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Vegetarian and vegan diets

What is a vegetarian diet?

A vegetarian is usually someone who does not eat meat, poultry, fish, or any animal by-products. However, there are different types of vegetarians.


Some common types of vegetarians are:

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians (the most common type) – eat dairy products and eggs.
  • Lacto-vegetarians – eat dairy products but not eggs.
  • Ovo-vegetarian – eat eggs but not dairy products.
  • Vegan – does not eat any products of animal origin so does not eat any dairy products, eggs, or honey.

Some people may also define themselves as vegetarians but still eat some fish, meat, or poultry occasionally.

  • Pescatarians – eat a mainly plant-based diet but with some fish.
  • Flexitarian’ or ‘semi-vegetarian’ - eat a largely plant based diet but occasionally eat meat, fish, or poultry.

Information from UK dietary surveys suggest that numbers of people following vegetarian diets have increased. In the most recent survey (2018-19), 4.5% of people said they were vegetarian or vegan.


Removing meat from your diet does not guarantee it will be healthier. However, some studies have found links between vegetarian diets and a lower rate of obesity and coronary heart disease, as well as a reduced blood pressure and blood cholesterol.


Sara Stanner, Science Director, British Nutrition Foundation

Are plant-based diets healthier than other diets?

Removing meat from your diet does not guarantee it will be healthier. However, some studies have found links between vegetarian diets and a lower rate of obesity and coronary heart disease, as well as a reduced blood pressure and blood cholesterol.


Vegetarian diets are generally higher in fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, and fibre and lower in saturated fat and sugar.


But, we also know that people who adopt vegetarian diets are typically more health conscious and make other healthier lifestyle choices. For example, vegetarians are likely to be more physically active, drink less alcohol and are less likely to smoke. This may explain some of the health benefits.

Key facts about plant based diets

  • Vegetarian and vegan diets can be nutritious and healthy.
  • It is recommended that a vegetarian diet should be based on the Eatwell Guide.
  • You should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
  • Try to base your meals on starchy carbohydrates.
  • Include some dairy or dairy alternatives but choose lower fat and lower sugar products where possible.
  • Choose a variety of protein sources such as pulses, eggs, and soya products.
  • Choose small amounts of unsaturated oils and spreads.
  • When eating a meal with plant sources of iron like pulses, try to include some vitamin C to increase iron absorption.
  • If you are a vegan who does not eat any animal products, you should try to include vitamin B12-fortified foods in your diet or take a supplement.

How to create a healthy, balanced vegetarian diet

A vegetarian or vegan diet isn't always the healthier option. In fact, some vegetarian or vegan food options can be high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar. However, a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthy and provide all the nutrients we need. This is true across all life stages from childhood to pregnancy.


The government’s Eatwell Guide shows us how much of what we eat overall should come from each food group. The guide also applies to vegetarian and vegan diets. 


The main healthy eating principles still apply to your vegan or vegetarian diet. This includes eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, reducing salt and free sugars, keeping your alcohol consumption within government guidelines, maintaining a healthy body weight and leading an active lifestyle.


Sarah Coe, Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

Potatoes, bread, rice, and pasta

Try to base your meals on starchy carbohydrates. You should choose wholegrain or higher fibre versions such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta, buckwheat, porridge oats and potatoes with skin.

Top tips: 

  • Try to avoid adding too much fat (such as butter in mashed potatoes) as this can increase the calories and saturated fat content of the dish.
  • Remember to check the labels and choose products low in fat, salt, and sugars.
  • If you are thinking of having chips, try baking wedges using a small amount of unsaturated oil or choose oven chips lower in fat and salt.
  • You can mix white and wholegrain versions to increase fibre content like mixing white and wild rice together.

Fruit and vegetables

You should eat at least five portions of different types of fruit and vegetables every day. All fruit and vegetables including fresh, frozen, canned (not in brine or syrups) and dried (with no added sugars) count!


Fruit/vegetable juices and smoothies can count as one portion, but this should be limited to a maximum of one small glass (150ml) a day.

Top tips: 

  • Be careful when choosing canned fruit like lychee, pineapple, and mango that they are not canned in syrup.
  • Add more vegetables to your main meals, for example add grated carrot, mushrooms, or peppers to your bean chilli.
  • Keep fruit in your bag ready to eat as a healthy, quick snack.
  • Keeping vegetables in your freezer is a good way to ensure you don’t run out.
  • Avoid adding salt to cooking water or adding sugars to fruit (like honey).

Dairy and alternatives

Many vegetarians eat dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt. Calcium-fortified dairy alternatives like soya and nut drinks are suitable for vegans. Check the labels to ensure they are fortified.


Top tips: 

  • Cheese can be high in saturated fat and salt so try to use reduced fat varieties or a smaller amount of a stronger cheese.
  • ‘Free from’ cheese alternatives are available, but these are typically not fortified with calcium.
  • Grating cheese instead of freely slicing it, is a good method to avoid using more than you need.
  • Try to use low-fat plain yogurt or fromage frais instead of cream, crème fraîche or mayonnaise.

Beans, pulses, eggs, and other proteins

There are many options for vegetarians including tofu, soya products, textured vegetable protein, pulses (like lentils, kidney beans and peas), and eggs.


Top tips: 

  • An 80g portion of pulses (lentils, beans, and peas) can count as one of your 5 A DAY.
  • If you are having plant-based processed foods such as sausages, burgers or nuggets, check labels and go for those lower in saturates and salt.
  • Why not try a spicy dal or a chickpea curry served with brown rice or flatbreads like a chapati?

Oils and spreads

Oils are high in calories, so should be used sparingly. Try to buy unsaturated oils like vegetable or olive oil and choose lower fat spreads where possible.

Top tips: 

  • When heated, oils expand so heating oil in the pan before you use it will make it go further so you do not need to use as much.
  • You could use spray oils to reduce the amount of oil you use for cooking.
  • Remember fats like coconut oil, palm oil and ghee are high in saturated fat. 

Foods to eat less often and in small amounts

Foods such as cakes, biscuits, chocolates, pastries, ice cream, fried crisps, cream, and sugar-sweetened beverages are not required as part of a healthy, balanced diet. If you want to include these in your diet, have them infrequently and in small amounts.


If you add sugar to your food or drinks, such as tea, gradually reduce the amount you add until you may be able to cut it out completely.

What are the important nutrients in a vegetarian or vegan diet?

A well-planned, vegetarian, or vegan diet can provide the nutrients we need. However, some nutrients may come from different sources. For example, over a third of calcium in the average UK diet comes from milk and dairy foods but for vegans, calcium will be sourced from non-dairy foods and drinks.


Proteins are needed for many important functions in the body. A common misconception is that people who don’t eat meat or fish will not get enough protein. However, we know that vegans and vegetarians typically do get enough protein from their diet.


Proteins are made up of substances called amino acids. Our bodies can make some of these amino acids, but others known as ‘essential’ amino acids, are needed from the diet.


Consuming a range of plant protein sources will help ensure you are getting enough of all the essential amino acids. 

Good sources of plant-based protein:

  • Eggs (vegetarians, not vegans)
  • Pulses (such as chickpeas, kidney beans, and lentils)
  • Tofu or bean curd
  • Quorn (mycoprotein), until recently, Quorn was not suitable for vegans as all products contained a small amount of egg. However, a new vegan range is now available. 
  • Nuts (choose plain, unsalted, varieties)

Although not in the ‘protein’ food group, cheese is a popular choice for people following vegetarian diets. Cheese is a good source of protein, calcium, and other nutrients. However, some varieties can be high in saturated fat and salt. Vegan cheese is made from plant-based ingredients such as coconut oil or nuts. It can still be high in saturated fat and salt but may not provide as much protein or micronutrients as dairy cheese. Check the label and try to choose reduced fat varieties or use stronger varieties in smaller amounts.


Protein meals and snacks for vegetarians and vegans:

  • Baked beans on wholegrain toast
  • Vegetable soup with lentils and barley
  • Bean chilli with rice
  • Spicy chickpea stew with couscous
  • Houmous and pitta bread
  • Rye cracker and nut butter


Iron is essential for transporting oxygen around the body, brain function and the immune system. According to dietary surveys, 46% of girls aged 11 to 18 years and 23% of women aged 19 to 64 years have low intakes of iron.


Women and girls who have a period (those who still have a monthly cycle) are more at risk of iron deficiency.


The iron found in plant foods (called non-haem iron) is less readily absorbed in the body than the iron from animal sources (known as haem iron). Vegetarians may have lower iron stores, so it is important to include good sources of iron in the diet.


Did you know, vitamin C helps your body absorb iron? Try and add some vitamin C rich vegetables to your meal. For example, if you are making a vegetarian bean curry, add some peppers. You could also have a small glass of fruit juice with your meal (remember the dietary recommendation is a maximum of 150ml per day!)

Good sources of iron for vegetarians

  • Pulses (lentils, beans, and peas)
  • Green leafy vegetables (such as watercress and spinach)
  • Wholemeal, seeded, or brown bread
  • Some fortified breakfast cereals (with added iron)
  • Dried fruits (such as apricots and figs)
  • Nuts and seeds (such as cashews, almonds, walnuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds)


For vegetarians, dairy foods, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, are a good source of calcium. Try to select lower fat, lower sugar versions where possible.


If you do not eat dairy products, make sure you include other calcium-containing foods and drinks.

Calcium is important for healthy bones and teeth as well as the functions of muscles and nerves.

Non-dairy calcium containing foods:  

  • Bread (breads made with flour which don’t contain wholegrain, such as white bread, must be fortified with calcium by UK law).
  • Some green leafy vegetables (such as kale, rocket, and watercress)
  • Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals.
  • Calcium-fortified dairy alternatives (such as soya, oat, rice or nut drinks and yogurts).
  • Calcium-set tofu (those prepared using calcium).

Vitamin B12

Typically, vitamin B12 is only found naturally in foods from animal sources. Vegetarians who consume dairy products and eggs can get enough vitamin B12 from their diet. 


Vegans may not get enough of this vitamin, due to the lack of reliable sources. Studies have confirmed low vitamin B12 intake and blood concentrations (the level of vitamin B12 in the blood) in both vegans and vegetarians.

Vitamin B12 is needed for healthy blood as well as our nervous system and immune system.

Vegan sources of vitamin B12

  • Vitamin B12 fortified yeast extract
  • Vitamin B12 fortified breakfast cereals (with added vitamin B12)
  • Vitamin B12 fortified dairy-free alternatives (such as soya, oat and nut dairy-free alternative drinks or vegan spreads)

Alternatively, you can take a vitamin B12 supplement. Do not take more than the recommended amount. You can always talk to your GP or a pharmacist if you are unsure.

Omega-3 fats

If you do not eat fish, you can get omega-3 fats from other foods (see list below).


Although vegans and vegetarians have lower intakes of the important long-chain omega-3 fats than those consuming fish in their diets, there is no strong evidence that vegans and vegetarians have poorer health as a result.

Omega-3 fats are essential to our health. Long-chain omega-3 fats that you find in oily fish, may help lower our risk of heart disease, and contribute to normal visual and brain development. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and trout are rich sources of these long-chain omega-3 fats.

Foods containing long-chain omega-3 fats.

  • Some seeds (such as flax and chia seeds)
  • Walnuts and walnut oil
  • Soybeans and soybean oil
  • Oils (such as flaxseed, rapeseed)

Supplements containing long-chain omega-3 fats from microalgae are also available.


Sources of iodine include fish, eggs, milk, and milk products, with dairy contributing around one third to average daily UK iodine adult intake.


Vegetarians and particularly vegans are at risk of iodine deficiency as they do not eat rich iodine sources (fish and/or dairy products). Soya and dairy alternative drinks are not typically fortified with iodine (check label) and therefore sources are limited.


Meat, eggs, and fish are good sources of selenium.


If you're a vegetarian or vegan, it's important to make sure you're eating other foods which contain a source of selenium.

Selenium is needed for the normal function of the immune system and to help protect your body’s cells.

Food sources of selenium: 

  • Some nuts and seeds (especially Brazil nuts but also cashew nuts and sunflower seeds)
  • Some breakfast cereals (such as puffed wheat cereal, shredded wheat, and cornflakes)
  • Some breads (such as seeded and wheatgerm bread)
  • Bread (breads made with flour which don’t contain wholegrain, such as white bread, must be fortified with calcium by UK law)
  • Some green leafy vegetables (such as kale, rocket, and watercress)

Vitamin D

We get most of our vitamin D from sunlight on our skin during the summer months but oily fish and eggs, fortified cereals and spreads also contain vitamin D.

Vitamin D is needed for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus from foods to keep bones healthy.

Vegan sources of vitamin D:

  • Vitamin D supplements
  • Vitamin D fortified fat spreads, breakfast cereals and unsweetened soya drinks

Remember to read the label when choosing vitamin D supplements, to ensure they are suitable for vegans. 


For more information on vegetarian diets see the Vegetarian Society website.

Vegetarian or vegan diets: FAQs

The World Cancer Research Fund recommends eating more plant-based foods and less red and processed meat to help prevent cancer.


However, cancer is a complex disease. The risk of developing cancer depends on a combination of factors, some of which you can’t change like your genes.


Cancer Research UK have said 4 in 10 cancers can be prevented by adopting a healthy lifestyle such as not smoking, eating a healthy diet, keeping active, maintaining a healthy bodyweight, and reducing alcohol consumption to within government recommendations.



For more information, read our page on reducing the risk of cancer.

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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any individualised advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.