Your body needs to consume amino acids and protein, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, and water to survive. Choosing vegan foods that provide all these essential dietary players isn’t difficult. Plant foods offer everything you need in terms of nutrition; they also offer a variety of colors, complex flavors, textures, cooking techniques, and preparation methods.

The most important qualities to remember when choosing foods are variety and vitality. Choose foods that are fresh and nutrient rich, not overly processed and packaged. Get to know the food groups in the following sections and begin to experiment with different ways to get several servings of each into your diet on a regular basis.

healthiest vegan food groups

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Complex carbohydrates

Healthy Vegan Food Groups

Most healthy eating guides and gurus recommend getting most of your calories from complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for human activity and productivity. The old USDA food pyramid recommended 6 to 11 servings of grain-based foods a day — that seems like a lot, especially when there was no talk of quality! Nowadays, nutritional experts know better, and they recognize the division between processed, refined carbohydrates and whole, complex carbohydrates. White bread and bagels, white sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup are common refined carbohydrates found in American homes. When you look at the true nature of foods that contain complex carbohydrates, such as beans, whole grains, and vegetables, getting most of your calories from this group doesn‘t seem hard or unhealthy at all.

You find complex carbohydrates in brown rice, millet, quinoa, barley, yams, potatoes, beans, legumes, and whole-grain flour products like crackers, bread, pasta, and seeds. When you look at this wider variety of sources, then yes, getting most of your calories from complex, carb-rich food makes sense.

You‘re not just getting the carbs; you‘re also getting minerals, protein, vitamins, and good fiber. These complex carbohydrate foods are nutrient-dense,  meaning you get more nutrition per serving than a refined carbohydrate offers.

Seasonal veggies

Healthy Vegan Food Groups

In the last 100 years, modern technology has created a seasonless supermarket. Global transportation systems and long growing seasons in places like California and Florida have created a situation where you can get pretty much any kind of food you want at any time. But is this style of eating healthy?

By choosing to eat local and seasonal fruits and vegetables for most of your needs instead of produce that was grown in another hemisphere and shipped halfway around the world to your table, you accomplish several goals at once. Not only are you supporting local economies and farmers, you‘re actually getting better nutrition. As soon as most fruits or vegetables are harvested, they start losing nutrients. The fresher the better — and an apple grown in New Zealand takes at least a few days to get to the United States!

Eating seasonally also keeps your body in tune with the natural variations in temperature that occur throughout the year. Eating raw fruits and vegetables in the summer makes sense as it keeps your body cool and allows you to take advantage of local produce. Choose heartier fall and winter produce during the colder months. The foods growing near you in these darker days are recommended in the Ayurvedic and Macrobiotic culinary and medical traditions to keep your body healthy through the cold and flu seasons.

Eating some frozen blueberries or canned tomatoes in the winter won‘t immediately cause you to catch a cold. Still, focusing on local, seasonal produce will fortify you with nutrients and energy needed at certain times of year. Let the seasons help guide your choices:

✓ In spring, focus on leafy vegetables that really embody the new energy of the season, including green chard, spinach, lettuces, and herbs like basil and parsley.

Summer is abundant with natural cooling foods from Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, such as berries, summer squash, zucchini, watermelon, corn, pears, cilantro, and peppermint.

✓ The harvest of fall and winter vegetables, such as carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, squashes, and warming spices (cayenne pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and curry powder), brings more warming energy to the human body.

Sea vegetables

Healthy Vegan Food Groups

When I think nutrient-dense food, I think sea vegetables. These gems of the ocean are incredibly valuable for vegans and anyone who wants to be truly healthy and vibrant. While the American palate may not be used to the taste of sea vegetables, or seaweed, cultures like Japan, Iceland, Ireland, China, and many others have been using native sea vegetables for centuries.

Sea vegetables provide the widest variety of minerals available of any food group, including all the minerals that are found in human blood and, not coincidentally, the ocean. A great source of iron, calcium, vitamin K, iodine, and B vitamins, several sea veggies also are good sources of magnesium and cancer-fighting lignans. Lignans are phytoestrogens that have antioxidant activity and have been shown to protect the body from certain cancers, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease. Used for inflammatory conditions, cancer treatment and prevention, and to boost the immune systems, sea vegetables also are a source of plant protein.

Hundreds of types of sea vegetables are edible, and because of their recent uptick in popularity, they’re becoming easier to find in grocery stores, health food stores, and ethnic markets. Just a small amount, about 2 to 3 tablespoons, every day of the following is beneficial:

✓ Nori: Popular because of its role in making sushi rolls. You can buy this dark, green-black paper in page-sized sheets. It’s easy to carry around for snacks and lunch — just snip a sheet with kitchen scissors to add to your meal. No other preparation is needed.

✓ Arame: These little black wires are mild tasting compared to other sea veggies. Wash arame well, soak for 5 minutes, and drain before cooking. Good in soups and combined with tofu dishes, arame doubles in volume when cooked.

✓ Dulse: You can find this reddish-brown sea veggie in flattened, chewy ribbons or flakes. The flakes need no preparation, and you can sprinkle them directly on food. The ribbons are soft enough that you only need to rinse them before adding them to a recipe, unless otherwise directed.

✓ Hijiki: Easy to prepare, these little, wiry, spaghetti-like strands have a strong flavor. Simply rinse and soak for 5 minutes before adding to a recipe, or eat raw tossed into a salad.

✓ Kelp: Kelp is sold in flakes, powder, or flat ribbons, and you can add it to soups and stews after rinsing it off.

✓ Kombu: Kombu‘s secret power is that it helps you digest beans and prevents gas. Add a 2- or 3-inch piece of rinsed, dark kombu to a pot of cooking beans or soup. To add it to a recipe, simply soak in warm water for 10 to 15 minutes and chop.

✓ Wakame: If you‘ve ever ordered miso soup, you’ve eaten wakame. This soft, green, silky sea vegetable is mild tasting and easy to cook. Rinse the wakame and then soak in warm water for 5 to 7 minutes. Rinse again, chop, and add to your recipe.

Want to try some easy techniques for cooking sea veggies? Hijiki is a nice addition to salads. Just toss one or two tablespoons with chopped lettuce and your favorite dressing. Prepare dulse, kombu, or wakame according to package directions and add a small handful to soup. You can even buy small shaker containers of sea vegetable flakes to keep on your table. Just shake a little on top of your meal, sandwich, soup, or salad!

Unless you‘re going with an expert, don‘t try collecting your own sea vegetables in the wild. Certain coastal areas are polluted with toxins, and other sea beds may harbor bacteria that you don‘t want to consume with your miso soup.

Finding good fruits

Healthy Vegan Food Groups

I‘ve heard health experts complain that Americans eat the same five or six fruits their entire lives. I’ve seen similar eating habits with my clients, and I do think that everyone could benefit from a wider variety of fruity foods in their diets. Fruits are defined as the ripened reproductive body of a seed plant, which means that any plant you eat that contains seeds is a fruit.

Officially, this means that tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers are fruit. That scientific fact doesn‘t matter much to me — I just want to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables, period.

Eating fresh fruit regularly has been shown to reduce the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and certain cancers. Fruits also fortify the body with the nutrients it needs to fight infection and repair cells.

Fruits are generally easier for people to increase in their diet than vegetables because they’re sweet, they don’t need a lot of preparation, and you can take them to school or work as a quick, healthy snack. So which fruits are most beneficial to your health? Well, it’s difficult to pick a few specific superfruits, but here’s a list of fruit-related tips to keep in mind:

✓ Try to eat two to three pieces of fresh fruit every day. An easy way to do this is to make a smoothie for breakfast. You can include a banana and two other fruits as the base and kick-start your day quickly.

✓ Choose some of these super fruits for your daily menus: • Berries, including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries, are high in vitamin C, folate, and phytochemicals.

  • Pomegranate seeds are very high in antioxidants, and the juice is used to help inflammatory conditions.
  • Acai berries also are high in antioxidants and are a good source of essential oils. They’re believed to help the body slow the aging process as well.

✓ Buy seasonal fruit from your farmer’s market. Not only is the fruit super fresh and at its optimum taste, but it also has more nutrients.

✓ If you drink fruit juice, try to drink fresh-squeezed, unsweetened juice. Investing in a juicer gives you the option of drinking many servings of fruit in one glass.

✓ Fresh fruits are best, but frozen fruit and berries are good, too. Canned fruit is a very distant third choice.

✓ If you consume tropical fruits and their products, such as acai berries, mangosteen, noni juice, and goji berries or goji juice, make sure they’re naturally sweetened. These products have been in the news lately because of their purported anti-cancer and weight-loss action.

Proper proteins: Beans and Legumes

Healthy Vegan Food Groups

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Beans and legumes are great sources of nutrition, no matter which one you choose. Higher in protein and fat than whole grains, beans and legumes, when combined with grains, give you all the amino acids to form a complete protein. Completely cholesterol-free, beans are a good source of iron, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E, and thiamin. Beans are useful in fighting several diseases because of their high fiber content. Bean dishes provide a slow drip of energy, fortify the body and blood, and are truly satisfying.

When buying beans and legumes, quality is important. Several studies have shown that organic foods, including beans, offer your body more nutrition because they‘re grown in healthier soil.

A multiyear study by the European Union declared that organic foods offer higher nutrition than conventionally raised foods, and often have higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants.

Canned beans are convenient and relatively inexpensive, so keeping several types in your cupboard makes financial sense. Bulk dry beans are even cheaper and are very simple to cook. Just look for uniformly sized beans that are smooth and free of wrinkles, cracks, and pits. Store each type of dry bean in an airtight glass jar, away from light and heat.

Aw, nuts! (And seeds)

Healthy Vegan Food Groups

Rich in protein, healthy monounsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, nuts and seeds are wonderful additions to a vegan diet. Just because they‘re high in fat doesn’t mean they’ll make you fat! Eaten in moderation, nuts and seeds help you feel full faster, which can help you to eat less overall.

To make them even more nutritious and easy to digest, you can soak nuts and seeds overnight in cool water. This starts the germination process and activates certain enzymes that pre-digest some of the proteins and fats, increasing certain nutrients, and make it easier for the body to break down the fats and protein. Store your raw nuts in the refrigerator or freezer to preserve their natural oils.

Either raw or soaked, nuts and seeds are easy to carry with you, so grab a container or baggie and fill up on some of these little, nutrition-rich nuggets:

✓ Almonds: A good source of protein, vitamin E, manganese, magnesium, copper, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), and phosphorus, almonds help lower bad cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, and provide protection against cardiovascular disease. Eating raw almonds with the skin still on provides the most heart-healthy benefits.

Cashews: Cashews are lower in fats and higher in antioxidants than most nuts. A good source of monounsaturated fats, copper, and magnesium, cashews promote good cardiovascular health, even for diabetics.

✓ Flaxseeds: Flaxseeds, also known as linseeds, are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseeds offer anti-inflammatory benefits and protect against heart disease, breast cancer, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Flaxseeds are rich in fiber and manganese and also are a good source of folate, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), magnesium, phosphorous, copper, and lignan phytonutrients. To get the most nutrition and benefits from flaxseeds, grind them fresh with a blender or spice grinder. You also can buy ground flax meal; just be sure to store it in the freezer between uses to protect the delicate fats from breaking down in heat and light. Use ground flaxseeds in homemade smoothies, oatmeal, soup, or on top of salads and grain dishes.

✓ Peanuts: Officially a legume, heart-healthy peanuts are a good source of monounsaturated fat, antioxidants, phytosterols, phytic acid (inositol hexaphosphate), and folic acid. Peanuts also are a good source of vitamin B3 (niacin), folate, copper, manganese, and protein, and they‘re a significant source of resveratrol, which is being studied for its anti-aging effects. Peanuts and peanut butter also may help prevent gallstones and protect against Alzheimer‘s disease. Always store your raw peanuts and peanut butter in the freezer or refrigerator, respectively, to prevent mold.

✓ Pepitas/pumpkin seeds: Pumpkin seeds are a good source of the essential fatty acids, copper, iron, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, manganese, zinc, protein, and vitamin K. These little green seeds may promote prostate and bone health and offer anti-inflammatory benefits.

✓ Sesame seeds: Sesame seeds and tahini, or sesame butter, are rich in beneficial minerals. Tahini is a good source of manganese, copper, and calcium. Good for lowering cholesterol, sesame seeds also are recommended for rheumatoid arthritis. To really gain access to sesame seeds’ benefits, it‘s best to grind or smash them before eating. Tahini already is ground into a paste, and therefore, it‘s an easy way to eat sesame‘s goodness.

✓ Sunflower seeds: Offering anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular benefits, sunflower seeds lower cholesterol and help to prevent cancer. A good source of vitamin E, sunflower seeds also provide linoleic acid (an essential fatty acid), fiber, protein, and minerals such as magnesium and selenium.

✓ Walnuts: Walnuts are an excellent source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, manganese, and copper. Good for cardiovascular health and lowering cholesterol, walnuts also help brain function. Healthy fats Good fats are healthy for you — look at any healthy, glowing raw foodist or vegan who scarfs down handfuls of nuts and bowls of avocados regularly to see what I mean. Diets that include the monounsaturated fats from nuts and seeds, olives, avocados, and unrefined vegetable oils like olive and canola oil lower the risk of heart disease, still the leading cause of death in the United States.

Fat is a source of energy for the body, supplying 9 calories per gram, which is more than arbohydrates and protein supply. Fat is necessary for many bodily functions like protecting and cushioning internal organs and helping the body absorb vitamins like A, E, D, and K. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in good amounts in flax and hemp seeds, are important for treating conditions such as allergies, arthritis, eczema, inflammatory diseases, learning problems, and depression. Good sources

of omega-6 fats are most of the vegan cooking oils like olive, safflower, soybean, and sesame. Nuts and seeds also contain omega-6 fatty acids. Many health experts believe that the balanced consumption of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should ideally be three to one. Because vegetable oils are more common for cooking, it‘s important to include the omega-3 rich foods often to ensure the proper balance.

Supportive Sweets

Healthy Vegan Food Groups

I‘ve loved to bake since childhood, but my relationship with sugar has changed greatly over the years. Long gone are the days of slurping down Super Big Gulps and munching candy bars between classes. But I still love a good cookie! A healthy vegan diet can include sweets and baked goods, but they must be consumed thoughtfully. You can find several sweeteners that are healthier than refined white sugar.

Sugar is not the devil — the human brain is just hard-wired to crave it, and it has never been easier to get your hands on the stuff. Back when humans were foraging and hunting for food, sugar was hard to come by. Naturally sweet fruits, vegetables, and honey were hard to find and were limited by season and geography. Today, you can have sugar for every meal of the day, and many people often do!

So rather than load up on the refined white stuff, use these natural, mellower sweeteners. They won‘t hit your bloodstream like lightning the way white sugar does, but you can still use these sweeteners moderately to create lovely treats and desserts:

✓ Agave: A natural syrup derived from the same plant that‘s used to make tequila, agave has a low glycemic level when used a teaspoon at a time. The darker the syrup, the more minerals it has, so the richer the taste. Because agave is sweeter than sugar, you can use less in your baking recipes for cupcakes, cookies, puddings, sweet sauces, quick breads, and scones. It‘s also a wonderful sweetener for hot and iced teas and coffee. Agave can be found at health food stores and gourmet grocery stores.

✓ Blackstrap molasses: A byproduct of the sugar-refining process, molasses comes from sugar cane. The thick black syrup is full of minerals. A good source of iron, blackstrap molasses provides a good amount of calcium, copper, manganese, potassium, and magnesium. Switching from refined,  nutrient-poor white sugar, corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners to blackstrap molasses is a sweet idea. Excellent for baked goods like muffins, ginger cookies, and banana bread, blackstrap molasses can be found in your local health food store and in many grocery stores.

✓ Brown rice syrup: This gooey syrup is made from cooked rice. Light and mild tasting, and about half as sweet as sugar, it’s good for cakes, pastries, and puddings. You also can stir it into tea and coffee. This polysaccharide is a more complex sugar than agave, so it releases more slowly into the bloodstream.

✓ Date sugar: This granular sweetener is made from dried, pulverized dates. Because these little flecks don’t melt like regular cane sugar, and because they’re very sweet, I suggest that you use two-thirds of the recommended amount of sugar when using date sugar in recipes for cookies, pies, cakes, and scones.

✓ Maple syrup: Fifty gallons of maple water are required to boil down to one gallon of maple syrup. This syrup concentrate is an excellent source of manganese and a good source of zinc. Grade B syrup is darker than Grade A, and because it offers a more pronounced taste than sugar, Grade B syrup is good for baking sweet breads, scones, cookies, puddings, mousses, and savory marinades. Be sure to keep maple syrup in the refrigerator after you open it. Found at health food stores and gourmet grocery stores, some states like New York don‘t allow Grade B to be sold to the public in stores.

✓ Stevia: Found in either powder or liquid form, this super concentrated sweetener is derived from the leaves of a South American plant. Because stevia is 100 times sweeter than sugar, you must use it in tiny amounts if you buy it in a concentrated form. Stevia has no carbohydrates, so it doesn’t affect blood sugar at all, making it a good alternative for diabetics and people with other sugar problems.

✓ Xylitol: Made most often from birch trees, this natural sweetener is a sugar alcohol and is actually good for preventing cavities and reversing tooth decay. You can find xylitol in crystalline form in health food stores, and though it’s expensive, it‘s a good, healthy sweetener option for baking.

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