Vegetarian and vegan diets

Written by Becky Banham
Becky Banham
Nutritionist Resource Content Team

Last updated 15th January 2024 | Next update due 14th January 2027

On this page, we’ll explore all the important nutrient information you need to know when following a vegetarian or vegan diet. We'll also explain how working with a qualified nutrition professional can ensure the food you eat 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 contain 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 do so for environmental or ethical reasons, whilst other people are looking to improve their health. You may relate to these or have different reasons altogether; deciding to become vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian is a personal choice.

In this video, registered nutritional therapist Lucia Stansbie Dip CNM, mBANT, mCNHC explores the benefits of plant-based eating and shares the pitfalls people can make when adopting a vegan diet.

What does it mean to be vegetarian, vegan or plant-based?

For some people, specific labels are helpful. It can help to provide a sense of belonging to a community of people who 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 who may include some fish (pescatarian), or take a flexible (‘flexitarian’) approach, eating animal products some of the time.

Common types of plant-based diets

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian - Eats dairy products and eggs. This is the most common type of vegetarian diet.
  • Lacto-vegetarian - 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.

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's 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).

- In this article, we explore whether veganism could give athletes a competitive edge

In general, it's 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 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.

Maintaining a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet

Despite what many people may think, simply cutting animal products from your diet isn’t a shortcut to a healthy lifestyle. 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.

It’s also easy to fall into the trap of consuming plant-based convenience foods, such as fake meat substitutes. 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.

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.

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

The good news is, with planning and an understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced plant-based diet, you can get all the nutrients your body needs. This is where working with a nutrition professional can be invaluable. 

Nutritionists dealing with vegetarian and vegan diets

How can a nutrition professional help?

A nutritionist 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.

Particularly if environmental or ethical reasons are your motivation for wanting to become a vegetarian or vegan, many nutrition professionals 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.

Here we’ll explore some key areas where one-to-one nutrition support can be beneficial:

Navigating life stages

If you’re raising children on a plant-based diet, seeking help from a qualified nutrition professional can help you 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.

If you follow a vegan diet during pregnancy or when breastfeeding, again, it’s important that you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals for your child to develop healthily. A nutritionist can guide you with this.

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's 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.


There’s a lot of debate when it comes to supplements. As part of a healthy vegan diet, the NHS recommends fortified foods or supplements containing nutrients that are more difficult to get through a vegan diet, including vitamin D, vitamin B12, iodine, selenium, calcium and iron.

A nutrition professional can help you determine if you’re getting enough key nutrients through diet alone, or whether supplements may be a good option for you.

If you’re new to the plant-based lifestyle or are worried about making the transition from a vegetarian to a vegan diet, you can explore more handy tips from nutrition experts to help.

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