Many people experience a boost of energy after switching to a vegan diet, while others feel more fatigued than usual. Plant-based diets can support healthy energy levels, but as with any eating pattern, it’s important to make sure that you’re getting the proper balance of nutrients. So how do plant-based foods provide us with energy, and what are the best vegan energy foods?
We’ll discuss these questions below, as well as other important considerations for maintaining great energy levels as a vegan.
How do we get energy from food?
The main way that food provides us with energy is through the calories it contains. A “calorie” is quite literally a measure of the energy provided by a given food. The calories in any given food are a combination of the energy provided by the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) in that food.
Fat provides the most energy at 9 calories per gram, with carbohydrates and protein both providing 4 calories per gram. Therefore, higher-fat foods tend to be the highest in calories, and therefore the highest in energy.
Of course, you’d probably feel pretty lousy if all you ate was high-fat, fried foods. This is because it’s easier for your body to use carbohydrates for energy, so it’s important to have a good balance of all three macronutrients. Fat also slows down digestion, which helps us feel full after meals when eaten as part of a balanced diet. Too much, though, can leave us feeling sluggish or uncomfortably full and can even cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Certain vitamins and minerals that we get from food also help support healthy energy levels. While they don’t provide energy from calories, they help the body convert food into energy more efficiently.
Micronutrients can also contribute to our energy levels in other ways. Iron, for example, is a mineral required for the transportation of oxygen throughout the body. A tell-tale sign of iron deficiency is chronic fatigue and weakness that won’t go away.
Another example is vitamin B12, a vitamin that is largely absent from plant-based foods but is critical for preventing megaloblastic anemia. Don’t be fooled by supplements claiming that B12 will automatically give you a burst of energy, though — if you already get enough B12 from fortified foods or supplements, taking extra likely won’t do much to help you feel more energized. (1)
Water doesn’t have calories, but helps keep our energy levels up by preventing dehydration. And drinking plain water isn’t the only way to stay hydrated – many fruits and vegetables have a high water content (think watermelon and cucumber) and can help us meet our daily hydration needs and feel more refreshed.
Dietary fiber is another component of food that doesn’t provide calories but is related to energy levels in its own way. Fiber is abundant in whole plant-based foods like beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and soy foods like edamame and tempeh.
It’s essential for making stools soft enough to pass regularly, and not getting enough fiber can leave you feeling constipated, sluggish, and not at your best. It also serves as healthy fuel for the bacteria in your gut and supports a healthy immune system.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate and is present in carbohydrate-rich foods. It’s what classifies a food as a “complex carbohydrate”, meaning that the carbohydrates in these foods aren’t absorbed as quickly and don’t cause blood sugar levels to spike as much as “refined carbohydrates” do. Refined carbohydrates have had the fiber removed and include things like all-purpose flour, white bread, white sugar, and white rice.
The best vegan energy foods
Fortunately, vegan diets that include plenty of whole plant-based foods are rich in complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, plant-based protein, vitamins, and minerals that the body needs for optimal energy levels. Let’s discuss the best vegan energy foods below!
1. Peanut butter
Packed with healthy vegan fats and protein, peanut butter is a great source of nutrient-dense calories. Try spreading it on toast or bagels, stirring it into oatmeal, blending in smoothies, or using it as a dip for celery or carrots.
No worries if you’re allergic to peanuts — any nut butter or seed butter will do, whether you prefer almond butter, cashew butter, or sunflower seed butter.
You may have heard that potatoes don’t have any nutritional value and shouldn’t be eaten, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Potatoes are a great source of complex carbohydrates, providing the body with long-lasting fuel. They’re also a surprising source of vitamin C and are known for being a good source of potassium.
In my experience, including potatoes in meals helps make them more satisfying and can help fuel you for hours. Other carbohydrate-rich root vegetables like sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips, and beets are great alternatives.
As another incredible source of complex carbohydrates, it’s no wonder many endurance athletes and marathon runners fuel up for a grueling race with oats.
If you don’t like oats, no problem — other grains like quinoa, brown rice, barley, millet, and farro will also do the trick.
4. Whole grain bread
Good news — there’s no need to avoid bread on a vegan diet! Often demonized for being high in carbohydrates, this is precisely why bread is a great source of energy.
Of course, it can be easy to over-consume bread, as many of us know from dining at restaurants that provide complimentary bread baskets before a meal. But including whole grain bread as a balanced part of plant-based meals can be helpful for energy, particularly if you have a poor appetite overall or have been overly restrictive with carbohydrates.
Use two slices in a sandwich and stick with one or two rolls at dinner to leave room for other nutrient-dense foods.
Other grain-based foods like pita, vegan naan, and corn tortillas serve the same purpose, so there’s no need to start eating bread if you already enjoy these other nutritious options.
It’s impossible to focus on one specific fruit because all fruits provide a powerful combination of fiber, carbohydrates (in the form of beneficial natural sugars), and water to help us feel our best. They also contain antioxidants, phytochemicals, and micronutrients like vitamin C which help fight cellular damage caused by oxidative stress and inflammation.
The high vitamin C content of many fruits makes them valuable for vegans in an additional way. Fruit increases the absorption of iron from plant-based foods within the body, which we know is an important mineral for the transportation of oxygen throughout the body and preventing fatigue.
Just two Medjool dates provide 36 grams of complex carbohydrates, making them a perfect on-the-go snack for busy days.
They can be eaten plain or used to make energy bites. My favorite way to eat them is with a smear of peanut butter for an energizing sweet-and-salty snack!
7. Beans & lentils
Beans and lentils are two of the most effective vegan energy foods.
I’ve found that many vegans tend to feel better and have more energy when they start including beans or lentils regularly at meals, and it’s something I’ve noticed in my own life as well. These legumes are great combination foods that provide iron, complex carbohydrates, and plant protein all in one, providing long-lasting energy for hours.
Because legumes are so versatile, they can be enjoyed in countless ways! Chickpea curry, black bean tacos or soup, chili with pinto and kidney beans, lentil stew, and white beans added to soups or blended in creamy white pasta sauces are delicious ways to use legumes. Red beans and rice, pasta e fagioli, bean-based pastas, and pigeon peas and rice are also popular options.
Tempeh and other soy-based foods like edamame and soy curls are also incredible sources of protein, iron, and complex carbohydrates. Tofu is lower in carbohydrates than the others, but still provides fiber and protein.
One thing that makes tempeh and other legumes like beans and lentils so valuable for vegans is their iron content. You can remember it this way: plant-based foods high in protein tend to be the best vegan sources of iron as well.
Is Tempeh Gluten-Free? What You Need to Know
Like bread, pasta is often considered a dietary villain for being high in carbohydrates despite the fact that carbohydrates are necessary for our bodies to function efficiently.
Rather than basing the majority of an everyday meal on pasta, though, try making things a little more balanced by including plant-based protein, healthy fats, and vegetables.
Not sure how to do this? Try these ideas!
- Penne with red lentils cooked in marinara sauce and a side salad with balsamic vinaigrette
- Fettuccine in a creamy tofu-based sauce with a side of green beans sauteed in olive oil
- Farfalle with a cashew-based sauce, tempeh “sausage” crumbles, and roasted cherry tomatoes
- Mediterranean pasta salad with chickpeas, olives, avocado, cucumbers, red onion, and cherry tomatoes
Be aware that most fresh pasta contains eggs and isn’t vegan-friendly, so stick with boxed pasta or check with restaurant staff before ordering.
10. Chia seeds
As mentioned above, healthy fats are an important source of calories and energy for the body. Chia seeds are a particularly rich plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for supporting brain and heart health as well as reducing inflammation.
Chia seeds can be added to smoothies and oatmeal or made into chia pudding for a snack or dessert. Ground flax seeds and hemp seeds make great alternatives that still provide a boost of omega-3 fats.
For more information, check out my article Hemp Seeds vs. Chia Seeds – Which is Better?
11. Nutritional yeast
While not particularly high in calories, nutritional yeast is such an incredible ingredient for boosting the nutrient density of plant-based meals that I would be remiss not to include it.
Many brands of nutritional yeast are fortified with vitamin B12, which we know is low in plant-based foods and is important for the transportation of oxygen throughout the body. This makes it a great tool for supporting healthy energy levels, not to mention its deliciously “cheesy” flavor and ability to provide 8 grams of protein in a ¼ cup serving!
Energy for exercise
We’ve discussed the importance of focusing on whole, fiber-rich, complex sources of carbohydrates for energy, but fueling for exercise has an important caveat. When eating carbohydrates just before a workout or run, refined carbohydrates can be a better choice since they’re quickly absorbed and low in fiber.
Too much fiber or fat right before exercising can lead to digestive upset in some people, so easily digestible carbohydrates like crackers, pretzels, bananas, and dates are popular choices right before a workout.
Other factors that can impact energy
Including a variety of nutritious foods in the diet is wonderful, but we can’t forget about the negative impact eating too many foods high in saturated fat or added sugars and low in fiber can have on energy levels. With the increased innovation in and availability of vegan convenience foods, it’s getting more common for the nutrition profile of vegan diets to look similar to that of the standard American diet.
A few examples of these more highly processed foods higher in saturated fat and added sugars include meat alternatives and vegan cheeses using coconut oil as a primary ingredient, baked goods, and non-dairy ice cream. And let’s not forget regular favorites like French fries, potato chips, and Oreos that vegans also love!
While fun, delicious foods like these have a place in the diet and don’t necessarily need to be avoided, I recommend that vegans enjoy them once in a while and base the majority of their meals on beans, legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds in order to feel their best.
If your diet is well-balanced and you’re still dealing with low energy, other factors like stress, lack of sleep, over-exercising, not eating enough calories overall, or inadequate absorption of nutrients may be to blame. Your physician can help you determine whether your fatigue is due to a medical condition and a registered dietitian can help with diet-related strategies.
No single food is going to prevent low levels of energy. Rather, it’s important to think about the overall quality of your diet and prioritize foods that will support your energy levels as much as possible.
Eating a well-balanced diet by including fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds regularly at meals and trying not to rely too often on vegan convenience foods that aren’t as nutrient-dense is a great strategy for supporting your overall health and keeping your energy levels where you want them.
Vegan Energy Foods FAQ
Do vegans have low energy? How do vegans avoid fatigue?
Vegans can have low energy and fatigue if not eating well-planned meals that include a variety of beans, soy foods, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, since the combination of these foods provide a balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and micronutrients needed for optimal energy levels.
Combining iron-rich foods with foods rich in vitamin C and getting enough vitamin B12 from fortified foods and/or supplements can help vegans avoid fatigue.
How do I get B12 as a vegan?
Vegans can get enough vitamin B12 by eating enough fortified foods, taking a B12 supplement, or through a combination of the two. Many brands of nutritional yeast, breakfast cereals, and non-dairy milks are fortified with vitamin B12, but be sure to check the product label to be sure. 2.4 micrograms per day from fortified foods or a daily supplement of 250 micrograms is recommended for vegan adults, according to the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. (2)
Is a vegan diet good for energy?
Many people find that they have improved energy levels after going vegan thanks to the complex carbohydrates, fiber, and antioxidants found in a variety of whole or minimally processed plant-based foods.
To optimize their energy levels and prevent fatigue, vegans should regularly include well-balanced meals that include beans, soy foods, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds in their diet. Combining iron-rich foods with foods rich in vitamin C and getting enough vitamin B12 from fortified foods and/or supplements is also key for energy.
The scientific information in this article was accurate at the time of publishing but may change over time as new research becomes available.
- National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin B12 Consumer Fact Sheet. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-Consumer/#:~:text=Vitamin%20B12%20is%20a%20nutrient,makes%20people%20tired%20and%20weak. Accessed 5/4/23.
- Pawlak R; Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. RD resources for professionals: vitamin B12 in vegetarian diets. https://vndpg.org/docs/rd-resources/B12-RD.pdf. Published 2012. Accessed 5/5/23.