A nutritionist’s guide to a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet

Emily Walters
Health Adviser and Nutritionist at Bupa UK
30 May 2018

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This article is more than three years old. It reflects the best available evidence at the time of publication.

Eating a balanced diet is an important part of any healthy lifestyle. For many of us that means eating a wide variety of food, which probably includes meat, fish, dairy products and eggs. But, if you’ve decided to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may have to find some alternative sources to get all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients you need. The good news is, it’s possible to get everything your body needs from a balanced, well-planned, vegetarian or vegan diet.

As a vegetarian myself, I’ve put together my top tips to help you get the most from your chosen diet. What’s more, I’ll share one of my favourite recipes from Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday campaign for you to try at home.

What does being vegetarian or vegan mean?

In general, following a vegetarian diet means that you don’t eat any meat, fish or animal by-products, like gelatine. But you might choose to eat foods made from milk, eggs and cheese. Some vegetarians choose to eat fish or white meat sometimes.

On the other hand, being vegan means you don’t eat any food or drink that comes from an animal. This includes meat, fish, eggs, dairy products and animal by-products including honey. Being vegetarian or vegan means different things to different people, so one person’s diet choices might vary to another’s.

What does a balanced diet look like?

No matter what type of diet you follow, it’s always important to eat a balance of the five major food groups. The Eatwell Guide below is a good representation of this. You can use it as a starting point and adapt it to suit your own needs, substituting foods where necessary. Here are a few tips for vegetarians and vegans.

  • Starchy foods. Most of these should be suitable for vegetarians and vegans. Choose wholegrain varieties for added fibre.
  • Protein. In place of meat and fish, eat plenty of nuts, beans, chickpeas, pulses, soya products, tofu and vegetable protein (such as Quorn). Eggs and dairy products are also good sources of protein if you choose to eat these.
  • Dairy. If you don’t eat or drink dairy products, there are lots of alternatives to traditional milks, spreads and yoghurts available to choose from. For example, you can find soya, rice, oat and almond varieties. Many of these have calcium and vitamin D added to them too.

An image showing the recommended balance of the five major food groups

Important vitamins and minerals

Some nutrients can be more difficult to get from a vegetarian or vegan diet. This can be because plant foods only have small amounts of these, or because they’re less easily absorbed by your body. It’s important to plan your meals to make sure you get enough of things like selenium, iodine, zinc and Vitamin D. The main nutrients to consider are as follows.

  • Vitamin B12 – this plays a key role in your blood, nervous and immune systems. Eggs and dairy products are good sources of B12. If you’re not eating these, have yeast extract or look for fortified dairy alternatives and breakfast cereals instead.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – these support a healthy heart and brain development. You usually get these from oily fish. If you’re not a fish eater, you can get them from oils like soybean, flaxseed, rapeseed or walnut.
  • Calcium – this helps keep your teeth and bones strong. Dairy products are usually rich in calcium. If you’re not eating dairy, you can boost your calcium intake by eating calcium-fortified cereals, breads and non-dairy alternatives. Green leafy vegetables such as kale, pak-choi, rocket and watercress are also good sources of calcium.

Getting enough iron

Iron is a mineral important for fighting infection and carrying oxygen round your body. Many of us don’t get enough iron in our diet, especially women. The easiest way for our bodies to get it is by eating red meat. So if you’re vegetarian or vegan you’ll need to make sure you have a good alternative source of iron in your diet.

Try topping up with foods such as:

  • breakfast cereals which have added iron
  • dried fruits, such as raisins and apricots
  • beans and lentils
  • dark green veggies, such as spinach and kale
  • seeds and nuts
  • wholemeal bread

It’s also a good idea to include some Vitamin C when you eat any iron-rich foods, as this helps your body to take up the iron. So opt for a side of vegetables rich in Vitamin C, such as peppers and tomatoes, or have a glass of fresh orange juice with your meal.

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.

Want to try your hand at some meat-free recipes and up your vegetable intake? Try this delicious Thai vegetable curry recipe courtesy of the Meat Free Monday campaign.

Thai Vegetable Curry

A bowl of Thai vegetable curry 

Serves 4

In just a few decades, Thai food has grown from relative obscurity into one of the most popular cuisines on Earth. This vegetable curry has many of its classic tastes and textures.

For the curry paste:

2 shallots, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1 stick lemongrass, finely chopped
2 green chillies, deseeded and chopped
zest of 1 lime
small bunch fresh coriander
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 small aubergine, cut into chunks
1 red pepper, deseeded and cut into dice
8 chestnut mushrooms, halved (or quartered if large)
400ml can coconut milk
6 okra, cut on the diagonal into 3 pieces
8 baby corn, cut on the diagonal into 3 pieces
150g canned bamboo shoots, drained
handful of sugar snaps, cut in half on the diagonal
2 handfuls of beansprouts
soy sauce
palm or soft light brown sugar to taste

To serve:

fresh coriander leaves
jasmine rice
lime wedges

Prepare the curry paste first. Place the shallots, garlic and ginger in a food-processor. Add the lemongrass, chillies, lime zest and coriander stalks (reserving the leaves) and whizz the mixture until finely chopped. You can also make this paste using a pestle and mortar if you prefer.

Heat the sunflower oil in a large sauté pan. Add the curry paste and cook over a medium heat for 1 minute until the mixture smells fragrant. Add the aubergine, red pepper and mushrooms and cook for 1 minute stirring frequently until starting to become tender. Add the coconut milk to the pan with 150ml of water and bring to the boil. Add the okra, baby corn and bamboo shoots and continue to cook for a further 5 minutes or so until the veggies are tender. Finally add the sugar snaps and beansprouts to the pan and cook for another 30 seconds.

Taste and add a dash of soy sauce or teaspoon of sugar if needed. Serve the curry in bowls, garnished with coriander leaves and with jasmine rice and lime wedges to squeeze over.

Recipes taken from The Meat Free Monday Cookbook. Foreword by Paul, Stella and Mary McCartney. Published by Kyle Books. Photography by Tara Fisher.

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Emily Walters
Emily Walters
Health Adviser and Nutritionist at Bupa UK