How to go vegetarian

Thirty or so years ago, following a varied and healthy vegetarian diet required a fair amount of dedication. Now you can easily find a wide range of vegetarian recipes, but even so there are some nutritional challenges to be aware of.

Protein sources

Men should eat approximately 55g of protein per day, women 45g. It's easy to turn to dairy products for your protein, and reduced fat Greek yoghurt, Quark and lower-fat cheeses such as ricotta are good everyday options, but you should only eat higher-fat cheeses in moderation. Here are some good alternative sources of protein:

  • Eggs are not just for breakfast, and are protein-packed. A large egg contains about 6g of protein.
  • Nuts and seeds are easy to throw into salads or have for a snack, and typically contain 15–20g protein per 100g.
  • Beans and lentils can thicken sauces, soups, dips and bakes and tend to include about 10–20g protein per 100g.
  • Soya products, of which the best-known is tofu, are fairly low in fat and can be used in a variety of ways. Tofu contains about 8g of protein per 100g
  • Mycoproteins: Quorn is often used as a meat substitute in sausages, burgers, pies and sandwich fillings. Quorn contains all eight of the essential amino acids and so is a complete protein.
  • Wheat protein (seitan) and fermented soybeans (tempeh) are chewy meat substitutes that are less subtle in flavour than tofu but are higher in protein
  • Protein-fortified products abound, from energy balls to chocolate bars. Watch out for the amount of sugar and fat in them though, as protein is not a byword for health, and be aware that it is possible to eat too much protein so be careful not to over-consume it.

Omega-3 fat sources

Omega-3 fatty acids fall into two categories

  • DHA and EPA: these long-chain omega-3 fats have crucial benefits to brain development and heart health and are especially important for young children and pregnant women. The body can make these from ALA, but not as efficiently as if you consume them directly. Microalgae-based omega-3 supplements are available as an alternative to supplements made with fish oils. Omega-3 enriched eggs, in which hens are fed a diet rich in flaxseed or fish oil, can provide more DHA than normal eggs and could be an option.
  • ALA: this type of omega-3 fat is found in a range of vegetarian sources, including chia seeds, ground flaxseed (linseed), rapeseed oil, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans and green leafy vegetables. Omega-3 enriched eggs are also a good source. ALA can’t be made by the body, so it’s important to get enough from these sources.

Iron sources

A healthy and varied vegetarian diet should contain enough iron if you eat these foods regularly:

  • Beans, lentils and peas
  • Tofu
  • Seeds and nuts
  • Dried fruit, such as raisins, dates or apricots
  • Dark-green vegetables, such as kale, broccoli and spinach
  • Wholegrain rice and wholemeal bread
Woman checking label on food

Foods to check

Non-veggie ingredients can be found in surprising places. The Vegetarian Society accreditation mark acts as confirmation that a processed food is vegetarian, but not all products are checked so always refer to the ingredients label. Here are foods to pay particular attention to.

Cheese: some cheese is made with animal rennet, an enzyme extracted from the stomach lining of calves. Vegetarian cheese can be made using plant-based, microbial or fungal enzymes. Both hard and soft cheeses can be vegetarian, but it’s important to check the label. Parmesan is always made with animal-derived rennet, but vegetarian alternatives are available. As Parmesan is typically found in ready-made pesto or stir-in sauces, they may not be vegetarian, so always check the label. The Vegetarian Society recommends avoiding whey, which is usually a by-product of cheese-making and is often used as a flavour carrier in crisps.

Pastes, sauces, stocks and soups: some ready-made pastes, sauces and condiments contain fish-based flavouring. Beware of anchovies in Worcestershire sauce and shrimp paste or fish sauce in Thai curry pastes. Meat stocks can turn up in ready-made soups, risottos and gravies.

Sweets and desserts: gelatine is used in sweets (particularly chewy ones), nutritional supplements in capsule form, ice cream, yoghurts and desserts such as mousse, jelly and panna cotta. Look out for gelatine in low-fat versions of products, such as yoghurts and whipped desserts – it's sometimes added for texture to help the product hold together. There are plenty of vegetarian versions available, so shop around. Some sweets or drinks can be coloured with cochineal, also known as additive E120, made from the ground shells of the cochineal beetle. Lard or suet can be found in biscuits, cakes, pastries, Christmas puddings and mincemeat. Animal fats can also be found in margarines, spreads and ice creams.

Alcoholic drinks: most wines, many spirits and some beers are 'fined' (clarified) or filtered using animal products such as isinglass, which is derived from the swim bladder of a fish. Read the label carefully and choose drinks that state they’re suitable for vegetarians. The good news is that there's a wider range of good-quality drinks than ever.