Vegetarian and vegan

The important thing to remember if you're a vegetarian is that you need to eat a balanced diet to make sure you're getting all the nutrients your body needs.                    

Healthy eating

The main healthy eating messages are the same for everybody. As part of a healthy balanced diet, we should all be trying to do the following:

  • eating at least five portions of a variety of fruit and veg every day
  • basing meals on starchy foods such as pasta, rice, cereals and pulses such as beans, peas and lentils. These should make up about a third of the diet
  • trying to cut down on food that is high in saturated fat and having foods that are rich in unsaturated fat instead, such as vegetable oils (including sunflower, rapeseed and olive oil), avocados, nuts and seeds
  • trying to grill, bake, poach, boil, steam, dry-fry or microwave instead of frying or roasting in oil
  • eating some protein foods such as dairy products, eggs or pulses and having a variety of these foods
  • cutting down on sugar
  • watching how much salt we're eating - it's a good idea to check food labels and try not to add salt to your food when you're cooking
  • drinking about 1.2 litres (6 to 8 glasses) of fluid a day or more if you exercise

But you also need to make sure you're getting enough nutrients, especially protein, iron and selenium, which can sometimes be lacking in a meat-free diet.

Getting the nutrients you need

Getting enough protein

It's important to make sure you're getting enough protein.

These foods are all good sources, so try to include a mixture of these in your diet each day, and vary the types you choose:

  • pulses (such as lentils and beans)
  • nuts and seeds
  • eggs
  • soya and soya products such as tofu
  • mycoprotein, sold as Quorn
  • wheat proteins, such as cereals, bread, rice and maize
  • milk and dairy products

Protein is made of amino acids, some of which are known as 'essential amino acids' because the body can't make them itself.

It's important to get some of each of these essential amino acids at the same time. Soya, quinoa and hemp seeds are the only vegetarian sources of the complete mix of essential amino acids. (The complete mix is also found in meat, poultry, fish and eggs.)

Although it sounds complicated, it's actually easy to get all the essential amino acids you need by eating different types of protein foods at the same time, in fact you will often being doing this already, for example by having:

  • beans on your toast
  • milk with your breakfast cereal
  • rice with lentil dhal
  • a rice and bean salad
  • vegetable chilli (with kidney beans) served with rice or tortillas
  • bread and cheese
  • soup made with lentils, beans or split peas with a chunk of bread
  • houmous and pitta bread

It's also not a good idea to rely on one type of protein because you might be missing out on nutrients. And, if for example you rely on cheese as your source of protein, you might be having too much saturated fat.

If you don't eat milk and dairy products, choose soya, rice or oat drinks fortified with calcium instead.

Getting enough selenium

It's important to make sure you're getting enough selenium because selenium is important for our immune systems to function properly.

Meat, fish and nuts are the best sources of selenium, so if you're a strict vegetarian, it's important to make sure you're eating enough nuts.

Brazil nuts are a particularly good source of selenium, so try to eat a couple every day. Eating a small bag of mixed unsalted nuts can be a convenient way to get your daily selenium intake, but make sure it contains Brazils.

Bread and eggs also provide some selenium.

If you eat a mostly vegetarian diet but also eat fish, you should be getting enough selenium.

Getting enough iron

Although meat is the best source of iron, it can also be found in:

  • pulses
  • green vegetables such as watercress, broccoli, spring greens and okra
  • bread
  • fortified breakfast cereals

Remember that it's easier to absorb iron from food if we eat it with foods that contain vitamin C, so have some fruit or veg, or a glass of fruit juice with your meal.

Cutting down on tea and coffee could help to improve iron levels in the body. This is because tea and coffee contains compounds, called polyphenols, which can bind with iron making it harder for our bodies to absorb it.

What do vegetarians eat?

Vegetarians don't eat any meat, fish, seafood or animal by-products such as gelatine, but the majority of vegetarians do eat some animal products, mainly milk, cheese (made with vegetarian rennet) and eggs.

Some people eat a mostly vegetarian diet, but also eat fish.

Visit the Vegetarian Society website

More on foods labelled vegetarian

What do vegans eat?

Vegans don't eat any foods of animal origin. This includes meat, fish and dairy foods, and also honey.

If you are a vegan, you need to make sure you're getting enough protein and iron (see above), but it can also be difficult to get enough vitamin B12.

These are good vegan sources of vitamin B12:

  • yeast extract
  • fortified bread
  • fortified breakfast cereals

Visit the Vegan Society website