Eat well

The vegetarian diet

Vegetarian plate of food
Credit:

wmaster890 / Thinkstock

For vegetarians who eat dairy products and eggs, a healthy diet is the same as for anyone else, but without meat or fish.

Healthy eating as a vegetarian

The Eatwell Guide shows the different types of food we should eat to have a healthy, balanced diet, and in what proportions.

You don't need to achieve this balance with every meal, but try to get the balance right over a day, or even a week. Choose options low in fat, salt and sugar whenever you can.

As outlined in the Eatwell Guide:

Eat a variety of fruit and vegetables every day

Try to eat at least 5 80g portions of fresh, frozen, canned, dried or juiced fruit and vegetables a day. As well as vitamins and minerals, fruit and vegetables provide fibre, which can help digestion and prevents constipation.

Find out more in 5 A Day: what counts?

Base meals on starchy carbohydrates

Starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, cereals, rice and pasta should make up just over a third of the food you eat. Where possible, choose wholegrain varieties.

You should eat some starchy foods every day as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

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.

Dairy or dairy alternatives are needed for calcium

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. Also choose lower sugar options.

Eat beans, pulses, eggs and other sources of protein

Pulses include beans, peas and lentils. They're a low-fat source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, and 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 don't 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

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.

Limit foods high in fat, salt and sugar 

Foods high in salt, fat and sugar, such as cream, chocolate, crisps, biscuits, pastries, ice cream, cakes and puddings, should be eaten 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.

But 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.

A vegetarian diet during pregnancy

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.

Read more about vegetarian and vegan mums-to-be.

If you're 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. 

Read more about vegetarian and vegan babies and children.

Vegetarian sources of iron

Vegetarians are more likely to have lower iron stores than meat eaters.

Good sources of iron for vegetarians include:

  • eggs
  • pulses
  • dried fruit
  • dark green vegetables, such as watercress, broccoli and spring greens
  • wholemeal bread
  • fortified cereals (with added iron)

Read more about iron.

Vegetarian sources of vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is needed for growth, repair and general health. It's only found naturally in animal products.

If you regularly eat eggs or dairy products, you probably get enough. But 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:

  • milk
  • cheese
  • eggs
  • fortified yeast extracts, such as Marmite
  • fortified breakfast cereals
  • fortified soya products

Read more about B vitamins.

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
  • walnuts
  • 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.

But if you eat a vegetarian diet, you can still look after your heart by eating at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day, cutting down on food high in saturated fat, and watching how much salt you eat.

Page last reviewed: 01/08/2018
Next review due: 01/08/2021