The vegan food pyramid is a nutritional guide that helps adults meet the minimum nutrient consumption requirements.
Some may require a higher caloric intake; and should adjust the suggested servings (proportionately) to fit their individual energy needs.
There are a number of versions of the vegan food pyramid, but this illustration masterfully categorizes foods in a concise & easily comprehensible manner.
The different food groups, their contents, and the appropriate serving amounts are clearly depicted. Let's take a closer look at the pyramid....
Fruits are great sources of vitamins (A & C), minerals, and phytochemicals/phytonutrients (ex. lycopene: which acts as an antioxidant in the body; found in tomatoes and watermelon).
Suggested Daily Amount: 2-4 servings.
This group is broken down into four subcategories:
These subcategories allow for proper food combining; certain fruits (and other foods) should not mix.
For example, sub-acid fruits are compatible with both sweet & acid fruits, BUT sweet fruits and acid fruits should never be consumed at the same time.
As a general rule, melon is best eaten alone to ensure the body absorbs all of the enzymes and cleansing properties it has to offer.
Vegetables are the most nutrient-dense food group of the vegan food pyramid. They are packed with vitamins and phytochemicals just like fruit.
Suggested Daily Amount: 3-5 servings.
The superstars of this group are(drum roll): The Dark Leafy Greens
Dark Leafy Green Vegetables include:
These vegetables are rich in Vitmains A, C, & K, iron, potassium, and often times calcium. Leafy greens have been know to reduce the risk of such illnesses as Heart Disease and Cancer.
Chlorophyll, which is responsible for the green pigmentation of these vegetables, provides major health benefits. It's chemical composition is similar to that of human blood; the difference is the central atom (magnesium....in human blood it's iron).
Some of the health benefits of chlorophyll are:
While the vegan food pyramid would encourage you to eat your dark leafy greens in their natural state, if they're not your cup of tea....Put 'em in a SMOOTHIE! If you do it right, you won't even be able to taste them. It pays to eat your veggies. Incorporate them into your diet as best you can!
Whole Grains, Bread, Rice & Pasta, Cereal Group
The Grains group has gotten a bad wrap since the emergence of the anti-carb movement. In reality, grains provide essential vitamins and minerals. Grain foods supply Vitamin E, Folic Acid, Magnesium, and much more.
Suggested Daily Amount: 6-11 servings.
Some types of grains are more nutritionally dense than others. Whole Grains have been proven better sources of nutrients, such as FIBER, than refined grains.
What's the difference between whole & refined grains? Whole grains are uncut/unprocessed and still contain the bran, germ, and endosperm (starch) of the kernel. Refined grains, on the other hand, undergo a milling process, in which the bran and germ are stripped from the kernel.
Removing the germ and bran significantly reduces the nutritional value of the grains. These parts of the grain contain the bulk of the nutrients.
All is not lost though. Some processed grains are enriched with the nutrients destroyed during processing; unfortunately not with the same amount the grain contained before processing.
The addition of nutrients is not limited to refined grains. Many cereals, for example, are fortified with vitamins and minerals. The distinction between fortified and enriched foods is: Fortified foods are enhanced with nutrients that were never present in the grains; while enriched foods are merely an attempt to restore nutrients that were present before processing.
It's always best to consume more whole grains than refined grains. Eating more whole grains reduces the risk of illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, just to name a few.
Types of Whole Grains:
No matter what carb-critics say, grains are NOT the enemy! The vegan food pyramid highlights just how important grains are; they are great sources of protein, zinc, iron, & B vitamins. When you load them with butter and cheesy sauces, then your problems begin.
Legumes & More
Legumes are the most protein-rich group of the vegan food pyramid. They are also considered great Alkaline Foods, which we will discuss in detail elsewhere. Foods that are included in this category are:
Suggested Daily Amount: 2-3 servings
These foods are packed with nutrients, but most importantly they contain the highest amount of lysine (per serving) of all the food groups of the vegan food pyramid.
Lysine is an essential amino acid that the body does not synthesize, so it must be obtained from an outside source (such as food or supplements). Its bodily duties include:
While legumes are the best source of nutrients such as lysine, they are not the only source. So if you're not fond of the members of this food group, there are nuts and grains that can assist in your lysine intake. Pistachios and quinoa contain significant amounts of lysine per serving.
Fortified Dairy Substitutes
Fortified Dairy Substitute foods are great options for those that may need an extra boost in the nutrient intake department, or those who may not know which foods provide what nutrients yet. However, they are not critical components of a plant-based diet.
This vegan food pyramid includes this group to emphasize the importance of nutrients generally found in milk, such as:
Usually fortified dairy substitutes include alternatives such as Soy & Almond Milks, which are not helpful sources of those nutrients for people with, the all too common, soy and nut allergies.
Calcium, the nutrient that draws most to this section, can be found in most of the groups in the pyramid (Fats excluded). For example one cup of cooked kale (or collards) counts as both a serving of vegetables AND fortified dairy substitute (or calcium-rich food). Those dark leafy greens are awesome, aren't they?
Vitamin D needs can also be met in other, more natural ways. While milk is probably one of the best food options for this vitamin, NOTHING compares to the sun. That's right, natural sunlight is THE BEST source of Vitamin D. There are some variables that need to be considered if you intend to rely heavily on this method, like:
There are no fruits that provide any significant amounts of Vitamin D, but there is one vegetable worth mentioning.
The mushroom provides approximately 4% of the suggested daily amount in its natural state. Companies, however, are attempting to exponentially increase that amount by exposing the vegetable to UV radiation. If you're all about organic fruits & veggies (which is GREAT by the way), this may not be the right route for you.
Fats, and Oils, and Sweets...Oh My!
Suggested Daily Amount: Use Sparingly.
While "fat" may be the ultimate curse word to some health conscious individuals, the vegan food pyramid suggests it is VITAL to a well-balanced diet. People do not distinguish good fats from bad ones, which is why ALL fats seem to get a bad wrap.
An important subgroup of fats are the essential fatty acids (EFAs)which are linked to everything from cellular energy to PMS relief. Essential fatty acids include:
Recommended ALA serving: 1.1 grams per day for women; 1.6 grams per day for men.
Essential fatty acids have great health benefits, but other fats offer the body nutritional value too.
This vegan food pyramid does not stress the importance of one over another, but it is critical to know the benefits and limitations of both.
Long Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids, which are generally found in fatty fish, are linked to brain health as well as autoimmune disease prevention. Vegans, especially, need to be aware of their long chain omega-3 fatty acid consumption.
While ALAs can be converted to DHA and EPA**, LAs make this task quite difficult. Linoleic acid suppresses the conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA.
Since vegans typically consume more LAs than meat eaters, usually their LA to ALA ratio is approximately 15:1. The recommended ratio, however, is only 4 to 1.
Many resort to taking supplements to establish some kind of balance. Scientists recommend 200-300 milligrams every 2-3 days. DHA fortified foods are also available, such as energy bars, soy milk, and olive oils.
**DHA(Docosahexanoic Acid); EPA(Eicosapentanoic Acid)...both are long chain omega-3 fatty acids.
The "BAD" Fats
Water: The Key to Optimal Health
Water is critical to establishing great health. Some scientists argue that it is more important than food, considering one could survive for 30 days without food, but only 72 hours without water.
The vegan food pyramid suggests one consumes AT LEAST 8-10 8oz glasses of water each day, but I say, if you can handle more: GO FOR IT! Many nutritionists recommend you drink half of your body weight (in ounces) per day (I'm still working on this myself).
Water assists in many major bodily functions, which is why it is so important to remain adequately hydrated. Some of the functions water performs include:
There are major health benefits that come along with drinking water, but there are also serious consequences associated with lack of water.
Dehydration has proven to significantly reduce the metabolic rate.
If the necessary water supply is not present, the body goes into "fat-storing" mode because it has become too acidic. The water content in the body only has to decrease by approximately 2% to make this occur.
We can easily release that much water during a 1-hr workout. Don't be alarmed. The vegan food pyramid has equipped you with multiple ways to increase your water consumption. Fruits and vegetables are quite high in water content.
The quality of water we drink is just as important as the amount, but rarely do we see people emphasize this point as strongly.
Find the best drinking water (and how to make it) here!
I can not stress enough that this vegan food pyramid is merely a guide to point you in the right direction; it's not the only source I would recommend though. You will have to adjust certain intake suggestions to meet your personal needs, but this is a great start.
Vegan For Life: Everything you need to know to be healthy and fit on a plant-based diet
by Jack Norris, RD & Virginia Messina, MPH, RD