Being vegetarian means different things to different people.
Some people just avoid red meat but still eat white meat like chicken or fish. This is called semi-vegetarian. Others avoid all meat and fish but still enjoy eggs, milk and cheese and other dairy products. This is called lacto-ovo-vegetarian. Vegans however avoid any animal products such as meat and eggs and may even avoid animal products like leather in the shoes they buy.
How Many Young People Are Vegetarian?
According to statistics from the Food Standards Agency (2000) and a survey of students in full time education (JMA 2000):
Teenagers 15-18 years
10% of girls are either vegetarian or vegan.
1% of boys are either vegetarian or vegan.
Students aged 17 to 24
8% are vegetarian (4% male, 11% female).
1% are vegan.
18% do not eat red meat.
Are There Any Benefits?
There can be health benefits to being a vegetarian especially if you eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and eat seeds, pulses or nuts daily. All of these foods are rich in phytonutrients (antioxidants) as well as fibre which help to protect the body from illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. If you aren't vegetarian then you will also benefit from making these foods part of your usual balanced diet.
Are There Any Problems With Becoming A Vegetarian?
Whatever type of vegetarian you are, or are thinking of becoming, you need to ensure you get all the nutrients your body needs. In general terms the more foods you cut out of your diet the more careful you have to be to ensure that you include other foods that contain similar nutrients.
Alternatives To Meat
It is especially important if you are vegetarian to get your protein, iron and zinc from sources other than meat. Choose from the foods listed below:
- Soya based foods including tofu
- Beans, lentils and chick peas
- Seeds, nuts and nut butters (like peanut butter)
If you eat these foods as well as cereal foods (such as wholemeal bread, rice, pasta) together this will give you a good mix of proteins - equivalent to those found in meat.
Some vegetarians still eat eggs, milk and fish. These provide a more complete form of protein equivalent to that in meat.
Foods That Contain Iron
Iron is needed to keep your blood healthy so that it can carry enough oxygen around your body.
If you don’t eat enough iron containing foods you risk developing a condition called iron deficiency anaemia. This makes you feel tired all the time. Girls are more likely to get anaemia than boys because they have higher iron needs.
Good vegetarian sources of iron include wholegrain cereals and breads, Breakfast cereals with added vitamins and minerals, leafy-green vegetables, pulses such as lentils, baked beans and kidney beans, and some dried fruits.
Your body will work hard to get as much iron into your blood as it needs. You can help more iron get into your body by eating these plant sources of iron and making sure you have a good amount of vitamin C in your diet too. Vitamin C helps the cells take up iron. Vitamin C can be found in fruits, some vegetables and potatoes.
Good Sources Of Calcium
Dairy foods (milk, cheese, yoghurt) are normally key to getting a good calcium intake and usually provide about 55% of the calcium consumed by vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
If you are a vegan and avoid dairy foods you need to ensure that you keep your calcium intake up. The growing years, and up to age 25, are when your calcium needs are really high. This is because, as you grow and mature, your body is banking a lot of calcium in your bones to help make and keep them strong.
Try these calcium-providing alternatives to dairy foods:
- Calcium fortified soya milk and soya yogurts and puddings (aim for 2 to 3 servings a day if you don’t eat dairy foods)
- Calcium fortified orange juice
- Dried figs
- Green leafy vegetables
- Nuts and seeds (especially sesame seeds)
- Canned pilchards, sardines and salmon (if you eat fish)
We normally get all our vitamin D from sunlight. The strong rays from the sun make vitamin D in our skin. But this only happens during the spring and summer months. Luckily we store this vitamin D and use the store up during the winter.
Vitamin D is needed for healthy bones because it helps your body to absorb calcium. A lack of vitamin D can cause your bones to be softer and bend - this is called rickets.Margarines, spreads and some breakfast cereals contain added vitamin D. Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines naturally contain it (if you eat fish). Cheese and eggs provide some too. Try to include these foods regularly. If you feel you don’t, or if any of the following apply to you, then it is wise to take a supplement that contains vitamin D, especially during the winter months. Talk to your local pharmacist or doctor if you are unsure.
You need to be careful to have more vitamin D in your diet, or from supplements if you don’t go out very often or have to cover your skin from the sun. People with darker skins or people living in the far north of Scotland may also need more dietary vitamin D. Also if you are pregnant - because growing babies need lots of vitamin D as well.
Vitamin B2 and B12
Vitamin B12 is only naturally found in foods of animal origin, such as dairy foods and meat. Aim to include fortified breakfast cereals, soya milk and foods with added vitamin B12 and yeast extracts like Marmite, Vegemite or Vecon regularly. If you don’t like any of these, then it is a good idea to take a one a day multivitamin and mineral supplement.
Taking a supplement is also a good idea if you are new to and still getting used to planning and choosing a vegetarian diet – it can provide the reassurance that you are getting the vitamins and minerals you need while you learn more about being vegetarian.
Milk and fish are our main sources of iodine. Vegans can get iodine from iodised salt, seaweed, or the yeast extract Vecon.
If you are considering becoming a vegetarian check out our healthy vegetarian recipes.