A Nutrition Glossary for the Vegan Diet

Cuban Inspired Black Beans and Rice

Whether you’re going full-on plant-based or dabbling, it’s helpful to have a basic nutrition glossary for the vegan diet. Here are some terms as as they apply to your healthier approach to food:

AMINO ACIDS: An amino acid is a building block of protein. There are some twenty amino acids required to make a complete protein. The body can manufacture all but eight; these are referred to as the essential amino acids. Foods that contain all eight essential amino acids in the correct proportions necessary to be readily utilized by the body are considered complete proteins. With a balanced, varied diet, proteins complement themselves during the course of a day; no need to worry over combining just the right amino acids at every meal.

CALORIE: A calorie is a unit of energy measured in terms of heat. As it pertains to food, food contains calories that, when burned, produce a specific amount of energy. If more calories are taken in than burned off, they are stored as fat, resulting in weight gain.

CARBOHYDRATES: Along with fat and protein, carbohydrates are chemical compounds known as the large nutrients. Carbohydrates are the body’s ideal fuel source and have recently had their wrongful reputation for being “fattening” redressed. Starches, sugars, and fiber are all carbohydrates. Foods referred to as complex carbohydrates contain starch, the main form of carbohydrate energy, and fiber, the parts of plant foods that pass through the body undigested. Complex carbohydrates are important energy sources, since they are broken down and used slowly by the body. Here are some examples of the different types of carbohydrate:

Starches are best consumed as complex carbohydrates. These include whole grains and cereals (brown rice, barley, and other whole grains, whole grain breads, and whole grain pastas), and root vegetables including sweet and white potatoes. These provide the dual benefit of providing energy as well as dietary fiber (see Fiber). Sugars are found in fruit, dairy products and refined sugar, among other foods. Refined sugars are the least desirable, as they provide mainly empty calories and contribute to tooth decay.

CHOLESTEROL: This chemical compound is actually of great importance to several functions of the internal organs and is a part of every cell. The problem lies in that the liver can manufacture all the cholesterol the body needs for its essential functions; when excessive cholesterol is ingested in the form of food, it causes buildup of plaque in the arteries, which is said to lead to heart disease. Foods high in cholesterol are eggs, fatty meats, butter, and some dairy products.

FAT: Fat is an organic compound of fatty acids and is one of the three “large nutrients,” along with carbohydrates and protein. It provides a very concentrated source of stored energy for the body and is necessary for hormonal function and tissue health. The average American’s fat intake has until recently been about 40 percent of total food intake. Though it is often recommended that this be cut down to 30 percent, some nutritionists feel this amount is still too high.

Fats are comprised of fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic, which can both be derived from plant sources. There are three types of dietary fat—saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated. Saturated fats, found in meat, butter, and hard cheeses, is considered the least beneficial, and in fact can lead to heart disease if consumed in large quantities. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are plentiful in plant sources. Nuts, olives and olive oil, certain vegetable oils (especially organic canola oil), and avocado are good sources of beneficial fats.

Trans-fats, or hydrogenated fats are laboratory produced and are found in many, many processed foods. These are completely unhealthy and unnecessary and in fact should be avoided at all costs.

FIBER: This is actually a general term for a family of plant substances including pectin, cellulose, lignin, hemicellulose, gums, mucilage, and others. These are the parts of plants that pass through the body undigested, adding the bulk that is crucial for the regulation of the digestive system. Fiber is concentrated in the bran of grains, skins of certain fruits, filaments found in the flesh of vegetables, and so on. This valuable substance is considered crucial to health, especially that of the digestive system.

According to nutritionist Jane Brody, fiber fills the stomach and small intestine, absorbing water and slowing down digestion enough to prolong the feeling of fullness. Further, she says that those living on high-fiber diets rarely suffer from constipation or hemorrhoids and are less likely to develop colon cancer.

High-fiber foods include whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables. Twenty-five to thirty-five grams of fiber a day constitute what is considered a diet high in fiber.

MINERALS: These elemental substances are essential nutrients needed to regulate many bodily functions. Two types of minerals are utilized; these are the major minerals and the trace minerals. Both are vital, but the distinction lies in the amounts present in the body. Here is a description of a few of the most important minerals:

Calcium is best known for its role in the formation and maintenance of bones and teeth. It also assists in blood clotting and the functions of the tissues. Some good sources are low-fat dairy products (though there is a growing question as to whether dairy calcium is the optimal source of absorbable calcium for the body), nuts, sesame seeds, soy foods, and dark green leafy vegetables. Iron is important in the functions of the blood, including its formation and the carrying of oxygen to the tissues.

Some good sources are eggs, dried fruits, molasses, legumes, including lentils and peas, certain grains, especially whole wheat and its components, and sunflower seeds. Good vitamin C intake helps the absorption of iron.

Magnesium is needed for the functions of the cells, nerves, muscles, the heart and other organs, as well as in the overall metabolic functions. Some good sources are nuts, grains, legumes, dark green vegetables, and soy foods.

Phosphorus plays an essential role in all cell functions and activates enzymes and B vitamins. Some good sources are dairy products, eggs, meats, nuts, and grains.

Potassium is also important to cell functions, as well as those of the kidneys, muscles, and in maintaining the heartbeat. It is a mineral common to many foods; there is little danger of deficiency. Some good sources are dried fruits and fresh fruits, particularly bananas and oranges, molasses, seeds, potatoes, and wheat germ.

Zinc is needed for the production of new cells and is important for enzyme functions. Some good sources are whole grains, particularly wheat germ, beans, nuts and seeds, and dairy products.

ORGANIC FOODS: These are foods grown in soils fertilized with organic rather than synthetic fertilizers and are not sprayed with inorganic chemicals. Foods described as “whole” or “natural” are not necessarily organically grown. Organically grown foods are more expensive, but not so much more as to make them prohibitive. Natural food stores, food co-ops, some farm markets, and a growing number of supermarkets now offer organic choices to consumers concerned with the effects of pesticides, additives, and chemical fertilizers—both on human health and the environment.

PROTEIN: Along with carbohydrates and fats, protein is one of the three “large nutrients,” and often a misunderstood one. Protein is an essential factor in the building and maintenance of all bodily tissues and in the formation of enzymes and hormones. Protein is composed of some twenty amino acids, eight of which the body cannot manufacture, and these are taken in as food. Foods that have all eight essential amino acids in the precise proportions necessary to be readily usable by the body are considered “complete proteins.”

Vital as protein is, it has recently been accepted that more protein is not necessarily better. Many nutritionists recommend taking in what your body needs and no more, since excess protein cannot be stored. Eliminating excess protein puts great stress on several of the body’s organs, and eating too much of it can make you fat. Protein is also not, as is commonly believed, the body’s ideal source of energy—it comes in third after carbohydrates and fats. The Recommended Daily Allowance has been set at .8 grams per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. Thus, a 120-pound woman needs about 44 grams of protein a day; a 160-pound man, about 58 grams.

For more, see Protein in a Plant Based Diet.

VEGETARIANISM: Many people who are vegetarians think of their diet as a way of life rather than merely as a way of eating. It’s not necessary to be a strict vegetarian to be a practitioner of a natural foods diet; but generally, vegetarians almost by definition are more conscientious about the foods they eat. Here are the primary forms of vegetarianism that are practiced:

  • Lacto vegetarian: Dairy products such as milk and cheese are included in the diet, but not eggs.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: This diet includes both dairy products and eggs.

VEGAN: No eggs or dairy products are used at all. This diet relies primarily on grains, legumes, and soy foods as protein sources. Veganism is often also a philosophical lifestyle as well as a diet. Thus, no animal products are used at all—including leather, animal-based cosmetics, and bee products.

VITAMINS: Vitamins are complex organic compounds, essential in minute quantities to assist the metabolic functions of the body. Here are some of the most common vitamins and what they do for you:

Vitamin A is important to vision, for the maintenance of healthy skin and mucous membranes, and for resistance to infectious diseases. Some good sources are dark green vegetables; deep yellow vegetables and fruits (such as squashes, carrots, and peaches), peas, dried apricots; and prunes. B Vitamins (with the exception of B12) are generally found in plentiful quantity in whole grains and cereals, wheat germ, yeasts, nuts and seeds, beans, and some green vegetables. Here are some specifics:

Vitamin B1 (thiamin) prevents depression and assists in the functions of the nervous and digestive systems. Some good sources are legumes, whole grains, dark green vegetables, seeds, and wheat germ.

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) is important in cell functions, enzyme functions, and to assist normal growth. Some good sources are dairy products, eggs, whole grains, broccoli, almonds, and wheat germ.

Vitamin B3 (Niacin), another B vitamin, is needed by the cells to utilize oxygen and also aids in metabolism. Some good sources are legumes, nuts, and whole grains.

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) regulates the nervous system and produces antibodies. It also promotes healthy skin. Some good sources are nuts, seeds, whole grains, bananas, tomatoes, and some sea vegetables.

Vitamin B12 is essential for general growth and for the functions of the blood cells and nervous system. In vegetarian diets, eggs and dairy products are the common sources. Nutritional yeast is a fantastic source for vegan diets. It’s present in unreliable amounts in tempeh, miso, and some sea vegetables. B12 is found in some fortified nondairy milks. Of course, there are also vitamin supplements as well.

Vitamin C is vital in forming collagen, which binds the body cells, and is also needed for the health of the tissues. Vitamin C is also thought to be of benefit to wound healing and resistance to infection. Some good sources are citrus fruits, melons, dark green vegetables, tomatoes, green peppers and other Capsicum peppers, currants, and apricots.

Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium and phosphorus, which are crucial to the formation and maintenance of bones and teeth. Some good sources are fortified specially for nondairy milk and sunlight. If your diet is in short supply of the aforementioned, make sure to supplement.

Vitamin E is important in the functions of the heart, blood cells, endocrine system, and muscles. It is also believed to have properties that retard aging and promote general well-being. Some good sources are wheat germ, oats, nuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, nut and seed oils, and safflower oil.

  • For more tips on plant-based nutrition, make sure to browse VegKitchen’s Nutrition page.
  • For lots more features on healthy lifestyle, please explore VegKitchen’s Healthy Vegan Kitchen page.
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