Basic vegetarian nutrition
Current advice on healthy eating emphasises the importance of a diet low in saturated fat, high in whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables. At the Vegetarian Society, we agree with this advice. As a vegetarian, eating a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, you should easily exceed the guidelines for eating 5-A-Day fruit and vegetables. A vegetarian diet based on whole grains, pulses (beans and lentils), vegetables, nuts and seeds will also be naturally high in fibre and low in saturated fat, which are both good for health.
Being vegetarian means getting the nutrients that are associated with the conventional diet of meat, poultry, fish and seafood from other sources. There is sometimes unnecessary concern that a vegetarian or vegan diet will be low in the nutrients found in meat and fish such as protein, iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin B12 and vitamin D or the essential fats sometimes referred to as ‘omegas’. In fact these nutrients are part of vegetarian and vegan diets, in some cases in abundance, it’s just a good idea to make sure you’re familiar with the best vegetarian or vegan sources so you can relax and enjoy being vegetarian.
Protein in the vegetarian diet can come from a range of different sources:
Pulses, such as peas, beans, lentils and – botanically speaking – peanuts, are excellent inexpensive sources of protein and also contain minerals such as iron, zinc and calcium.
Soya products and QuornTM, a form of ‘myco-protein’ available as mince, burgers, fillets, sausages and so on are also good sources of protein, popular and convenient to use.
Free range eggs and dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt as well as nuts and seeds contribute to protein and also to zinc, calcium and iron intake.
Vegan options such as non dairy soya milk and vegan ‘cheese’ are valuable sources of protein and are often additionally fortified with calcium.
Iron and zinc are found in leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses, fruits, dried fruit, eggs and dairy products. Bread and breakfast cereals are important sources in the British diet. Flour, other than wholemeal, is fortified by law *[Bread and Flour Regulations 1998] with calcium and iron and many other products, like breakfast cereals are voluntarily fortified by the manufacturer.
Vitamin B12 is present in eggs and dairy products and in fortified yeast extract and cereals.
Vitamin D is obtained from eggs, fortified margarines, breakfast cereals and soya milk and importantly from sunlight on the skin.
Essential fats or ‘omegas’ are found in nuts and seeds such as walnut, linseed, hemp, rapeseed and flaxseed as well as omega enriched eggs.
Of course, vegetarians like to enjoy treats such as cakes, sweets and desserts too as part of a balanced diet. Shop-bought biscuits, cakes, sweets and the like can sometimes contain high levels of fats, including animal fats, non-vegetarian additives/colouring or things such as gelatine. You can find out more about this from our Veggie Aware A-Z fact sheets.