A balanced diet for vegetarians

If you’re a vegetarian, or want to cut back on meat, make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need with our guide to a healthy vegetarian diet.

A selection of vegetarian foods in a wicker basket

Vegetarians enjoy a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit with some also choosing to include dairy products, including cheese (made using vegetable rennet) and eggs. Studies suggest that a plant-based diet like this can 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 antioxidants, plus as a vegetarian you’re more likely to exceed the recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables. 

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 like getting a minimum five-a-day of fruit and veg, including wholegrains and choosing more beans and pulses, while opting for lower fat, lower sugar dairy foods. But that's not the whole story. How much should you be eating and is there an ideal time to eat protein, carbs or fats? Read on for our guide to healthy eating around the clock.

Reference Intakes (RI)

The RIs are benchmarks for the amount of energy (kilocalories), fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugar, protein and salt that an average, moderately active adult should consume each day. The RIs for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt are maximum daily amounts. There is no RI for fibre, although health experts suggest we have 30g a day. Don’t forget that we are all different with varying needs for energy and nutrients so this information is for guidance only: 

 

Reference intakes (RI)
 
 MenWomen
Energy (kcal)25002000
Protein (g)55                   50                 
Carbohydrates (g)300260
Sugar (g)12090
Fat (g)9570
Saturates (g)3020
Salt (g)66


Perfect portions

Numbers and figures are all very well, but how does this relate to you? Keeping the Eatwell Guide in mind, you can personalise your portion sizes.
 

FoodsPortion size
Carbs like cereal/rice/pasta/potato (include 1 portion at each main meal and ensure it fills no more than ¼ of your plate)Your clenched fist                              
Protein like tofu/beans/pulses (aim to have a portion at each meal)Palm of your hand
Cheese (as a snack or part of a meal)2 of your thumbs
Nuts/seeds (as a snack or part of a meal)1 of your cupped hands
Butter/spreads/nut butter (no more than 2 or 3 times a day)The tip of your thumb
Savouries like popcorn/crisps (as a snack/treat)2 of your cupped hands
Bakes like brownies/flapjacks (as an occasional treat)2 of your fingers

Don’t forget, as set out in the Eatwell Guide, we should all be aiming for a minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Discover what counts as one portion using our five-a-day infographic.
 

Breakfast

Scrambled eggs and cherry tomatoes on toast

A protein-based breakfast is an ideal choice because it's a filling and sustaining way to start the day and needn't take any longer to prepare than toast or cereal. For example, while your bread is toasting, scramble an egg for a nutritious toast topper and, on days when you have a little more time, enjoy our version of a vegetarian 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 do prefer your breakfast in a bowl, 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 the mineral iron, but there are plenty of plant foods that are good sources along with breakfast cereals, muesli, wholemeal bread and pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Enjoy any of these with a small glass of fruit juice, rich in vitamin C, to optimise your body’s iron uptake. For those who avoid dairy, like milk and yogurt, choose an alternative that is fortified with vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium.

Whatever you do, don't skip breakfast as this sets your blood sugar off on a roller-coaster that means you'll end up choosing the wrong foods later in the day. Remember breakfast makes an important contribution towards your daily intake and plays a key role in maintaining a healthy weight.

Breakfast suggestions:
Spinach protein pancakes
Vegan tomato & mushroom pancakes
​Tofu brekkie pancakes
Seven-cup museli
Scrambled omelette toast topper
Spicy tofu kedgeree
Veggie breakfast bakes
Get up and go breakfast muffins
Apple & linseed porridge
Cinnamon buckwheat pancakes with cherries
Creamy yogurt porridge with apricot, ginger & grapefruit topping
Bulghar & spinach fritters with eggs & tomato chutney
Fruit & nut yogurt


Mid-morning snack

Make every snack count with nourishing options that supply both the 'pick-me-up' you need while topping up your portions of fruit and veg, or delivering key nutrients like iron or vitamin D. Swap your morning biscuits for toast topped with slices of banana, bake a batch of fruit-packed muffins or blend up a fruit smoothie.

Snack suggestions
Peanut butter & banana on toast
Malted walnut seed loaf
Almond butter
Crunchy baked eggs
Super berry smoothie
Exercise shake
Melon & crunchy bran pots
Nutty blueberry muffins
 

Lunch

A bowl of rice topped with black beans, tofu and avocado

At lunch, aim for a mix of protein from beans, peas, nuts, grains or dairy products, combined with starchy carbs. You need carb-rich foods because without them you're likely to suffer that classic 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 that help you manage those afternoon munchies.

We need some 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 full-fat dairy, as well as 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 rapeseed oils, whilst nuts and seeds supply the heart-friendly polyunsaturates, including the omega-3 variety. It’s these unsaturated fats that we should be eating more of, so include a tablespoon of ground linseed or two tablespoons of oil, or the equivalent of unsalted nuts, daily.

Lunch suggestions:
Falafel burgers
Red lentil, chickpea & chilli soup
Fragrant vegetable & cashew biryani
Exotic avocado salad
Spicy vegetable fajitas
Hearty mushroom soup
Houmous & avocado sandwich topper
Poached egg with spicy rice
Vegetarian club
Risotto-stuffed tomatoes
Indian chickea & vegetable soup
Curried squash, lentil & coconut soup
Black bean, tofu & avocado rice bowl
Bulghar & broad bean salad with zesty dressing

Mid-afternoon snack

For many it's not sugar so much as salty, savoury foods they crave in the afternoon. If this sounds like you, forget the crisps and opt instead for a spiced seed mix, savoury popcorn or enjoy lower fat cream cheese on crackers or a crunchy colourful salad.

Snack suggestions
Pea & artichoke houmous
Chickpea & red pepper dip
Pear, blue cheese & walnut sandwich topper
Spicy seed mix
Spiced chilli popcorn
Sweet potato & pea puffs
Dagmar's detox salad
Carrot & houmous roll-ups
 

Dinner

A bowl of vegetarian bolognese sauce on spaghetti

Don't curfew carbs. They're low in fat, fibre-rich and help you relax in the evening, plus they’re filling, which means they’ll get you through to breakfast. Combine them with some healthy essential fats, such as the ones you find in nuts, especially walnuts, as well as seeds like pumpkin and some protein from tofu, eggs or dairy. During the night your body will use the protein and these healthy fats for regeneration and repair, which is important for maintaining healthy skin and hair. 

Dinner suggestions
Veggie shepherd's pie with sweet potato mash
One-pot mushroom & potato curry
Spiced veg with lemony bulghar wheat salad
Spaghetti with spinach & walnut pesto
Mushroom, walnut & tomato baked peppers
Fragrant vegetable & cashew biryani
Chinese noodles with tofu & hazelnuts
Spinach & artichoke filo pie
Veggie bolognese
Tofu & asparagus pad Thai
One-pot mushroom & potato curry
Easy veggie biryani

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This article was last reviewed on 26 June 2017 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

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...

 

Comments, questions and tips

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gayematthews
13th Sep, 2016
A vegetarian diet includes dairy. If you choose not to include that then you are vegan.
viviennet
23rd May, 2014
I thought this was a disappointing article - you mentioned that some vegetarians do not eat dairy products or eggs (or if they choose to do so then they should really be free-range eggs, organic milk, cheese made with non-animal rennet etc) and then went on to list loads of recipes that included - wait for it - eggs, cheese and milk! Result - B minus, could do better.
ggeorginaa
15th Jul, 2016
If you aren't eating dairy or eggs it would probably be better to look at the Vegan page...
lisel
20th May, 2016
my thoughts exactly.
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