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The vegan food plate: A simple guide to healthy vegan nutrition

The food plate is endorsed by various nutrition societies and national governments and provides a simple guide to making healthy food choices. The composition of the plate corresponds to current scientific knowledge regarding the health effects of what we eat and drink. In the following article, ProVeg discusses the vegan version of the food plate.

How the food plate differs from the nutrition pyramid

The food plate is a replacement for its well-kown predecessor, the food pyramid, and was developed by nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health.1 Since June 2011, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been using a food plate instead of the previous pyramid model.2 The plate illustrates what proportion of each food group should be consumed per meal. The straightforward presentation in the form of a ‘healthy plate’ is intended to help consumers develop healthy eating habits with greater ease than with the previous model.

The following items belong on a healthy food plate

Mainly vegetables and fruit with every meal – 1/2 of the vegan food plate

Fruit and vegetables are an important source of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber. When it comes to food choices, variety plays just as important a role as quality, since no fruit or vegetable can provide all the necessary nutrients by itself. More vegetables than fruit should be consumed – of the recommended five servings per day, three should be in the form of vegetables and two in the form of fruit.3

Wholegrain foods – 1/4 of the vegan food plate

Wholegrain cereals such as oats, rye, spelt, wheat, barley, millet, and rice, along with pseudocereals such as quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat, provide complex carbohydrates, fiber, and phytochemicals. They also contain important vitamins (especially B vitamins) and minerals (for example, iron, zinc, magnesium). The quality of the carbohydrates you eat is at least as important as the quantity. Several studies show a link between whole grains and better health.4

Choose protein from plant sources – 1/4 of the vegan food plate

Among plant foods, the main sources of protein are pulses (lentils, peas, beans, and lupins) and cereals (rice, oats, millet, wheat, spelt, and rye), as well as soy products such as tofu and tempeh. Pseudocereals (amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa), nuts, almonds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, and chia seeds also contain particularly high proportions of protein.5 By combining various plant proteins – for example, cereals with pulses – the supply of all essential amino acids can be optimized. It is sufficient to eat protein from different sources throughout the day.6 7

Healthy plant oils in moderation

Healthy plant oils in moderation
Total fat intake should not exceed 30% of total energy intake. Choose foods with unsaturated fats, limit foods high in saturated fat, and avoid trans fats. Unsaturated fats can be found in nuts and seeds and cold-pressed oils made from them. Olive oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower, peanuts, soy beans, and avocados are all particularly good sources of unsaturated fatty acids. Palm and coconut oil, on the other hand, are rich in saturated fatty acids and should only be consumed in small amounts (less than 10% of total energy intake). Also try to avoid the trans-fats that are often found in fried foods and pre-packaged snacks such as frozen pizza or pies.8 9 Pay special attention to omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both are polyunsaturated fatty acids which are essential for our body and our health. Linseed oil (also known as flax oil or flaxseed oil) has the highest content of omega-3 fatty acids. Other foods rich in omega-3s include rapeseed, walnut, and hemp oil. Olive and rapeseed oil also have a good ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. It can also make sense to use microalgae oils, which are a good source of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

A sufficient intake of water – 2-2.5 liters per day

The recommended amounts for total water intake include the moisture content of food and only apply in relation to moderate temperatures and moderate physical activity levels. You should preferably drink water, non-caffeinated unsweetened tea, and other non-alcoholic, low-calorie beverages such as juice spritzers. In high temperatures or if you exercise, the amount of water you need may increase.10

Other important nutrients on the vegan food plate

With every diet – whether vegetarian, vegan, or non-veggie – good planning is essential to avoid nutritional deficiencies. Optimal plant-based nutrition can be ensured by eating a balanced and varied diet while paying attention to critical nutrients. Nutritionists also recommend having a blood test done every year or two.

Vitamin B12

Those eating a vegan diet should ensure a proper supply of vitamin B12 by taking dietary supplements in the form of, for example, tablets, drops, and/or using vitamin B12 toothpaste. Some plant-based foods are enriched with vitamin B12. These include various soy products, muesli, cornflakes, fruit juices, and meat alternatives. Depending on the vitamin B12 content, vitamin B12 uptake can be improved by consuming these fortified foods, but this will not always cover daily requirements.


In order to meet one’s calcium needs, one should deliberately consume calcium-rich plants (for example, dark green vegetables, citrus fruits, nuts, seeds, raisins, tofu), calcium-rich mineral waters, and calcium-fortified products (for example, plant milk).

Vitamin D

Sufficient levels of vitamin D can be achieved by sufficient bodily exposure to sunlight. In the summer months, a supplementation of vitamin D should not be necessary, so long as one spends a minimum of 20 minutes a day outside, in the sun. However, in the colder months, especially for people living in the northern hemisphere, vitamin D supplementation may be essential. Specific populations (such as office workers, children, and the elderly) may need vitamin-D supplementation even in summer. Before taking any supplement, it is strongly advised to have appropriate blood tests and consult with a medical professional.


According to the World Health Organization, about a third of the world’s population is affected by insufficient iodine intake. In Europe, as much as half of the population is affected.11 The body can receive an adequate supply of iodine by consuming algae or algae-based supplements such as spirulina. In order to ensure a sufficient supply of iodine, iodised salt should also be added to one’s diet. However, an overdose of iodine can cause health problems.


Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide.12 Since the body cannot produce iron, it must be ingested in sufficient quantities through food.13 14 Iron deficiencies can usually be counteracted by shifting to a healthy and varied diet and by regularly eating iron-rich foods such as amaranth, quinoa, and wholewheat along with wholewheat and its products such as bread and pasta. In the nuts and seeds category, sesame seeds are the frontrunners, followed by sunflower seeds, pine nuts, and almonds. Pulses such as kidney beans, lentils, and chickpeas are also rich in iron. Certain methods of preparation, as well as combining certain foods, facilitate increased iron absorption and thus reduce the risk of iron deficiency. To increase the intake of iron from plant sources, iron-rich foods should be eaten together with foods containing vitamin C.

More tips for a healthy diet and lifestyle

  • Ready meals, sweets, and alcohol are not an obligatory part of a healthy food plate. They can, however, be enjoyed in moderation.
  • Choose natural, unprocessed foods, and buy locally produced and organic products, whenever possible.
  • Ensure that you exercise regularly, engage in outdoor activities, and get plenty of sleep.


  1. Harvard T. H. Chan (2018): Healthy Eating Plate & Healthy Eating Pyramid. Available at https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/ [22.12.2020]
  2. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2020): A Brief History of USDA Food Guides. Available at https://www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/brief-history-usda-food-guides [22.12.2020]
  3. Harvard T. H. Chan (2018): Vegetables and Fruits. Available at https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/vegetables-and-fruits/ [22.12.2020]
  4. Harvard T. H. Chan (2018): Whole Grains. Available at https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/whole-grains/ [05.03.2018]
  5. Daniel, P., Harvard University (2019): How much protein do you need every day? Available at https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-2015 [22.12.2020]
  6. European Commission (2020): Dietary Protein. Available at https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/health-knowledge-gateway/promotion-prevention/nutrition/protein [22.12.2020]
  7. Sanders TA (1999) The nutritional adequacy of plant-based diets. Proc Nutr Soc 58: p. 265–269
  8. WHO (2020): Healthy diet. Available at https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/healthy-diet [23.12.2020]
  9. Harvard T. H. Chan (2018): Fats and Cholesterol, Available at https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/ [22.12.2020]
  10. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) (2010): Scientific Opinion on Dietary Reference Values for water. Available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1459/full [22.12.2020]
  11. WHO (World Health Organization) (2004): Iodine status worldwide: WHO global database on iodine deficiency. Available at http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/43010/1/9241592001.pdf p.12
  12. WHO (2001): Iron Deficiency Anemia, S. 15. Verfügbar unter: http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/en/ida_assessment_prevention_control.pdf [11.06.2018]
  13. Heinrich, P. C. et al. (2014): Löffler/Petrides Biochemie und Pathobiochemie. Springer, p. 659, 736–780
  14. UCFS Health: Hemoglobin and Functions of Iron. Verfügbar unter https://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/hemoglobin_and_functions_of_iron/ [11.06.2018]

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