There are estimated to be up to 7 million people in the UK who consider themselves to be vegetarians. The trend was set by young women, who are still 3 times more likely to be vegetarian than the national average. But today increasing numbers of older women and men are following in their footsteps.
In virtually all cases, people who describe themselves as ‘vegetarian’ choose not to eat meat – however, some individuals follow much more rigorous diets, sometimes excluding many of the major food groups. In general, the more restricted the diet becomes, the more difficult it is to ensure all the body’s nutritional needs are fully met.
Demi-vegetarians eat no or little meat but may eat fish. People who consume fish but no meat are often known as pescetarians.
The remaining groups all exclude meat and fish, and certain other exclusions also apply:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat both dairy products and eggs and are the most common type of vegetarians.
- Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs.
- Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other animal product.
- Fruitarians are similar to vegans, but also usually avoid processed or cooked foods too. Their diet consists mainly of raw fruit, grains and nuts.
- Macrobiotic. This is a diet followed for spiritual and philosophical reasons. The diet progresses through ten levels of restriction, not all of which are vegetarian though each level gradually eliminates animal products. The highest levels eliminate fruit and vegetables, eventually reaching the level of a brown rice only diet.
Vegetarians should try to follow the same healthy eating principles as meat eaters, choosing foods from each of the major food groups and high protein sources, cereals and grains, dairy products (or soya-substitutes), vegetables and fruits.
Extra care needs to be taken if young children are following a vegetarian diet to ensure they have enough energy and essential nutrients to grow and develop normally. If you are planning to bring up your baby as a vegetarian or vegan, you should discuss this with your doctor or health visitor since some vitamin supplements may be necessary. However, for older children, teenagers and adults it has never been easier to follow a vegetarian diet.
Deciding to become a vegetarian is not just about not eating meat, it requires a careful consideration of the whole dietary pattern to ensure that nutrients usually provided by meat or dairy products are obtained from other foods. However with careful thought vegetarian diets can be a very healthy option.
Meat is an excellent source of high quality protein. Vegetarians must substitute meat with other protein-rich foods, such as pulses, cereals, dairy products and nuts.
Pulses are rich in soluble fibre which has been shown to be protective against cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Soya protein is also an excellent substitute for meat and is now available in a convenient and tasty form in many ready-made meals. A diet which includes at least 25g of soya per day has been associated with reductions in some forms of cancer and CVD.
Quorn and tofu are other new high protein foods, suitable for vegetarians.
Iron is a particular concern for non-meat eaters, since the type of iron found in red meat is particularly well absorbed by the body. Recent surveys have suggested that a large proportion of young women and children have low levels of iron in their body stores. Other sources of iron are fortified breakfast cereals, bread, pulses, green leafy vegetables and dried fruit.