A vegetarian is a person who does not eat or does not believe in eating meat, fish, fowl, or, in some cases, any food derived from animals, as eggs or cheese, but subsists on vegetables, fruits, nuts, grain, etc.
Healthy eating as a vegetarian
- Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day. Try to eat at least five 80g portions of fresh, frozen, canned, dried or juiced fruit and vegetables a day. As well as vitamins and minerals, fruit and vegetables provide fiber, which can help digestion and prevents constipation.
- Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates. Choose wholegrain where possible. Starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, cereals, rice and pasta should make up just over a third of the food you eat. Starchy foods are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients in our diet. As well as starch, they contain fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins.
- Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks). Choose lower-fat and lower-sugar options. Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, are good sources of protein, calcium and vitamins A and B12. This food group includes milk and dairy alternatives, such as fortified, unsweetened soya, rice and oat drinks, which also contain calcium. To make healthier choices, go for lower-fat milk and dairy foods.
- Eat some beans, pulses, eggs and other protein. Pulses include beans, peas and lentils. They are a low-fat source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, and they count as a portion of vegetables. Nuts and seeds are also a source of protein and other nutrients. Pulses are particularly important for people who do not get protein by eating meat, fish or dairy products.
Other non-dairy sources of protein include eggs and meat alternatives, such as tofu, mycoprotein (such as Quorn), textured vegetable protein and tempeh.
You need to eat a variety of different sources of protein to get the right mixture of amino acids, which are used to build and repair the body’s cells.
- Choose unsaturated oils and spreads, and eat in small amounts. Unsaturated fats, including vegetable, rapeseed, olive and sunflower oils, are healthier than saturated fats, such as butter, lard and ghee. But all types of fat are high in energy and should be eaten sparingly.
- Eat foods high in fat, salt and sugar less often and in small amounts. If you are having foods high in salt, fat and sugar, such as cream, chocolate, crisps, biscuits, pastries, ice cream, cakes and puddings, eat these less often and in small amounts.
Foods in this group mainly provide energy in the form of fats and sugars, but may only provide a very small amount of other nutrients.
Getting nutrients from a vegetarian diet
It’s important to vary what you eat. Some nutrients are found in smaller amounts in vegetarian sources or are less easily absorbed by the body than those in meat or fish.
Contrary to popular belief, most vegetarians usually have enough protein and calcium (found in dairy products) in their diet.
However, if you don’t plan your diet properly, you could miss out on essential nutrients. For example, vegetarians need to make sure they get enough iron and vitamin B12 in their diets.
Being vegetarian during pregnancy and beyond
During pregnancy and when breastfeeding, women who follow a vegetarian diet need to make sure they get enough vitamins and minerals for their child to develop healthily.
If you are bringing up your baby or child on a vegetarian diet, you need to make sure they eat a wide variety of foods to provide the energy and vitamins they need for growth.
Vegetarian sources of iron
Vegetarians are more likely to have lower iron stores than meat eaters. Good sources of iron for vegetarians include:
- dried fruit
- dark-green vegetables such as watercress, broccoli and spring greens
- wholemeal bread
- fortified cereals (with added iron)
Vegetarian sources of vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is needed for growth, repair and general health. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products. If you regularly eat eggs or dairy products, you probably get enough. However, if you only eat a small amount or avoid all animal products, it’s important to have a reliable source of vitamin B12 in your diet.
Good sources of vitamin B12 include:
- fortified yeast extracts, such as Marmite
- fortified breakfast cereals and fortified soya products
Vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, primarily those found in oily fish, can help maintain a healthy heart and reduce the risk of heart disease when eaten as part of a healthy diet.
Sources of omega-3 fatty acids suitable for vegetarians include:
- flaxseed (linseed) oil
- rapeseed oil
- soya oil and soya-based foods, such as tofu
- egg enriched with omega-3
Evidence suggests that vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids may not have the same benefits for reducing the risk of heart disease as those in oily fish.
However, if you eat a vegetarian diet, you can still look after your heart by eating at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day, by cutting down on food that is high in saturated fat and by watching how much salt you eat.