Vegetarian and vegan diets

Eating a balanced diet is an important aspect of leading a healthy life. For many of us, that means eating a variety of foods; meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. However, when choosing to follow a plant-based diet, whether vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian, this is not always possible.

You may have to find alternative sources for the vitamins, minerals and nutrients you need in order to remain healthy. The good news is, with a little planning and support, it’s perfectly achievable to gain all of the necessary nutrients from a plant-based diet.

On this page, we’ll explore all the important nutrient information you need to know, as well as how working with a qualified nutrition professional can ensure your transition leaves you feeling healthy and full of energy.

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet is a catch-all term used to describe diets that consume little to no meat or animal products. Whether someone describes themselves as a vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian or something else, they all have the same idea at the core.

People decide to adopt plant-based diets for many reasons. Some people choose to become a vegetarian for environmental or ethical reasons, whilst other people are looking to improve their health. You may relate to many of these reasons or have different reasons altogether. Deciding to become vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian is a personal choice.

Why would someone refer to themselves as ‘plant-based’?

For some people, specific labels are helpful. It can help to provide a sense of belonging to a community of people that hold the same values as them or provide motivation to maintain a specific diet. For others though, labels can add pressure or limitations.

For this reason, some people will refer to themselves as ‘plant-based’ or that they have a ‘plant-based lifestyle’. This may also be because they have adjusted their general consumption and shopping habits. For instance, as well as adjusting diet, some people choose to only purchase beauty products that have not been tested on animals (‘cruelty-free’) or clothing that is made from substitutes of commonly-used animal products, such as leather, wool and silk.

A vegetarian is usually described as someone who doesn’t eat meat, poultry, fish, shellfish or any other by-products of slaughter. However, there is no single, accepted definition of ‘vegetarian’. Some people like to think of vegetarianism as a spectrum, including a variety of diets. This includes those who eat only a plant-based diet, as well as people that may include some fish (pescatarian), or take a flexible (‘flexitarian’) approach, eating animal products some of the time.

Some of the common types of plant-based diets are:

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians - eats dairy products and eggs. This is the most common type of vegetarian diet.
  • Lacto-vegetarians - eats dairy products but not eggs.
  • Ovo-vegetarian - eats eggs but not dairy products.
  • Pescatarian - eats fish but avoids all other meat.
  • Pollo-vegetarian - eats poultry but avoids other meat and fish.
  • Vegan - does not eat any products of animal origin so does not eat any dairy products, eggs or honey. To find out more about the different types of veganism, visit Happiful.
  • Flexitarian (sometimes referred to as ‘semi-vegetarian’) - eats mostly plant-based foods but may occasionally include meat, dairy, eggs, poultry, and fish in small amounts.

Flexitarianism is on the rise, with more and more British meat-eaters buying vegan and vegetarian products as part of their weekly shop. Read more about flexitarianism and find out why many Brits are choosing to go meat-less, rather than meat-free.

Maintaining a healthy diet

Despite what many people may think, simply cutting animal products from your diet isn’t a shortcut to a healthy lifestyle. There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan-friendly meals and snacks available that are highly processed or contain surprising amounts of sugar.

Of course, the best way to ensure your diet is delivering all the nutrients you need is to opt for freshly-made, balanced meals where possible. It’s also important to be aware of those nutrients commonly lacking in a vegan diet which you may need to supplement. 

Particularly if you’re raising children on a plant-based diet, seeking help from a qualified nutrition professional can help you to ensure children have an adequate intake of all vitamins and minerals. Iron intake, in particular, can be hard to achieve, so Registered Dietitian Jo Travers has provided advice on the best vegetarian sources of iron for babies and young children.

Benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets

It’s important to remember that removing meat from your diet alone is no guarantee of a healthier diet. However, there is some evidence that shows vegetarian dietary patterns may have certain health benefits when compared to more traditional dietary patterns.

Vegetarian or more plant-based diets are typically higher in fruit and vegetables, whole grains and dietary fibre while being lower in saturated fat, sweets and non-water beverages (such as sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol).

Although it is not always the case, people who adopt plant-based diets tend to be more health-conscious, usually adopting other healthier lifestyle factors. For instance, vegetarians are likely to be more physically active, as well as less likely to smoke and consume less alcohol.

It seems that vegans get sick less often; vegans are reported to have fewer colds and enjoy better immune health generally, possibly due to the types of fat consumed (seeds, nuts and their oils). These are beneficial sources of plant lignans, which are high in protective anti-oxidants and directly support immune cells.

- Nutritional therapist Beverley Gibbs (dip ION mBANT CNHC) discusses whether veganism could give athletes a competitive edge.

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In general, it is thought that:

  • Vegetarians are less likely to develop heart disease and maintain lower levels of cholesterol.
  • A healthy vegetarian diet may help prevent and treat type 2 diabetes and associated complications. This is often as a result of choosing low-glycemic foods (whole grains, legumes, and nuts) that keep blood sugar levels steady.
  • Vegetarians and vegans generally have lower blood pressure. This is because plant foods tend to be lower in fat, sodium, and cholesterol, which can have a positive effect on your blood pressure.

In this article, an expert explains the benefits of going meat-free, as well as some of the common pitfalls of transitioning to a vegetarian diet.

Getting enough nutrients from a plant-based diet

For all its benefits, one of the main criticisms of a plant-based diet is that it is harder to consume all of the necessary nutrients that are achieved from a diet that includes meat and animal products. Deficiency in certain vitamins is, therefore, something to be wary of.

Achieving adequate intakes of some nutrients are more challenging with a vegan diet. These include vitamin B12, vitamin D, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, zinc and iodine. An individual’s genetics and gut bacteria may also influence their ability to obtain the nutrients they need from plant foods. This means that some individuals may be better equipped to thrive on a vegan diet.

- Dr Laura Wyness (PhD, MSc, BSc, RNutr) explores the key nutrients for a healthy vegan diet.

This is where working with a nutrition professional can be invaluable. They can guide you towards a plant-based diet that will not only ensure you are feeding your body all the nutrients it needs but is one that you enjoy eating and suits your lifestyle, too.

Plant-based protein

One food group that is often mentioned when discussing vegetarian and vegan diets is protein. Meat and other animal products are usually high in protein so it is often assumed that, by cutting these out, your diet will be lacking in protein. However, this is a myth - most vegetarians do have enough protein in their diet, it just requires some careful planning.

Good sources of protein for vegetarians and vegans include:

  • pulses and beans
  • cereals (wheat, oats and rice)
  • soya products (tofu, soya drinks and textured soya protein, such as soya mince)
  • nuts and seeds

For non-vegans, eggs and lower-fat dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt are other great protein sources. A variety of protein from different sources is necessary to get the right mixture of amino acids, which are used to build and repair the body's cells.

If you’re new to the plant-based lifestyle or are worried about making the transition from a vegetarian to a vegan diet, we’ve got some handy tips from an expert to help.

How a nutrition professional can help

A nutrition professional can guide you to ensure that you are not omitting nutrients, as well as help you to create a delicious menu of options so you do not miss out on the enjoyment of food.

Being vegetarian myself and with a strong interest in plant-based diets, I will work with you to develop a healthy diet plan with the foods you are more likely to consume. Whether you are finding it difficult being on a vegetarian or vegan diet or finding it difficult to achieve optimal health whilst on a vegetarian or vegan diet, there is no need to give up.

- Nutritionist Deepali Shah Katira BSc (Hons) ANutr.

Particularly if there are environmental or ethical reasons are your motivation for wanting to become a vegetarian or vegan, there are many nutrition professionals who take a wider view of the planet in working with their clients. For more help and advice, registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert explores the Planetary Diet for Happiful.

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