Let's Uncover the Truth Behind
The Vegan Food Pyramid

So, the Vegan Food Pyramid was designed to act as a "mirror" to the conventional Food Pyramid. It assists those choosing a plant-based diet in selecting the foods they need to create a healthy and well-balanced diet.

But do we REALLY need to follow it?

Well, yes and no!

When most of us first go vegan, we sort of wing it because we usually have ZERO clue about what we're doing. Sound familiar? It happened to me too. Things went along just fine for a while, but then I started to realize I was getting sort of tired. Like, a lot!

So when I began to study this diet more closely, and used the Pyramid to guide me, it really helped to clear things up. For instance, I was not eating ANY beans/legumes, which is a major source of energy for us. Mucho importante!

So the Pyramid points you in the right direction, taking the guesswork out of which foods you should eat in order to get the proper nutrition you need.

But we have to remember that it's simply a guide, a beacon that shows you the way. But many people take it SO literally, that it halts their progress as they try to fit all the "recommended" servings into their daily diet.

So what we'll cover here is which food groups appear in the Pyramid and how to make use of the recommendations.

There's a wealth of information here that will help jump start your vegan diet and cooking adventure.

Ready? Let's get started...

Folks, Meet The Vegan Food Pyramid

Vegan Food Pyramid
(Thanks to Joshua Wold for the use of this image. You can purchase it on his website. Woot!    :)

As you can see, some of the food groups have a range of servings. If you're of small stature or are trying to lose weight, opt for the smaller end of the servings. If you're of a larger stature, are trying to gain weight, or have a muscular build, opt for the larger end of the servings - or more!

The Pyramid may look somewhat familiar. It is very similar to the conventional Pyramid you've likely seen your whole life.

But the cool thing about this Pyramid is that all the animal foods found in the conventional Pyramid have been replaced with plant foods that contain key nutrients that are very similar to those found in animal products -- without a smidge of cholesterol, of course.

So there ya go. All the food us plant-strong ones are supposed to eat in one tidy awesome chart.

Black and white photo of woman with lettuce sticking out of her mouth

There's just one teensy tiny thing...

Do you have to eat all the recommended foods from every food group every single day? What if you have a day where you're just not that hungry? Are you supposed to just shove all the food in your pie hole anyway?!

Well, somewhere along the way I came across three very important pieces of the puzzle...

  • The recommendations for the foods in the Vegan Food Pyramid are not necessarily DAILY recommendations, but the foods you should strive to eat in a 48-hour time period.

For example...

Look at the Veggie Group in the Pyramid - and note that the recommendation is 2-4 cups of veggies.

So one day you might be in a rush and only eat 1/2 cup of veggies (equal to 1 serving). But the next day you make a soup chock full of veggies and have 2 cups for lunch (equal to 4 servings), then in the evening you have a giant salad (2 cups of raw green salad is a serving, by the way), and you have 1 cup of broccoli with your meal (another 2 servings). And don't forget about accent veggies you likely ate throughout the day like onions, garlic, and bell peppers - likely adding up to another 1/2 cup (serving), perhaps?

This is what is meant by eating a balanced diet -- you're not perfect every day, but over the course of a couple days things even out and you're still on track.

So don't go crazy trying to eat exactly the amounts called for on a daily basis. Use it as a general guide so you understand the various food groups you want to reach for to keep your vegan diet in balance.

One thing you will notice pretty quickly is that there is no room for CRAP food. You only have so much room in your tummy, and if you want to be healthy, then you simply must save the room for your veggies, beans, whole grains, fruit, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats.

Go ahead and have the occasional junk food if you must, but do so sparingly. Just be smart -- this food is building and running your body!

And remember also, if you eat and eat and never seem to feel full, then you are likely not getting the nutrients your body needs.

  • Many foods in the Vegan Food Pyramid can be included in more than one food group.

For instance, the Pyramid's Fortified Soymilk and Alternates grouping takes the place of the conventional pyramid's Dairy Food Group -- both food groups focus on calcium-rich foods.

A serving of calcium-rich greens (like Kale or Broccoli) count as a serving in the Vegetables Group AND in the Fortified Soymilks and Alternates. Why? Because they are vegetables which also contain lots of calcium.

Here's another one. The Bean and Bean Alternates group takes the place of the conventional pyramid's Meat grouping (protein).

A serving of calcium-enriched tofu, then, would fall into not only the Bean and Bean Alternates Group (soy bean), but the Fortified Soymilk and Alternates Group too (calcium-enriched).

Final one. A serving of almond butter will fall into not only the Bean and Bean Alternates grouping (protein), but also the Fortified Soymilk and Alternates group because almonds are high in calcium.

If you need help figuring out which foods fall into which groups, then visit my in-depth nutrition article where you will find a tool to help you figure out the nutritional data for various foods. A little "too much information", but it is there if you need it!

  • Serving sizes in the Vegan Food Pyramid are smaller than you might think.

  • Chopped Cooked Vegetables 1/2 cup (1/2 baseball or rounded handful for avg. adult)
  • Cooked Dark Green Leafies (kale, chard, collards) 1 cup (1 baseball or one fist for avg. adult)
  • Raw Dark Green Leafies (kale, chard, collards) 2 cups (2 baseballs or two fists for avg. adult)
  • Salad Greens 2 cups (2 baseballs or two fists for avg. adult)
  • Vegetable Juice 6 ounces (3/4 of a cup)
  • Cooked Beans 1/2 cup cooked (1/2 baseball or rounded handful for avg. adult)
  • Fresh Fruit 1 medium piece 1/2 cup chopped (1/2 baseball or rounded handful for avg. adult)
  • Dried Fruit 1/4 cup (1 golf ball or scant handful for avg. adult)
  • Fruit Juice (fresh squeezed!) 6 ounces (3/4 of a cup) - Drink sparingly, if at all. Fruit juice (without the fiber-filled fruit itself) is very concentrated in natural sugars and can cause a spike in your blood sugar).
  • Whole Grains, Pasta, Cooked Cereal 1/2 cup (1/2 baseball or rounded handful for avg. adult)
  • Fortified Dairy Substitute (non-dairy milk) 1 cup
  • Ready-to-Eat Cereal 1 oz. varies from 1/2 cup to 1 1/4 cup (check label)
  • Nuts 1/4 cup (level handful for avg. adult )
  • Seeds 2 Tablespoons
  • Oils or (Non-Hydrogenated!) Margarines 1 teaspoon

When you take all this into consideration, it's easy to meet the suggested servings/cups needed to balance your diet.

And although it may take a little time to get used to, and you might find yourself measuring out your food for a while, once you begin to experiment with these amounts it will become second nature to you. You'll be well on your way to meeting the recommended nutrients required.

My eCourse Plan It With Sass! breaks apart all the information from this Pyramid into easy-to-implement steps so you not only know which foods to eat every day but by the end of the course you're creating balanced meals and menus. Super helpful!

The Vegan Food Pyramid Food Groups

Now you have a general idea of the various food groups you should be including in your diet, it's time to learn more about each group and how to incorporate them into your diet.

For your convenience and ease, I've broken them into sections...

Vegetables Group

VegetablesDo you have ANY idea just how good veggies are for you? They're one of the most important foods you can eat. Check out the Fresh Vegetables Guide, including WHY veggies are healthy, a primer on organics, necessary servings, juicing ideas, some general rules about veggies, and more (!), plus how to select, clean, cook and flavor your vegetables.

Fortified Soymilk and Alternates Group

Organic almond milkThis is the Vegan Calcium group. As long as you're eating a well-balanced diet, it's difficult to NOT get the calcium you need. Learn more about which foods and products contain this important nutrient.

Beans, Bean Alternates, Nuts & Seeds Group

Various beansTake a peek at the Vegan Protein Guide to learn which foods with protein will meet your needs, how many servings you need, and finally how to select and prepare these protein-rich foods.

Whole Grains, Breads, Rice, Pasta, Cereals Group

Whole GrainsYou'll find some important info and tips in the Whole Grains Guide, including how our grains became stripped down to their "whities", how many servings of whole grains you should eat on a daily basis, a list of grains for you to discover, and how to select, clean, soak, cook and flavor your grains to perfection.

Fruit Group

A blackberry and a strawberryNext up, my Fruit Guide. Learn which fruits MUST BE organic and which can be conventional. Also learn how to select and clean your fruit, fruit "Flavor Matches", and nutritional information too.

Omegas, B12 and D Group

Vitamin D3There are some very important nutrients we need to be sure to supplement with and you can learn about these in my Vegan Nutrition Guide.


Glass of waterLast but certainly not least is WATER! Sure, you might think you have it covered, but if you're drinking water from the tap, or from plastic bottles, or you're using a home-filtration unit, chances are you're gulping down water that is not only devoid of minerals, but filled with chemicals. Ack!

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Let's Have a Chat: The Conventional USDA Guidelines

Now, if you're anything like me, you're curious about the traditional Food Pyramid. I mean, shouldn't we all be following the guidelines laid out for us for years and years by "the Powers that be?"

It's definitely worth taking a look at so you feel very confident that you are making the right dietary choices.

So let's examine our United States Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines. If you have been following the USDA dietary guidelines your entire life, it is certainly understandable because most of us have as well. It is natural to look to others who might know more about the topic of nutrition than we do.

But just because the USDA makes the proclamation of what we should eat, does that mean these food groups are, in fact, what you should eat on a daily basis?

Before you answer, consider the following...

1943 USDA 7 Basic Food Groups chart

  • In 1943, the USDA came out with the first Food Guide known as the "7 Basic Food Groups". What did they recommend we eat back then? Among other things canned vegetables and fruits, evaporated and/or dried milk, enriched or restored bread, flour, and cereals, and fortified margarine!

    Oy vey. I think most of us would agree that these foods are not exactly the hallmark of a healthy diet.
  • From 1956-1992, the USDA presented "The Four Food Groups", which many of us can remember from our days in elementary school. The Four Food Groups consisted of foods like milk and ice cream, meats/fish/poultry/eggs/cheese (this food group also included beans/peas/nuts but few people ever talked about these foods!), veggies and fruits (smooshed together in one group), and breads and cereals. (And it should be mentioned, as John Robbins points out in Diet For A New America, the "Basic Four" was promoted by the National Egg Board, the National Dairy Council, and the National Livestock and Meat Board—but I digress);
  • In 1992, the USDA came out with a new fangled pyramid shape, which gave much more prominence to whole grains and cereals, bumping them from 4 servings up to 6-11 servings. They also upped the veggies a bit, decreased the fruits, and the other stuff pretty much stayed the same;
  • In 2011, at the urging of concerned health and wellness professionals and U.S. citizens, the USDA created a "new and improved" Food Pyramid, only this time it was a very simple graphic of a plate.

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce (drum roll please)...

2011 USDA My Plate

This is the latest and the greatest from the USDA as of June 2011.

What do we notice? Well, first of all it appears that we have all become pretty dumbed down if we can only deal with a simple graphic like this.    :)

But seriously, they recommend 30 percent of our diet should be grains, 30 percent vegetables, 20 percent fruits and 20 percent protein. And then off to the side for good measure is the dairy. It is thought that it is easiest for people to look at this image and know just by looking at their plate if they are meeting the recommended food groups each day and week.

So they started out with a chart that had a category called "Meat" and now they have switched this category to "Protein." Could it be because they have come to the conclusion that we can get our protein from foods other than meat, no problem?

That's all well and good. But what does the USDA have to say about the vegan diet?

The USDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services came out with a Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern of their normal food recommendations in the USDA 2015 Dietary Guidelines to give an example of healthy eating patterns that can be adapted based on cultural or personal preferences...

"Based on a comparison of the food choices of these vegetarians to nonvegetarians in NHANES [National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey], amounts of soy products (particularly tofu and other processed soy products), legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains were increased, and meat, poultry, and seafood were eliminated. Dairy and eggs were included because they were consumed by the majority of these vegetarians. This Pattern can be vegan if all dairy choices are comprised of fortified soy beverages (soymilk) or other plant-based dairy substitutes.

"Note that vegetarian adaptations of the USDA Food Patterns were included in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. However, those adaptations did not modify the underlying structure of the Patterns, but substituted the same amounts of plant foods for animal foods in each food group.

"In contrast, the current Healthy Vegetarian Pattern includes changes in food group composition and amounts, based on assessing the food choices of vegetarians." 13

So not only have they adapted the traditional USDA Dietary Guidelines, but they went one step further to actually include changes in food group composition and amounts to include the vegetarian and vegan diets!

They've come a long way, Baby. (About time. Sheesh!)

*Note: The 2015 Guidelines are the current Federal policy until the 2020 Dietary Guidelines are published.

Whether you are 100% plant-based or not...

...you need to take control and educate yourself as much as you can about the food you put in your mouth and its effect on your health and wellness.


Because we are always learning new facts about food and nutrition, and it's very important to not get "stuck" in a food rut that may have been based on something you learned when you were a kid.

For instance, as you can see by the first poster above, the USDA started out by recommending "Beyond the Basic 7, eat anything you want!"

And now, according to the USDA 2015 Dietary Guidelines put out by the USDA and the HSS...

Although the majority of Americans consume sufficient amounts of most nutrients, some nutrients are consumed by many individuals in amounts below the Estimated Average Requirement or Adequate Intake levels. The U.S. population, across almost every age and sex group, consumes eating patterns that are too high in refined grains, added sugars, saturated fats, sodium, and for some age-sex groups, high in the meats, poultry, and eggs subgroup. Americans also consume too little potassium, dietary fiber, choline, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, D, E, and C.

It is suggested that low intakes for most of these nutrients occur within the context of unhealthy overall eating patterns, due to low intakes of the food groups—vegetables, fruits, and whole grains that contain these nutrients. They recommend that shifting to increase the intake of these food groups can move intakes of these underconsumed nutrients closer to recommendations.14

All I know for sure is the majority of people in the U.S. have been taking the advice of the USDA for over 70 years, and continue to fill their diets with meat, dairy, and eggs. And the majority of people here in the U.S. have problems with obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a host of other diseases and health challenges.


Perhaps those on the USDA Dietary Guidelines Committee have something to do with it...

Many people who have major health challenges and diseases and decide to go vegan have actually been able to heal themselves through diet.

Am I saying a plant-strong diet is the answer to every problem we have?

Ummmmm, actually, yes.

(That was a joke. Sort of.)

But the facts really speak pretty loudly, don't you think?

The vegan diet is here to stay, no doubt about it, and it is gaining even more momentum as time goes by. In other words, you are in very good company.

Hope this article has helped you to feel confident in choosing the foods and beverages that make up a healthy and well-balanced diet.

Thanks for spending the time with me.


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Back to the top -- Vegan Food Pyramid

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