Q: What is a vegetarian? What do vegetarians eat?
A: The Vegetarian Society defines a vegetarian as: "Someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish* or by-products of slaughter."
*Shellfish are typically ‘a sea animal covered with a shell’. We take shellfish to mean:
~ Crustaceans (hard external shell) large – e.g. lobsters, crayfish, crabs, small – e.g. prawns, shrimps.
~ Molluscs e.g. mussels, oysters, winkles, clams, and cephalopods such as cuttlefish, squid, octopus.
There are different types of vegetarian:
~ Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat both dairy products and eggs; this is the most common type of vegetarian diet.
~ Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid eggs.
~ Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other products which are derived from animals including honey.
Q: Do vegetarians eat fish?
A: No, vegetarians do not eat fish. A person who follows a mainly vegetarian diet but eats fish is not a vegetarian. The proper term for someone who eats no meat or poultry but eats fish is pescetarian.
Visit our fish campaign pages
Q: Is shellac suitable for vegetarians?
A: The Vegetarian Society does consider shellac to be vegetarian, but not vegan. The female lac insect produces a resin to cocoon the eggs she lays. When the eggs hatch they eat the female (which dies naturally after laying eggs). Once the newly hatched insects leave the cocoon, it is then harvested to produce shellac. The Vegetarian Society Approved team only accredit shellac companies that can demonstrate the quality of their lac beetle husbandry.
Q: What can I cook for a vegetarian meal?
A: The Vegetarian Society’s extensive recipe database includes dishes for every taste and occasion, including vegan, gluten free and other special diets. Most are suitable for family meals, but you can also search the database for catering recipes.
For easy recipes and guidance on how to prepare good vegetarian food you could download or order Meat Free Made Easy, Going veggie for the Taste or any of our other recipe booklets.
View the full range of recipe booklets
Q: How do I know if a product is suitable for vegetarians?
A: Only products carrying the Vegetarian Society Approved trademark have actually been checked by us, but many products carry the manufacturer's own 'vegetarian' or 'suitable for vegetarians' label on either the front or back of the packet. However, this labelling is voluntary so can be rather inconsistent. If there is no vegetarian label then you will need to refer to the ingredients list, usually on the reverse of the packet. For a comprehensive list of non-vegetarian ingredients see our A-Z Veggie Aware page, but key things to look out for include gelatine, especially in yogurts, sweets and fruit juice , plus animal rennet in cheese. Parmesan is always made with animal rennet. Watch out for beer and wine because there is no legal requirement to list the ingredients of alcoholic drinks and some beers and wines are clarified using isinglass from fish. However, many supermarkets now label vegetarian beer and wine and the Vegetarian Society also approves a number of wines and beers.
Q: Should I cook eggs for a vegetarian?
A: Some vegetarians, those who follow a vegan or lacto-vegetarian diet, do not eat eggs at all. Many lacto-ovo vegetarians will eat eggs but only if they are free range, because they object to the intensive farming of hens. Food licensed to carry our Vegetarian Society Approved symbol may only contain free range eggs, so you can search the approved products database if you are looking for a particular product.
Q: How can older vegetarians get help and support?
A: Our health and nutrition pages include information for all ages. If you need something more specialised, including information about residential and care homes, Vegetarian for Life is a charity dedicated to improving the quality of life for older vegetarians and vegans.
Q: Is there a legal definition of vegetarian?
A: At present there is no legal definition of ‘vegetarian’. However there is legislation relevant to situations where the term ‘suitable for vegetarians’ has been misused such as in Trading Standards law . Labels such as: ‘vegetarian’, 'suitable for vegetarians' or 'suitable for vegans' are subject to the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 general controls in sections 1 to 4 (prohibition of false or misleading trade descriptions). The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has implemented guidance (based on our definition) to help the food industry use vegetarian food labelling consistently and to help enforcement authorities identify misuse of such terms. The Food Standards Agency’s definition of vegetarian can be viewed here.
Q: I want to complain about a product, service or vegetarian meal.
What is my legal position as a vegetarian?
A: The terms ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ in food labelling are used voluntarily by food manufacturers and restaurants. Many food outlets are found to be unaware of the foods that, according to the regulations, are not permitted as vegetarian. However there are pieces of food legislation that are relevant. The most common mistakes food outlets make in serving vegetarians are producing menus that indicate fish or seafood dishes as vegetarian options and including cheeses that are made with animal rennet such as Parmesan.
Q: Is there a baby milk suitable for vegetarians?
A: Not all baby milks are suitable for vegetarians because they can contain fish oils and/or animal rennet. Vegetarian alternatives are available but manufacturers do not typically use them.
A useful resource which provides information about the ingredients of baby milks in the UK can be found on the First Steps Nutrition website. This document is updated quarterly but the ingredients of baby milks can change as new scientific evidence becomes available, therefore checking with the individual manufacturer is also recommended. Always seek advice about diet and health from a qualified medical professional before making any changes to your child’s diet.
Health and nutrition
Q: Is a vegetarian diet healthy?
A: Research shows that in many ways a vegetarian diet is healthier than that of a typical meat eater. Compared with omnivorous diets a varied vegetarian diet contains less saturated fatty acids, cholesterol, and more folate, fibre, antioxidants, phytochemicals and carotenoids. Research studies have found that vegetarians have a lower incidence of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and type II diabetes.
A balanced vegetarian diet is likely to exceed the recommended intake of five-a-day fruit and vegetables which is linked to lower rates of colon and some other cancers. A vegetarian diet is sometimes recommended for people with chronic conditions such as arthritis and kidney problems.
Q: Do vegetarians get enough iron and protein?
A: A well planned vegetarian diet can be both nutritious and healthy. Experts agree that a balanced vegetarian diet meets the nutritional needs of people of all ages. This is the view of the British Dietetic Society and the American Dietetic Association state that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of life, including pregnancy, breast feeding, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.
Studies show that vegetarians eating a well-planned diet consume healthy levels of protein and iron. Eggs and dairy products are sources of complete protein, and eggs contain iron whilst a number of plant foods can make a significant contribution. To top up your iron levels eat plenty of:
~ Fortified breakfast cereals
~ Dried fruit
~ Beans and lentils
~ Leafy green vegetables
~ Sesame seeds
~ Wholemeal bread
To help your body absorb iron from plant foods, include a source of Vitamin C with your meal. Good options are vegetables, fruit or a glass of fruit juice.
For further information see our Fact sheets
Q: Do vegetarians need supplements?
A: Supplements are not necessary for vegetarians who are in good health and eating a healthy, balanced diet. Supplements should certainly not be used as a substitute for healthy eating. There is some debate among experts in the UK as to whether supplements are necessary or effective in particular during pregnancy ~ find out more about supplements.
For suggestions on healthy eating look at our V-healthy pages. If you have a health issue and would like help in identifying a professional, qualified nutritionist then please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: Is there a vegetarian alternative to my prescription drug?
A: Gelatine (most often spelled ‘gelatin’ when it is used in pharmaceuticals) is an issue for vegetarians when taking prescription or over the counter drugs. Gelatin is used in drug capsule manufacture but can also be present in solid tablets and even in liquid preparations. Although gelatin may appear to be easily replaced with a vegetarian substitute this is not always the case; gelatin can play a vital role in how the medication works in your body. Your health professional should, according to recent guidelines 'identify and respect the patient’s values, beliefs and expectations about medicines’, so if you are concerned, ask your doctor to consider your beliefs and dietary requirements when prescribing your medication. Your pharmacist (who may have more time to help) should also be able to advise you of suitable alternatives should one be available.
To identify if your prescribed medication contains gelatin please read the Patient Information Leaflet carefully. This should come in the box with your medication and will have a ‘further information’ section which lists what the medication contains. Alternatively, you can search, or ask your doctor to search for your medication on the medicines.org website and check the ‘qualitative and quantitative composition’ and ‘list of excipients’ section to check if gelatin is listed.
Got a question about going veggie?
See the Going Veggie FAQs
Got a question about Vegetarian Society Membership?
See the Membership FAQs