Being a vegetarian generally means that you don’t eat any meat, fish or animal by-products, such as gelatine. However, some vegetarians do eat animal products, such as milk, eggs and cheese (provided it’s made with vegetarian rennet). Others may decide to eat fish or white meat.
Whichever type of vegetarian you are, or planning to be, you’ll need to make sure that you’re getting enough protein and iron. Try to eat a variety of proteins, as each type of protein contains different amounts of essential amino acids. These are the building blocks of protein, and they can’t be made by your body. Therefore, it’s important to combine different protein foods to make sure you’re getting a healthy intake of all the different amino acids.
Aim to include a variety of protein-packed meals in your diet, such as:
- beans on toast
- lentil dahl served with rice
- vegetable chilli with kidney beans
- veggie soup with lentils or split peas
- houmous and pitta breads
- soya products, such as tofu
The richest source of iron is red meat, so being a vegetarian means you’ll need to look for it elsewhere. Not getting enough iron in your diet could put you at risk of anaemia. This is a condition in which your blood is unable to carry enough oxygen around your body. It can make you feel very tired and could lead to problems with your heart and lungs. So to make sure you’re getting enough iron, try topping up with foods such as:
- iron-fortified breakfast cereals
- dried fruits, such as raisins
- beans and lentils
- dark green veggies, such as spinach and kale
- seeds and nuts
- wholemeal bread
- fruits, such as apricots and prunes
It’s also a good idea to include some vitamin C with your meal, as this can improve your uptake of iron. Opt for a side of vegetables, such as peppers and tomatoes, or why not have a glass of fresh fruit juice with your meal?
If you’re vegan, it means that you don’t eat any fish, meat, dairy products or by-products of animals. Whether you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you need to make sure you’re getting enough protein, iron and vitamin B12. Not having enough vitamin B12 in your body could lead to anaemia, or problems with your sight and memory.
Vitamin B12 is found in meat-free foods. Boost your B12 by topping up on foods such as:
- yeast extract
- soya products, such as milk and yoghurt
- breakfast cereals
- rice and oat drinks (check the label)
A lot of calcium comes from dairy foods, so you’ll need to also make sure you’re getting enough calcium from other sources. If you don’t eat dairy products, opt for foods such as:
- tofu – a great substitute for meat in a stir-fry
- green leafy vegetables – particularly pak-choi and kale (but not spinach)
- sesame seeds and nuts
- dried fruits, such as figs and apricots
Whatever diet you decide to follow, eating a balanced variety of food from the five main food groups is essential. As long as you plan your meals to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need, a vegetarian or vegan diet can be a healthy one. It may even open up a new way of eating healthier that works for you.
- Simon C, Everitt H, van Dorp F. Oxford handbook of general practice. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2010:176−78, 660−2
- Phillips, F. Vegetarian nutrition. Nutrition Bulletin 2005; 30 (2):132 − 67. doi:10.1111/j.1467-3010.2005.00467.x
- Obesity - guidance on the prevention, identification, assessment and management of overweight and obesity in adults and children. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2006. www.nice.org.uk
- Healthy eating for vegans and vegetarians. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, accessed 10 March 2014
- Vegetarian and vegan. Food Standards Agency (Buidheann Inbhe-Bidhe). www.eatwellscotland.org, accessed 10 March 2014
- Vegetarian diets - keeping a healthy balance. The British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, published August 2011
- Anaemia - iron deficiency. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, revised February 2013
- Anaemia. World Health Organization. www.who.int, accessed 12 March 2014
- Anaemia. Map of Medicine. www.mapofmedicine.com, published 9 December 2013
- Iron and health. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, 2010. www.sacn.gov.uk
- Vitamins. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, accessed 11 March 2014
- Anaemia - B12 and folate deficiency. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, revised February 2013
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