Healthy eating for vegans and vegetarians
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As is the case with everyone, if you are a vegetarian or vegan, you should eat a wide variety of foods and have a healthy balanced diet to make sure you get all the nutrients your body needs.
Who eats what?
Vegetarians don't eat any meat, fish, seafood or animal by-products such as gelatine, but the majority of vegetarians do eat some animal products, mainly milk, cheese (made with vegetarian rennet) and eggs. Some people may eat different combinations of these foods, so for instance some may have milk but not eggs, a few might eat fish but not meat.
However, vegans don't eat any foods of animal origin. This includes meat, fish and dairy foods, and also honey.
What nutrients should I be concerned about?
If you are a vegetarian (or vegan), you need to make sure you're getting enough protein and iron and if you are vegan you need to make sure you are getting enough vitamin B12.
Getting enough protein
Eating a wide variety of foods is the key to achieving an adequate intake of protein. This is because most plant food proteins have a low content of one or more of the essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) needed by the body. It's important to get some of each of these essential amino acids at the same time. By eating a variety of plant proteins, you can optimise your protein intake. These foods are all good sources, so try to include a mixture of these in your diet each day, and vary the types you choose:
pulses (such as lentils and beans)
nuts and seeds
soya and soya products such as tofu
mycoprotein, sold as Quorn™
wheat proteins, such as cereals, bread, rice and maize
milk and dairy products
Soya and quinoa are the only vegetarian sources which contain good amounts of all the essential amino acids. Combining different types of protein foods at the same meal, ensures a better intake of these essential amino acids. Try:
beans on toast
breakfast cereal with milk
rice with lentil dhal
vegetable soup with lentils or barley and bread
bean chilli served with rice or tortillas
rye crackers and cheese
couscous with spicy chickpea stew
houmous and pitta bread
Try not to rely on just one type of protein too much because you might be missing out on other nutrients. Cheese is often a popular choice for people following vegetarian diets, but while it is a good source of protein, calcium and other nutrients, some varieties can be high in saturates and salt. If you don't eat milk and dairy products, choose soya milk and products fortified with calcium instead.
A useful ingredient for vegetarians and vegans is wheat protein, sometimes called seitan, which is derived from wheat gluten (the protein part of flour). The gluten is extracted from wheat and then processed to resemble meat. It is quite similar to meat in texture and taste and is used as a meat substitute in a range of foods.
© British Nutrition Foundation 2011