There are many different types of vegetarian diets with different restrictions. The most common vegetarian diet excludes all meat, poultry and fish but still includes dairy and eggs. Below, we’ve pulled this list together of alternative food sources of essential nutrients which you can include to help you have a healthy balanced vegetarian diet.
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If you’re thinking of moving towards a more plant based diet it can have benefits for your personal health and the health of the planet.
The lower the meat, fish and dairy content in your diet, the lower the environmental impact. There are many ways to reduce meat in your diet if you are thinking about it. You could make small changes like reducing the amount of meat in your meals.
A vegan diet excludes all meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs and any other animal derived products such as honey. It also avoids products that have been tested on animals. A healthy balanced vegan diet is achievable but you’ll need to plan well when you’re starting out to make sure you get all the essential nutrients that you need.
This is needed for growth and maintenance of muscle mass. Protein is made up of long chains of a substance called amino acids. Our bodies can make some of these amino acids but we get some other essential amino acids from protein sources in our diet.
Everyone requires a different amount of protein per day depending on their weight. To work out how much protein you need, multiply your weight in kg by 0.75. So, for example, if you weigh 70kg then you will need to eat approx 53g of protein per day. You’ll be able to find the protein content in products in the nutrition table on the back of labels.
Here are some examples of protein sources but it’s not an exhaustive list:
- Seeds such as pumpkin, sesame, sunflower
- Plant based drinks such as almond or soya milk
- Plant based yogurts such as soya
Some meal examples are:
- 200g baked beans on 2 slices of wholegrain toast = approx. 17g protein
- Add 25g pumpkin seeds to 40g porridge made up with 100ml soya drink = approx. 13g protein
- Handful of almonds (25g) = approx. 5g protein
This contributes to the normal function of the immune system and the maintenance of normal hair and nails.
Males over 19 years old require 75mcg/d and females over 19 years old require 60mcg/d of selenium every day.
- Brazil nuts
- Bread such as ciabatta, seeded
- Cashew nuts
- Pecan nuts
- Sunflower seeds
- A 25g portion of Brazil nuts will provide approx. 63.5mcg.
- 80g of chickpeas will provide 24mcg
- 80g of steamed asparagus will provide 7.2mcg
- 80g of lentils will provide 8mcg
This contributes to the normal formation of red blood cells and normal oxygen transport around the body. Teenage girls and women of child bearing age need to consume more iron than men of a similar age. A lack of iron in your diet can lead to iron deficiency anaemia with symptoms such as feeling tired and looking pale. If you feel you may be deficient then visit your GP for medical advice.
Depending on your age and sex, you will need the following amount of iron (mcg) per day:
|Age Group||Males (mcg/d)||Females (mcg/d)|
|19-64||8.7||14.8 (19-50yr old) 8.7 (50-64yr old)|
Here are some examples of plant sources but it’s not an exhaustive list:
- Beans such as haricot, pinto, soya, kidney
- Seeds such as pumpkin, sesame, sunflower
- Dried fruit such as apricots, figs, raisins
- Wholemeal bread
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, watercress
Try to eat foods high in Vitamin C with these to help with the absorption of iron. For example, drink a glass of orange juice with your meals or add vegetables such as peppers or broccoli to your bean chilli or chickpea curry.
Some meal/snack examples are:
- Bean chilli (80g kidney beans) with 70g wholegrain rice = approx. 2mcg iron
- Chickpea curry (80g chickpeas) with 70g wholegrain rice = approx. 1.7mcg iron
- 40g apricots = 1.6mcg iron
- 25g pumpkin seeds = approx. 2.5mcg iron
This is needed for the maintenance of normal bones and teeth. Our bones keep growing until we reach what’s called our peak bone mass during our late teenage years/early twenties.
We lose bone mass as we get older so it’s important you include plenty of calcium in your diet to prevent conditions such as osteoporosis (thinning of the bones).
Women are at greater risk of osteoporosis and reduced bone density after the menopause so it’s particularly important that this age group are consuming plenty of calcium.
The recommended daily intakes (mcg/d) of calcium in the UK are:
|Age group||Males (mcg/d)||Females (mcg/d)|
In the UK, milk and milk products are the major source of calcium.
However, here are some non-dairy examples:
- Vegetables such as spinach, curly kale, watercress, okra
- Bread – brown bread, pitta bread, naan bread, white bread
- Nuts such as almonds, brazil, hazelnut
- Seeds such as sesame, celery, coriander, cumin, fennel
- Calcium enriched soya milk/oat based drinks
- 2 slices of sliced brown bread = approx. 130mcg calcium
- 40g porridge made up with 100ml soya drink = approx. 150mcg
- 80g of spinach which can be added to a salad = approx. 135mcg calcium
It’s important you’re getting enough Vitamin D as this contributes to normal blood calcium levels. See below for more information.
This contributes to the maintenance of normal bones and teeth.
It’s recommended that we get 10mcg of Vitamin D each day. The main source of Vitamin D comes from sunlight, but we rarely get enough during the winter months so the government has advised that everyone over the age of 5 should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10mcg of Vitamin D from October to March. Please seek medical advice from your doctor before taking supplements and ask for a vegan version as some Vitamin D supplements are not vegan friendly.
You’ll need to check the label on products such as the below to see if they have been fortified with Vitamin D and to see the Vitamin D content in the products. Examples include:
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Fortified dairy alternative drinks
- Fortified vegetable oil spreads
We all need some fat to stay healthy. Fat is made up of components called fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids (alpha linoleic acid) are known as essential fatty acids as it can’t be made in the body so we need to get it from our diets.
ALA can convert into other Omega 3 fats including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in the body. EPA and DHA contribute to the normal function of the heart. These can also be obtained from your diet. You may have heard that the main source of Omega 3 in our diets comes from oily fish but there are also plant sources.
Here are some examples of plant sources of Omega 3. Look out for ‘source of Omega 3’ or ‘High in Omega 3’ messages on labels.
- Oils such as flaxseed oil, rapeseed oil, soya bean oil
This contributes to the normal function of the immune system and to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal sources so you’ll need to look out for fortified foods and perhaps seek medical advice from your doctor to see if you need supplements. Symptoms of being deficient in this vitamin include extreme tiredness and muscle weakness. You should aim for 1.5µg per day. Look out for fortified sources such as the below. You’ll be able to find the amount of Vitamin B12 on the nutrition table on the back of the pack of fortified foods. Sources include:
- Breakfast cereals
- Plant drinks such as almond or soya drinks (will contain approx. 0.4mcg per 100ml)
- Plant based alternative to yogurts such as soya (will contain approx. 0.4mcg per 100g)
- Dairy products
If you feel you may be deficient in any of these vitamins or minerals then please seek advice from your GP.
More information on vegan and vegetarian diets
For more information on vegan and vegetarian diets, check out the British Nutrition Foundation advice