Calcium-fortified soy products (milk, tofu, etc.)
- (Dark) leafy greens
- Cruciferous veggies
- Omega-3 rich foods like flax, hemp seeds, chia, walnuts
- Iodized salt or kelp flakes
Meeting Nutritional Needs as a Vegan
As we mentioned above, there are certain critical nutrients that we want to make sure to get as plant-based munchers. But please don’t think that a vegan diet is that much more complicated than meeting all of your nutrients as a non-vegan!
Diets that contain animal products are most always too high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and trans fats (for which a “safe upper level” doesn’t exist) while lacking in fiber, folate, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin E, and a couple more as you can see in the following video.
Anyway, here are the daily recommended intakes (DRI) of a couple of nutrients that we want to take a closer look at.
The DRI is 1000 mg for most adults, slightly more for elderly people and teenagers. This mineral is important for bone health as well as muscle and nerve function. It’s important to note that an adequate intake of vitamin D (more on that below) is essential for proper calcium absorption. Soy products and plant-based milks are often fortified with calcium.
Foods that contain high amounts of calcium:
- Vegetables: Rhubarb Stalks, Collard Greens, Spinach, Kale, Broccoli
- Fruit: Navel Oranges
- Legumes: Calcium Fortified Soy Milk, Calcium Set Tofu, White Beans
- Nuts & Seeds: Almonds, Tahini
- Other: Molasses
The DRI is 8 mg for males and 18 mg for females in their reproductive years due to the monthly blood (and iron) loss. Iron is necessary for oxygen transport throughout the body, the immune system, and DNA synthesis. Our bodies can store iron and increase absorption when the stores get low. Non-home iron (from plant sources) isn’t absorbed as well as home iron (from animal products), though it is safer to consume and linked to a decreased risk of disease. We can enhance the iron absorption by adding vitamin C to iron sources and not consuming tea or coffee with or right after our meals.
Foods that contain high amounts of iron:
- Grains: Oatmeal
- Vegetables: Spinach, Swiss Chard, Collard Greens
- Fruit: Dried Figs
- Legumes: Lentils, Kidney Beans, Chickpeas, Green Peas
- Nuts & Seeds: Tahini, Almonds
- Other: Molasses
The DRI is 8 mg for females and 11 mg for males here. It’s an important mineral that plays a role in the structure of DNA and the immune system. The bioavailability can be diminished by inhibitors in nuts, grains, and legumes, so you might want to consume a little more than the DRI as a vegan.
Foods that contain high amounts of zinc:
- Grains: Wheat Germ, Oatmeal, Brown Rice
- Legumes: Tofu, Chickpeas, Lentils, Peanuts, Peas
- Nuts & Seeds: Pumpkin Seeds, Cashews, Sunflower Seeds, Almonds
The DRI here is 150 mcg for adults, more when pregnant or lactating. Iodine is used in the production of thyroid hormones and important for our metabolism. It’s unclear yet whether or not vegans and vegetarians are really at risk for a deficiency here but better safe than sorry. Especially those who eat a high amount of raw cruciferous vegetables need to make sure they consume enough iodine, since these foods may block the thyroid’s absorption of this mineral.
Foods that contain high amounts of iodine:
- Vegetables: Nori or Dulse Seaweed (content varies & possible contamination)
- Iodized salt
Ah, the holy nutrient! Let’s tackle the protein fear here really quick – for a more in-depth answer, find our article here. This essential macronutrient has important functions, such as maintaining muscle and bone mass, or supporting the immune system. The original source of all essential amino acids (the building blocks that protein consists of) come from the plant kingdom, and no specific combination of foods is needed to get a “complete protein”.
The average Western person eats way too much protein, as the DRI for adults is only 0.8 g per kilogram of body weight (which comes to around 50 grams per day for a person at a healthy weight). While vegans can get all of the protein they need from plants, lysine (one essential amino acid) is a little harder to come by but is found in many legumes.
It’s not hard to meet daily protein needs while eating a varied whole foods vegan diet since every unprocessed food contains at least some amount, but just to be sure, here’s a list of some high protein vegan foods:
- Grains: Seitan, Amaranth, Quinoa, Whole Wheat Spaghetti
- Legumes: Tempeh, Peanuts, Tofu, Soy Milk, Lentils, Beans
- Nuts & Seeds: Pumpkin Seeds, Almonds
Fish-free omega 3? Yes, that’s possible. The essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) originally comes from plants and is converted to omega-3 in our bodies. These conversion rates may improve when omega-6 consumption is lower (reducing your intake of most oils and some nuts/seeds), so choose certain fat sources over others.
Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to heart health, brain development, and other benefits, so we definitely don’t want to miss out here! Newer research suggests that some people, especially the elderly, aren’t so good at converting ALA to the long chain fatty acids DHA and EPA and should, therefore, take an algae-based supplement. 200-300 mg DHA every 2-3 days is a good guideline. The DRI for ALA is 1.1 g for females and 1.6 g for males.
Foods that contain high amounts of ALA:
- Nuts & Seeds: Flax Seeds, Chia Seeds, Hemp Seeds, Walnuts
- Small amounts can be found in seaweed, edamame, kidney beans, Brussel sprouts
This vitamin (which is actually a hormone) is produced in the kidneys and promotes calcium absorption as well as bone growth, immune health, and muscle function. Very few foods naturally contain vitamin D, like fatty fish or egg yolks. Luckily, we produce it after sunlight exposure – which is why everyone, vegan or not, should supplement during the colder and darker months of the year.
You will also find that many foods are fortified with vitamin D, such as plant-based milk, orange juice, or cereals. There are also some mushrooms which were exposed to light that can provide you with this nutrient (it will say so on the package). The most reliable source, however, is taking a vitamin D supplement. The DRI is 15 mcg or 600 International Units for adults.
Good sources of Vitamin D:
- Sun exposure for 10-15 minutes (white skin color) or 15-20 minutes (dark skin color) on a day when sunburn is possible
- Vitamin D2 or Vegan Vitamin D3 Supplement
Alright, so this is the only essential nutrient that is not made by plants, I’ll give you that. But the thing is, it’s not really made by animals, either! Vitamin B12 is created by bacteria and fungi that would naturally occur on our food and in our drinking water – but through sterilization practices and cleanliness standards in food production, it is being removed (along with all the “bad guys”).
The reason why we can get B12 from animal-based foods is that their feed or water is either contaminated with these bacteria, they are being supplemented, or they eat their own poop. Yes, B12 can be made by the gut and excreted. Over one-third of the general population is low in this essential nutrient and should take a supplement – vegan or not.
Everyone over the age of 50 should supplement. Vitamin B12 has many important functions, such as red blood cell formation, central nervous system maintenance, and a few more. There are no reliable, unfortified plant sources of vitamin B12 (including fermented products, sea vegetables, or organic produce) – though our B12 stores can last up to a few years, the consequences of deficiencies aren’t funny and supplementation is cheap, easy, and safe.
Despite the low DRI of 2.4 mcg, it’s good to take a larger dose of B12 since only a fraction is absorbed and it’s impossible to overdose on a water-soluble vitamin. The preferred form of B12 is cyanocobalamin and the recommendations for a daily dose is 250 mcg, a weekly dose is 2500 mcg (depending on how often you want to take a supplement).
Good Sources of Vitamin B12:
- Daily Dose of 250 mcg Cyanocobalamin
- Weekly Dose of 2500 mcg Cyanocobalamin
- Fortified Plant Milks or Nutritional Yeast, though direct supplementation is a more reliable source
How much Should I Eat on a Vegan Diet?
This is a topic that everyone seems to worry about and the plant-based experts we consulted during our research weren’t all on the same page here, either.
One thing that’s important to understand here is the concept of calorie density. You probably know that a salad has fewer calories than a burger – but this needs to be considered for other foods and meals, as well.
The macronutrient fat has more than twice the calories per gram than protein or carbs do, so a fatty meal packs more calories in one bite than a low-fat one does. Animal products are almost purely made of fat and protein while plant-based foods are a lot more carb-heavy usually, which makes meat, dairy, and eggs more calorically dense.
Here’s where a lot of vegan beginners start to struggle and may even turn their backs on plant-based eating: they think this diet is all about loading up on veggies or replacing chicken with broccoli. While this certainly “helps” to cut back on calories, you still need to make sure you’re getting enough throughout the whole day. Listening to your appetite or society’s opinion on what/how much you should eat can actually lead you to failure here!
Since everyone thinks carbs are bad, you may tend to just load up your plate with veggies, maybe some beans, snack on fruit… and end up getting 1200 calories per day or so. While some dieters may think that’s a great amount to have, the USDA begs to differ: the average, sedentary female needs at least 1800 calories every day to function normally.
So, when switching to a vegan diet (especially when focusing on whole foods!), you need to make sure you’re actually eating enough. Staying below your caloric needs for the day over the course of a week or more will set you up for sluggishness, food cravings, a crappy mood, and nutritional deficiencies. Because we need to eat enough healthy foods in order to get all the vital nutrients!
Please be aware of this calorie difference between animal-based and plant-based foods and processed versus whole foods. If you cannot eat enough whole foods like potatoes, veggies, and beans to fulfill your caloric needs, consider adding more nuts, bread, pasta, and dried fruit to your meals.
Overall, we always suggest you listen to your hunger signals and never deprive yourself of food when you feel you need to eat something. Sticking to some kind of number or “goal” you’ve set for yourself isn’t necessarily the best thing for your body and you can only stay hungry for so long until you’ll dive into the next bag of potato chips.
Calorie counting or portion controlling isn’t really necessary on the vegan diet as we promote it because of the huge bulk (fiber) these foods provide. When you keep the oils and added sugars low or even skip them altogether, you will naturally come to and stay at a healthy weight.
Remember, the recommendations you can see on our vegan food pyramid are the minimum amounts you should get of each food group but you’ll probably need to eat more to have enough energy for the day. After all, we cannot give out broad advice that will be perfect for each individual – at the end of the day, you’ll still have to make it work for you in your everyday life.
Bonus: Free Cheat Sheets
Congratulations, you've made it all the way through! Now, you have really earned yourself a little goodie. We created 2 printable cheat sheets for you with all the important information from this article which you can download below as a gift from us (and because we want you to be well-nourished on a vegan diet).
Have you been trying to plan and follow a healthy vegan diet? Did you find our recommendations useful and did they cause you to make some changes in your food choices? Let us know in the comments.
Alena has been eating a plant-based diet for 6 years and is passionate about sharing her learnings in the fields of nutrition, wellbeing, and vegan ethics. She is the co-creator of nutriciously and loves music, reading, nature, traveling, yoga & good food. Alena received training in the fields of nutrition, music therapy, and social work.