The Vegan Food Pyramid

The Vegan Food Pyramid: Full Guide to Meeting Your Nutrients

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.

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Also, I wanted to mention that I’m 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

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.

I 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.

Explanation of the vegan food pyramid

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Grains: 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.

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Vegetables: 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.

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Fruit: 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!

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Legumes: 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.

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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

  • Berries

  • Omega-3 rich foods like flax, hempseeds, chia, walnuts

  • Iodized salt

Meeting Nutritional Needs as a Vegan

There are certain critical nutrients that I 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.

How much Should I Eat on a Vegan Diet?

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, I 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 I 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.