In this article
There is a growing interest in the United Kingdom in reducing meat consumption. Analysis published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, found that between 2008-9 and 2018-19 participants’ average meat consumption decreased from about 103g per person a day to 86g, a reduction of about 17g or 17%. This is equivalent to eating roughly two and a half fewer pork sausages each week. According to the Guardian newspaper, a record 500,000 people, of whom 125,000 are based in the UK, took the Veganuary pledge in January.
Researchers at Oxford University found that a global switch to diets that rely less on meat and more on fruit and vegetables could save up to 8 million lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds, and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion (US). Research results like this have turned many UK meat eaters into flexitarians, vegetarians, or even vegans.
The beginning of 2021 has seen major supermarket brands doing more to cater to the growing number of the UK population who have turned their back on animal products, and food delivery services are noticing an increased demand from customers for vegetarian and vegan dishes. Eating no meat is more common among younger consumers, so it is not surprising that veganism is more widespread amongst the young.
At present, vegetarians account for 7% of the UK’s population, while pescatarians account for a further 5% and vegans account for 1.16% of the population. A new poll commissioned by BBC Good Food found that 21% of children would like to be vegetarian. Vegans and vegetarians look set to make up a quarter of the British population by 2025.
What is a vegetarian?
According to the Vegetarian Society, vegetarians don’t eat fish, meat or chicken.
However, within the term “vegetation” there are several categories:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians – Vegetarians who avoid all animal flesh, but do consume dairy and egg products.
- Lacto-vegetarians – Vegetarians who avoid animal flesh and eggs, but do consume dairy products.
- Ovo-vegetarians – Vegetarians who avoid all animal products except eggs.
People who do not eat meat or poultry but do consume fish and/or shellfish are considered pescatarians, whereas part-time vegetarians or those who do not, for example, eat “red meat” are often referred to as flexitarians, and vegans do not consume any animal products or animal by-products.
What foods do vegetarians eat?
A vegetarian diet should include a diverse mix of fruits, vegetables, grains, healthy fats and proteins.
Healthy foods to eat on a vegetarian diet include but are not limited to:
- Fruits such as apples, bananas, berries, oranges, melons, pears, peaches.
- Vegetables such as leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, tomatoes, carrots.
- Grains such as quinoa, barley, buckwheat, rice, oats.
- Legumes such as lentils, beans, peas, chickpeas.
- Nuts such as almonds, walnuts, cashews, chestnuts.
- Seeds such as flaxseeds, chia and hemp seeds.
- Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados.
- Proteins such as tempeh, tofu, seitan, natto, nutritional yeast, spirulina.
Lacto-ovo-, lacto- and ovo-vegetarians will also eat eggs and dairy products which will provide some of the nutrients needed. Flexitarian vegetarians primarily follow a plant-based diet but do include meat, dairy, eggs, poultry and fish on occasion or in small quantities. Pescatarians have a lot in common with vegetarians, in that they eat fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, eggs, and dairy, but they do eat fish and other seafood while avoiding all meat and poultry.
Examples of recommended balanced vegetarian diets, based on a 2,000-calorie daily amount might include, for example:
- Breakfast: Porridge made with uncooked oats, 250ml whole milk and a pear.
- Lunch: Cheese omelette paired with salad made of four cherry tomatoes, rocket leaves, cucumber and 20g of walnuts.
- Dinner: Roasted cauliflower, paneer and chickpea curry with boiled spinach.
- Pudding: 125g plain Greek-style yoghurt and 80g raspberries.
- Snacks: 30g portion of almonds, portion of blueberries, healthy hummus with sliced peppers and a portion of spicy roasted chickpeas.
- Milk: 225ml semi-skimmed milk.
- Breakfast: Two poached eggs on two slices of medium granary toast, with vegetable oil-based spread.
- Lunch: Roast butternut squash and red lentil soup.
- Dinner: Portobello mushroom burgers and a baked sweet potato.
- Pudding: Warm exotic fruit salad and 125g Greek yoghurt.
- Snacks: 10g walnuts, a banana, crispbread with cottage cheese and cherry tomatoes, three squares of dark chocolate and 80g raspberries.
- Milk: 225ml semi-skimmed milk.
- Breakfast: Two wheat biscuits with 200ml semi-skimmed milk and a medium banana.
- Lunch: Two servings of warm lentil and goat’s cheese salad with a tablespoon of linseeds.
- Dinner: Aubergine and courgette parmesan bake with cooked couscous and broccoli.
- Pudding: One slice of malt loaf with vegetable oil-based spread.
- Snacks: 30g dried apricots, 30g almonds, 80g blueberries, 125g Greek yoghurt and an orange.
- Milk: 225ml whole milk.
What foods do vegetarians not eat?
Generally, a vegetarian diet does not include:
- Meat or poultry.
- Fish or seafood (shellfish).
- Gelatine or animal rennet.
- Stock or fat from animals.
However, lacto-vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, poultry and eggs, as well as foods that contain them. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yoghurt and butter, are included. Ovo-vegetarian diets exclude meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products, but allow eggs. Lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish and poultry, but allow dairy products and eggs. Pescatarian diets exclude meat and poultry, dairy, and eggs, but allow fish.
There are, however, a number of everyday foods that vegetarians should not eat as they contain hidden animal products. These foods include:
- Marshmallows – These include gelatine, a thickening and gelling agent.
- Pop-Tarts – Gelatine is in the frosting spread over the top of Pop-Tarts.
- Yoghurt – Many low and reduced fat yoghurts use thickening and gelling agents to help them achieve a thick and creamy texture, and quite often that gelling agent is gelatine.
- Panna cotta – Traditionally gelatine is used to set the milk, so unfortunately panna cotta isn’t vegetarian.
- Hard cheeses – Many hard cheeses, including Parmesan, contain rennet, which is an enzyme found in the lining of a cow’s intestines. Rennet causes the milk to coagulate in the cheese making process, which is how we get hard cheeses.
- Caesar salad – Traditionally Caesar dressing is made with anchovies.
- Worcestershire sauce – Ingredients include anchovies.
- Pie pastry – Lard is used in a lot of commercially prepared pastry.
- Tortillas – Lard is often used in making tortillas.
- Cupcakes – Lard is used in a lot of commercially prepared cupcakes.
- French fries and chips – Often these are cooked in animal fats.
- Mince pies – Lard is used in a lot of commercially prepared mince pies.
- Thai curry – Whilst most curries are vegetable based, the curry paste is made with shrimp paste
- Vegetable soups – Often soups are made with beef, chicken or ham hock stock.
- White sugar – A lot of white sugar is refined using bone char.
- Some wines and beers – Some wines and beers are filtered with isinglass, a fining product that comes from fish bladders.
The key is to read the labels on prepared foods and to look for vegetarian or vegan marked alternatives.
Is a vegetarian diet healthy? What do vegetarians eat for protein and iron?
Vegetarians must include these key nutrients into a vegetarian diet:
- Vitamin B12.
- Vitamin D.
- Fats and omegas.
If meat, fish, dairy products, and/or eggs are not going to be part of a vegetarian diet, then you will need to know how to get enough of these nutrients. The stricter the diet, the harder it will be to get enough of these from the foods you eat.
In the UK, the recommended daily intake of protein is 0.75g per every kilogram you weigh, so a 60kg person would require around 45g protein each day. To replace the protein provided by meat in a vegetarian diet, include a variety of protein-rich plant foods such as:
- Brown rice.
- Soya milk.
Combining two plant proteins from different plant species makes it a complete protein. For example, oats + nuts = complete protein. Lacto-ovo- and ovo-vegetarians can get protein from eggs. There is around a quarter of your daily protein in one boiled egg.
Found in abundance in meat and seafood, iron is essential for energy production and immunity. Vegetarians can easily get their daily quota of iron, that is 8.7mg per day for men, 14.8mg for women under 50, and 8.7mg for women over 50, in the plant-based foods they eat including:
- Sea vegetables such as nori, wakame and dulse which are very high in iron.
- Iron-fortified breakfast cereals.
- Legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, baked beans, soybeans and tofu.
- Dried fruit such as raisins and figs.
Also, iron is found in pumpkin seeds, broccoli and blackstrap molasses. Eating these foods along with foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits and juices, and tomatoes, will help the body absorb iron better.
Milk and yoghurt are good sources of calcium for lacto- and lacto-ovo-vegetarians; however, for vegetarians not consuming dairy products, they should add alternatives as part of their diets. Foods such as tofu, calcium-fortified milk alternatives, calcium-fortified orange juice, green leafy vegetables, and dried figs are also excellent ways to get calcium, which helps to build and maintain strong bones and teeth.
Vitamin B12 has a variety of vital functions within the body including:
- The formation of red blood cells.
- Cell division.
- Nerve structure and function.
- The maintenance of normal blood homocysteine levels, together with folate and vitamin B6 (raised levels are a risk factor in cardiovascular disease).
It is found in abundance in dairy products like milk and cheese, and in eggs. Plant sources of vitamin B12 are more difficult to come by, but it can be found in soya products, fortified breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast. Beware though, some health food products, such as seaweed and spirulina, stop the body taking in vitamin B12 effectively.
Vegans and other vegetarians who limit their intake of animal products may be at greater risk of vitamin D deficiency than non-vegetarians, because foods providing the highest amount of vitamin D per gram naturally are all from animal sources. Vitamin D is found in milk, yoghurt, margarine, breakfast cereals, orange juice, oily and canned fish, liver and eggs. Vitamin D helps contribute to healthy bones, teeth, muscles and our immune systems.
Vegetarians can ensure they get vital vitamin D from:
- Fortified soy milk. One cup of soy milk fortified with vitamin D contains about 2.9 mcg (116 IU) of vitamin D.
- Fortified cereals.
- Fortified orange juice.
- Fortified almond milk.
- Fortified rice milk.
Fats and Omegas
Fat is an important source of energy. It protects the body against heat loss, helps to take in vitamins A, D and E, and is an important part of brain functioning. Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are important for the brain, eyes and the immune system. Saturated fats are found in foods such as pies, pastries and cakes, butter, margarine and cheese.
For vegetarians, alternatives are palm oil, coconut oil and coconut cream; unsaturated fats including polyunsaturated oils such as sunflower, soya and flaxseed oils; linseeds, walnuts and soya beans; monounsaturated oils such as olive oil, rapeseed oil and avocadoes; and nuts such as almonds, brazils and peanuts.
An adequate intake of omegas may prevent and control a number of inflammatory conditions such as heart disease, arthritis, macular degeneration, and immune dysfunction, for example asthma and eczema. Omega-3 and fibre, which is abundant in vegetarian diets, can help to reduce cholesterol levels.
Omega-3 is found in foods such as:
- Flaxseeds (ground and oil).
- Rapeseed/canola oil.
- Hempseed oil.
- Soya bean oil.
- Walnut oil.
- Algal oil.
Omega-6 is found in foods such as:
- Corn oil.
- Grapeseed oil.
- Sunflower oil.
- Soya bean oil.
- Walnut oil.
- Wheatgerm oil.
- Soya beans.
Zinc is needed for cell growth. It supports the immune system and aids the healing of wounds. Men need 9.5mg of zinc per day and women need 7mg of zinc per day. Zinc is found in cows’ milk, cheese and eggs. Vegetarians can obtain zinc from foods such as potatoes, peas, beans, chickpeas, nuts and seeds.
Is a vegetarian and vegan the same?
Whilst vegetarians don’t eat any animals, in addition to not consuming any animal or fish flesh, a vegan also doesn’t consume dairy milk, dairy cheese, eggs, or any other product derived from an animal or fish such as honey. Veganism is a stricter form of vegetarianism.
Vegans avoid consuming or using any animal products or by-products such as silk, leather and wool. The Vegan Society define veganism as “a way of living, which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.”
In terms of ethics, vegetarians are opposed to killing animals for food, but some consider it acceptable to consume animal by-products such as milk and eggs, as long as the animals are kept in adequate conditions. On the other hand, vegans believe that animals have a right to be free from human use; whether it’s for food, clothing, science, or entertainment, their desire is to avoid all forms of animal exploitation.
Vegans strictly avoid consuming any foods or beverages that contain:
- Fish and shellfish.
- Dairy products.
- Rennet, gelatine, and other types of animal protein.
- Stock or fats that derive from animals.
Products that vegans will avoid can include:
- Leather goods.
- Soaps, candles, and other products that contain animal fats, such as tallow.
- Latex products that contain casein, which comes from milk proteins.
- Cosmetics or other products that manufacturers test on animals.
Many vegans boycott companies that test their products on animals, including pharmaceuticals, and people known as “ethical vegans” also tend to steer clear of circuses, zoos, horse and dog races, and any other activities involving the use of animals for entertainment.
Research group Statista found that in 2021, about 3% of responding 20- to 29-year-olds in the United Kingdom stated that they followed a vegan diet. Respondents under fifty were more likely to be vegans than those over fifty. Those most commonly adhering to a vegan diet were females aged between 18 and 34 years.
Research on plant-based meat alternatives conducted by investment bank UBS last year indicated a rising interest in vegan lifestyle choices. Their research found that the number of people who tried plant-based meat alternatives increased from 48% to 53% between March and November last year. The meat-free market now covers everything from plant-based burgers to sausages, chicken pieces, bacon and charcuterie (deli meats), meaning you can recreate almost any meat dish without any animals being involved.
Most meat-free products tend to use soya or soya beans as their base, for example tofu, tempeh and more processed meat replicas, but you can also now find meat alternatives made from fruit and vegetables like jackfruit or mushrooms or peas.
Vegetarians and vegans may avoid consuming animal products for similar reasons, but they do so to various extents. As we have seen, various categories of vegetarians exist, and vegans are at the strictest end of the vegetarian spectrum. Going “meat free” either occasionally or as a lifestyle choice can have benefits for your health; however, it is important for both vegetarians and vegans to plan their diets well in order to avoid any health complications over the long term.