How to eat a balanced diet if you're vegetarian
If you’re vegetarian or looking to cut back on your meat consumption, make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need with our expert guide to eating a healthy, balanced meat-free diet.
What is a vegetarian diet?
Vegetarians enjoy a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit, while avoiding meat, poultry, game, fish and shellfish, as well as animal by-products such as gelatine. Vegetarians may include some animal products in their diets – these can be summarised as:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian – includes both dairy and eggs
- Lacto-vegetarian – includes dairy foods only
- Ovo-vegetarian – includes eggs only
What are the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?
A carefully planned, plant-based diet that supplies all the essential nutrients you need may be a healthier way to eat, with fewer reported cases of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Typically, a varied vegetarian diet contains less saturated fat and more folate, fibre and protective antioxidants, plus as a vegetarian you’re more likely to meet and exceed your 5-a-day intake of fruit and vegetables.
What is a balanced diet?
In the UK, the Eatwell Guide defines the different types of foods we should be eating and in what proportions. The guide explains some simple rules to follow, such as getting a minimum 5-a-day of fruit and vegetables, including wholegrains, choosing more beans and pulses, and opting for lower fat, lower sugar or dairy-free alternatives.
What are Reference Intakes (RI) and what part do they play in a balanced diet?
RIs are benchmark figures that provide a guide for the amount of energy (kilocalories), fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugar, protein and salt that an average, moderately active adult should consume each day. Of these the figures for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt are maximum daily amounts.
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Reference intakes for a moderately active female aged 19-64 years:
- Energy – 2000 kcals
- Protein – 50g
- Carbohydrates – 260g
- Sugar – 90g
- Fat – 70g
- Saturates – 20g
- Salt – 6g
There is no RI for fibre, although as part of a balanced, healthy diet experts recommend that an average adult reach a fibre intake of 30g per day. Unfortunately, most of us fall short of this amount. To eat more fibre, it's helpful to eat fresh and dried fruit, vegetables, beans and pulses, nuts, seeds and wholegrain cereals.
What is a healthy portion size?
Numbers and figures are all very well, but how does this relate to you? Keeping the Eatwell Guide in mind, you can personalise your portions as follows:
Carbs, like cereal, rice, pasta and potatoes
- Portion size: Your clenched fist
- Include 1 portion at each main meal and ensure it fills no more than ¼ of your plate
Protein, like tofu, beans and pulses
- Portion size: Palm of your hand
- Aim to have a portion at each meal
- Portion size: 2 of your thumbs
- Enjoy as a snack or part of a meal
Nuts and seeds
- Portion size: 1 of your cupped hands
- Enjoy as a snack or part of a meal
Butter, spreads and nut butter
- Portion size: The tip of your thumb
- Eat no more than 2 or 3 times a day
Savouries, like popcorn and crisps
- Portion size: 2 of your cupped hands
- Enjoy as a snack or treat
Bakes, like brownies and flapjacks
- Portion size: 2 of your fingers
- Enjoy as an occasional treat
A healthy vegetarian breakfast
A protein-based breakfast is an ideal choice. It's a filling and sustaining way to start the day and shouldn't take any longer to prepare than toast or cereal. Scrambled eggs are a great choice or, on days when you have a little more time, enjoy vegetarian tofu kedgeree. Eggs provide a good balance of quality protein combined with fat, plus the yolks are a useful source of vitamin D, which we need for strong bones and teeth.
Protein slows stomach emptying, keeping you fuller for longer, so you'll eat fewer calories during the rest of the day. If you prefer a sweet start to the day, pack your porridge or cereal with a selection of nuts and seeds, and finish with a generous dollop of natural yogurt.
Many people think vegetarians are at risk of being low in iron, but there are plenty of plant foods that are good sources along with fortified breakfast cereals, muesli, wholemeal bread, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Enjoy any of these with a small glass of vitamin C-rich fruit juice, as it helps optimise your body’s iron uptake. For those who avoid dairy, choose a plant alternative that is fortified with vitamins and minerals, including vitamins B12 and D as well as the mineral calcium.
Whatever you do, don't skip breakfast – this sets your blood sugar off on a roller-coaster and you'll end up choosing the wrong foods later in the day. Remember that breakfast makes an important contribution towards your daily intake and plays a key role in helping to maintain a healthy weight.
Make every snack count with nourishing options that help top up your 5-a-day and deliver key nutrients, like iron or vitamin D. Why not swap your biscuits for toast topped with slices of banana, bake a batch of fruit-packed muffins, or blend up a fruit smoothie?
Vegetarian lunch ideas
At lunch, aim for a mix of protein – this might be from beans, peas, nuts, grains or dairy or dairy-free alternatives, combined with starchy carbs. Without carb-rich foods, you're more likely to suffer from a mid-afternoon slump. The key is to choose carbs that produce a steady rise in blood sugar, which means passing on the sugary 'white' foods and going for high-fibre wholegrains.
We all need fats in our diet, but it’s important we don’t eat too much and the focus should be on the right type of fat. Fat is not only a source of energy, it helps us absorb fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E and K. Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat but keep in mind that some plant foods, like coconut and palm oils, are high in these saturates. Heart-friendly mono-unsaturated fats are found in plant foods like avocado, olive and cold-pressed rapeseed oils, whilst nuts and seeds supply heart-friendly polyunsaturated fats, including essential omega-3s.
Red lentil, chickpea & chilli soup
Black bean tortilla soup
Ponzu tofu poke bowl
Sweet potato toasts with curried chickpeas
Pepper and mushroom socca pizzas
Spicy vegetable fajitas
Black bean, tofu & avocado rice bowl
Swap sugary snacks and salty crisps for a spiced seed mix, savoury popcorn, or enjoy low-fat cream cheese on crackers or a crunchy, colourful salad.
How to have a healthy vegetarian dinner
A word to the wise: don't cut out carbs. They're rich in fibre and filling, which means they'll keep you going until breakfast. Combine carbs with healthy essential fats, such as those found in walnuts and pumpkin seeds, as well as protein-rich tofu, eggs and dairy. During the night, your body uses protein and healthy fats for regeneration and repair, which is important for maintaining healthy skin and hair.
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This article was last reviewed on 21 December 2023 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
Do you follow a vegetarian diet? We have lots more vegetarian recipes, but would love to hear your tips for staying healthy as a vegetarian in the comments below...