Vegetarian and vegan diets Q&A

Read our answers to common questions about staying healthy on a vegetarian or vegan diet, from looking after your bones to healthy eating in pregnancy.

What is a vegetarian?
At what age is it safe to become a vegetarian or vegan?
Can babies and children have a vegan diet?
Is it safe to be a vegetarian or vegan during pregnancy?
What are the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?
Do vegetarians and vegans need vitamin supplements?
How can I get enough iron?
How can I get enough calcium?
How can I get enough vitamin B12?
What are good vegetarian and vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids?
What are good sources of protein for vegetarians and vegans?
Are Quorn products suitable for vegans?
Do I need a special diet if I exercise?
Is it healthier to eat organic fruit and vegetables?

What is a vegetarian?

Vegetarians and vegans don't eat any red meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacea (such as crab or lobster), or animal by-products (such as gelatine).

Vegetarians eat a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables, dairy products and eggs. Vegetarians who also don't eat eggs and dairy products are called vegans.

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat both dairy products and eggs. This is the most common type of vegetarian diet.
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs.
  • Ovo vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy products.
  • Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other animal product.  

At what age is it safe to become a vegetarian or vegan?

As long as they get all the nutrients they need, children can be brought up healthily on a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Children need plenty of energy and protein to help them grow and develop. It's also important that vegetarian and vegan children get enough iron, calciumvitamin B12 and vitamin D.

If you're bringing up your child on a diet without meat or fish (vegetarian) or without any food from animals (vegan), they will need to have a good source of protein. Good sources include eggs, dairy products such as milk and cheese, soya products, pulses and beans, nuts and seeds. Don't give whole nuts to children under five, as they could choke. They can be used if finely ground. Alternatively, you can use a smooth nut butter.

It is recommended that all children aged six months to five years old are given supplements containing vitamins A, C and D unless they drink more than 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula a day. Mothers who are breastfeeding and did not take a vitamin D supplement during pregnancy may be advised by their health visitor to give their baby vitamin drops containing vitamin D, from the age of one month.

Vitamin drops are especially important for vegetarian and vegan children between six months and five years old. They may also need a vitamin B12 supplement. If your child is older than this, speak to your GP or a dietitian to see whether vitamin supplements should be included in their diet.

Read more about vegetarian and vegan diets for children.

Can babies and children have a vegan diet?

If you're breastfeeding and on a vegan diet, it's especially important for you to take a vitamin D supplement. You may also need extra vitamin B12.

Take care when feeding children a vegan diet. Young children need a good variety of foods to provide the energy and vitamins they need for growth.

A vegan diet can be bulky and high in fibre. This can mean that children get full up before they've eaten enough calories and nutrients. Because of this, they may need extra supplements. Ask a dietitian or doctor for advice before you start introducing your child to solids.

Read more about vegetarian and vegan diets for children.

Is it safe to be a vegetarian or vegan during pregnancy?

A varied and balanced vegetarian or vegan diet can provide enough nutrients for you and your baby during pregnancy. However, you might find it hard to get enough iron, vitamin D and vitamin B12.

Talk to your doctor or midwife about how to get enough of these important nutrients. All pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to take a vitamin D supplement, regardless of their diet. It is also recommended that women should take a folic acid supplement while they are trying to conceive and should continue taking it for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. For information, see Vitamins and nutrition in pregnancy.

Read more about having a healthy diet during pregnancy.

What are the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?

A vegetarian diet can be very healthy, but your diet won't automatically be healthier if you cut out meat. Like everyone, vegetarians need to make sure they:

  • Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day.
  • Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates. Choose wholegrain where possible.
  • Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks and yoghurts). Choose lower-fat and lower-sugar options.
  • Eat some beans, pulses, eggs and other proteins.
  • Choose unsaturated oils and spreads, and eat in small amounts.
  • Drink plenty of fluids – the government recommends 6-8 cups/glasses a day.

If you're having foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar, have these less often and in small amounts.

Do vegetarians and vegans need vitamin supplements?

With good planning and an understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegetarian and vegan diet, you can get all the nutrients your body needs to be healthy without the need for supplements.

However, if your diet is not planned properly, you could miss out on essential nutrients. Vegetarians need to make sure they get enough iron and vitamin B12, and vegans enough calcium, iron and vitamin B12. Women are thought to be at particular risk of iron deficiency, including those on a vegetarian or vegan diet.

There are some groups of the population who are advised to take vitamin supplements, regardless of whether they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. For more information, see:

How can I get enough iron?

Although meat is the best source of iron, other good sources of iron include:

  • pulses, such as beans, lentils and peas 
  • nuts
  • dried fruit, such as raisins 
  • dark-green vegetables, such as watercress, broccoli and spring greens
  • wholegrains, such as brown rice and brown bread
  • cereals fortified with iron

The amount of iron that adults need is about 8.7mg a day for men and about 14.8mg a day for women. As long as you remember to regularly include the above foods in your diet, you should be getting enough iron. 

Examples of iron and calcium in your diet

  • 100g of canned red kidney beans (drained and reheated) contains 2mg of iron
  • an 80g serving of boiled spring greens contains 1.1mg of iron, similar to a 30g portion (1 tablespoon) of raisins
  • a 25g serving of almonds contains about 60mg of calcium
  • a serving of boiled broccoli (80g) contains about 32mg of calcium
  • two slices of wholemeal bread (80g) contain around 1.9mg of iron and around 85mg of calcium

How can I get enough calcium?

Calcium helps to maintain strong bones. Non-vegans get most of their calcium from dairy foods, so it's important for vegans to get calcium from other foods.

Good sources of calcium for vegans are:

  • fortified unsweetened soya, rice and oat milk
  • leafy green vegetables (but not spinach)
  • almonds
  • sesame seeds and tahini
  • dried fruit
  • pulses
  • brown (wholemeal) and white bread

Adults need about 700mg of calcium a day, so it's important that vegans regularly include plenty of these foods in their diet.

The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. Fortified margarine and fat spreads, fortified breakfast cereals and egg yolks contain vitamin D. The body also makes its own vitamin D when exposed to sunshine. Bones get stronger when you use them and the best way to do this is through regular exercise.

Examples of iron and calcium in your diet

  • 100g of canned red kidney beans (drained and reheated) contains 2mg of iron
  • an 80g serving of boiled spring greens contains 1.1mg of iron, similar to a 30g portion (1 tablespoon) of raisins
  • a 25g serving of almonds contains about 60mg of calcium
  • a serving of boiled broccoli (80g) contains about 28mg of calcium
  • two slices of wholemeal bread (80g) contain around 1.9mg of iron and around 85mg of calcium

How can I get enough vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in foods from animal sources, so sources for vegans are limited and a vitamin B12 supplement may be needed. If you eat dairy products and eggs, you probably get enough.

Vegan sources of vitamin B12 include:

  • yeast extract, such as Marmite, which is fortified with vitamin B12 
  • breakfast cereals fortified with vitamin B12
  • soya products fortified with vitamin B12

Adults need about 1.5 micrograms of vitamin B12 a day. Check the labels of fortified foods to see how much vitamin B12 they contain.

What are good vegetarian and vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids?

Sources of omega-3 fatty acids suitable for vegetarians and vegans include:

  • flaxseed oil
  • rapeseed oil
  • soya oil and soya-based foods (such as tofu)
  • walnuts

Omega-3 enriched eggs are also a good source if you are a vegetarian and include eggs in your diet.

Evidence suggests that the type of omega-3 fatty acids found in these foods may not have the same benefits for reducing the risk of heart disease as those found in oily fish.

However, if you follow a vegetarian diet, you can look after your heart by eating at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day, cutting down on food that is high in saturated fat, and watching how much salt you eat.

What are good sources of protein for vegetarians and vegans?

Most vegetarians have enough protein in their diet. Good sources of protein for vegetarians include:

  • pulses and beans
  • cereals (wheat, oats and rice)
  • soya products (tofu, soya drinks and textured soya protein, such as soya mince)
  • nuts and seeds

For non-vegans:

  • eggs
  • lower-fat dairy products (milk, cheese and yoghurt)

A variety of protein from different sources is necessary to get the right mixture of amino acids, which are used to build and repair the body's cells.

Are Quorn products suitable for vegans?

No. Since all Quorn products contain a small amount of egg white and most also contain milk ingredients, they are not suitable for vegans. However, they can be a source of protein for vegetarians.

Do I need a special diet if I exercise?

You don't need a special diet for exercising if you're a vegetarian or vegan. The advice for vegetarians who exercise is the same as the advice for non-vegetarians who exercise regularly. 

Most vegetarians have enough protein in their diet for the body to grow and repair itself. If you exercise regularly, make sure you eat plenty of complex carbohydrates such as rice and pasta for energy, and drink enough fluids when exercising harder.

Read about food for sport and exercise.

Is it healthier to eat organic fruit and vegetables?

Vitamin and mineral levels in food vary, depending on the soil the plants were grown in, when they were picked and how they were stored. There's no scientific evidence that organic food is healthier. Eating organic is a personal choice and many people eat organic for environmental reasons. It's important to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, whether they're organic or not.




Page last reviewed: 19/10/2015

Next review due: 19/10/2017

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