How to eat vegan on a student budget

This month is World Vegan Month so we caught up with Master of Dietetics Studies student Bronwyn to help us demystify some common misconceptions about a vegan diet, and hear her tips on being vegan on a budget.

As a dietetics student I’m used to being asked questions like “What is vegan?”, “Is it hard to be vegan?”, “Is being vegan better for your health?”, “Does it cost more to eat a vegan diet?”, etc.

Most people have heard the term vegan, but are confused about what it really means.

Below I’ve tried to cover some of the most frequently asked questions, so whether you’re here to learn about veganism in general, or get tips on how you can become vegan on a student budget, you’re in the right place.

What is a vegan diet?

Simply put, a vegan diet excludes ALL animal products. This means all meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, eggs, honey and any other animal-derived ingredients like gelatine. However, some vegans may choose to include honey in their diet, and that’s their personal choice.

So, what can vegans eat? EVERYTHING PLANT-BASED! This includes fruits, vegetables, bread, cereal, grains, legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans), soy products (tofu, tempeh, soymilk, edamame), nuts and seeds.

Is being vegan better for your health?

The benefits of eating lots of vegetables and fruits are well-known. Plants provide a great source of fibre, which helps feed our good gut bacteria and help keep our bowel healthy. 

Plants are also a source of essential vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, which are biologically active compounds that can have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and protective functions within the body. Eating a diverse range of fibrous plants is associated with a more diverse gut microbiome, which is thought to be a good indicator of gut health.

The link between gut health and overall wellbeing is definitely 2020’s most talked about nutrition topic.

Vegan diets that are filled with lots of different whole and minimally processed plants will see the greatest benefits. However, you don’t need to go vegan to be healthier or improve your gut health. Diversifying your gut microbiome and achieving a healthy diet is possible while still consuming animal-derived foods, as long as it's done right.

For most, going vegan is all about ethics. Many people simply do not wish to eat anything that comes from an animal, or are concerned with the environmental impact of certain agricultural practices.

Are there any hidden dangers to a vegan diet?

Before you think about going vegan, it’s important to understand the potential dangers and health risks if done poorly.

‘Veganism’ or products labelled as being ‘vegan’ are often perceived as being healthier than non-vegan products. This health-halo effect means that highly processed vegan ‘meats’ or refined grains (bran and fibre removed) can sometimes be seen as the better options. For example, products like Oreos, chicken-less nuggets and vegan cheese offer minimal nutritional value (low in protein, high in fat and minimal micronutrients). Additionally, these products are often highly processed and lack fibre. So, although they are considered to be vegan, it does not mean they are better for you. Opting for minimally processed whole foods is the best option.

Getting enough protein is usually not an issue for people following a vegan diet, however attention needs to be given to getting the right type of protein. Diversity in the diet is essential in ensuring a vegan dietary pattern incudes all 9 essential amino acids in the right amounts. There are also some essential nutrients that vegans need to be aware of and to make sure they are eating the right foods to meet their requirements (sometimes supplementation is required). 

Key nutrients to look out for:

B12 – this essential nutrient is only naturally found in animal sources. People following a vegan diet either need to supplement or ensure they are consuming products fortified with B12 (like some soymilks or vegan ‘meats’). It is always best to speak with your GP or a Dietitian before supplementing nutrients.

Iron – absorbing enough iron can be tricky for vegans. The plant sources of iron (non-haem iron) include wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dark leafy green, dried fruits and tofu. However, the body has more difficulty absorbing this non-haem iron compared to the haem iron found in animal products. Combining with vitamin C and avoiding tea/coffee around mealtimes can help your body absorb more non-haem iron.

Calcium – dairy products are generally a great source of calcium as they contain high amounts which is easily absorbed. Vegans must be sure to eat sources of plant-based or fortified calcium-rich foods daily. These could include calcium fortified plant-based milks (e.g. Vitasoy, So Good), soy-based yogurts, breakfast cereals, tofu (that has been set in calcium), almonds, tahini and green leafy vegetables. Be sure to check the product’s nutrition label to ensure it is fortified with calcium.

Omega-3 fats – marine sources (oily fish) are usually the best sources of omega-3. The omega 3 found in animal products is already in the form our bodies can use right away (EPA and DHA), whereas the plant source of omega 3 (ALA) are in a form that our body has to convert before using. It is important to note that the conversion rate of ALA (plant source of omega 3) to EPA and DHA (animal source of omega 3) is very low. Some plant sources include flaxseeds and walnuts.

How can I be vegan while on a student budget?

Living a vegan lifestyle can be challenging when you’re a student, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to sacrifice taste or quality to ace the plant-based lifestyle, whatever your budget.

Here are some of my favourite tips for mastering vegan eating on the cheap:

LEGUMES, LEGUMES, LEGUMES – buying dry or canned legumes is a cheap way to add lots of protein, fibre and micronutrients to your meals. Lentil, chickpeas, beans or any other type of legumes can be added to soups, salad, stews or curries for a cheap meal. 

Opting for whole fresh foods – all the fancy vegan products (vegan cheese, vegan meats, yogurts and so on) in the supermarkets are often very expensive and are not necessary to lead a healthy vegan lifestyle. So rather than buying packaged vegan foods that will break the budget, go for wholefoods like edamame beans, tinned or dried legumes, wholegrains, vegetables, nuts and seeds instead.

Cheap vegan proteinsas mentioned above, alternative plant-based protein sources can often break the bank (think vegan chicken strips). However, packaged foods like tofu, dehydrated soy protein, soymilk or baked beans are cheaper alternatives without compromising on the nutritional value.

BANG for your bucklook out for fortified products to make sure you’re meeting your micronutrient requirements. For example, soymilks, tofu/tempeh or breakfast cereals that are fortified with calcium and B12 is a great way to ramp up the nutritional value of your everyday meals.

Final word

We should be aiming to eat 30 different plant foods per week and a vegan diet may help achieve this. Even just focusing on consuming more plants is a start. This includes trying different herbs, spices, nuts or seeds, as it all adds up to a diverse diet. Some ideas to try: opt for a mixed nut variety instead of eating one, try the canned four-bean mix instead of just one bean variety, or even try a seed mix such as sunflower and pumpkin seeds on your cereal or avocado toast next time.

Last updated:
17 November 2020