Eat well

Vegetarian and vegan diets Q&A

Read our answers to common questions about staying healthy on a vegetarian or vegan diet, from looking after your bones to healthy eating in pregnancy.

What is a vegetarian?

Vegetarians and vegans don't eat any red meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacea (such as crab or lobster), or animal by-products (such as gelatine).

Vegetarians eat a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables, dairy products and eggs. Vegetarians who also don't eat eggs, dairy or any other animal products, are called vegans.

Other types of vegetarians include:

  • lacto-ovo-vegetarians – eat both dairy products and eggs (this is the most common type of vegetarian diet)
  • lacto-vegetarians – eat dairy products but not eggs
  • ovo vegetarians – eat eggs but not dairy products

At what age is it safe to become a vegetarian or vegan?

As long as they get all the nutrients they need, children can be brought up healthily on a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Children need plenty of energy and protein to help them grow and develop. It's also important that vegetarian and vegan children get enough iron, calciumvitamin B12 and vitamin D.

If you're bringing up your child on a diet without meat or fish (vegetarian) or without any food from animals (vegan), they'll need to have a good source of protein. Good protein sources include eggs, dairy products such as milk and cheese, soya products, pulses and beans, nuts and seeds.

Don't give whole nuts to children under 5, as they could choke. Nuts can be used if finely ground. Alternatively, you can use a smooth nut butter.

Babies from birth to 1 year of age who are being breastfed should be given a daily supplement containing 8.5 to 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D, to ensure they get enough.

If you're feeding your baby with more than 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula a day, they don't need a vitamin D supplement because infant formula is fortified with vitamin D.

Vitamin supplements containing vitamins A and C are recommended for infants aged 6 months to 5 years old, unless they're getting more than 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula a day.

Vitamin drops are particularly important for vegetarian and vegan children between 6 months and 5 years old. They may also need a vitamin B12 supplement. If your child is older than this, speak to your GP or a dietitian to see whether vitamin supplements should be included in their diet.

Read more about vegetarian and vegan diets for children.

Can babies and children have a vegan diet?

If you're breastfeeding and on a vegan diet, you may need extra vitamin B12.

Take care when feeding children a vegan diet. Young children need a good variety of foods to provide the energy and vitamins they need for growth.

A vegan diet can be bulky and high in fibre, which can mean that children get full up before they've eaten enough calories and nutrients. Because of this, they may need extra supplements. Ask a dietitian or doctor for advice before you start introducing your child to solids.

Read more about vegetarian and vegan diets for children.

Is it safe to be a vegetarian or vegan during pregnancy?

A varied and balanced vegetarian or vegan diet can provide enough nutrients for you and your baby during pregnancy. However, you might find it difficult to get enough iron, vitamin D and vitamin B12.

Talk to your doctor or midwife about how to get enough of these important nutrients. All adults, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D, particularly during the winter months (October until the end of March).

It's also recommended that women should take a folic acid supplement while they are trying to conceive and should continue taking it for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. See vitamins and nutrition in pregnancy for more information.

Read more about having a healthy diet during pregnancy.

What are the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?

A vegetarian diet can be very healthy, but your diet won't automatically be healthier if you cut out meat. Like everyone, vegetarians need to make sure they:

  • eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day.
  • base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates (choose wholegrain where possible)
  • include some dairy or dairy alternatives, such as soya drinks and yoghurts (choose lower-fat and lower-sugar options)
  • eat some beans, pulses, eggs and other proteins
  • choose unsaturated oils and spreads, and eat them in small amounts
  • drink plenty of fluids – the government recommends 6 to 8 cups/glasses a day

If you choose foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar, have them less often and in small amounts.

Do vegetarians and vegans need vitamin supplements?

With good planning and an understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegetarian and vegan diet, you can get all the nutrients your body needs to be healthy without the need for supplements.

However, if your diet isn't planned properly, you could miss out on essential nutrients. Vegetarians need to make sure they get enough iron and vitamin B12, and vegans enough calcium, iron and vitamin B12. Women are thought to be at particular risk of iron deficiency, including those on a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Some groups are advised to take vitamin supplements, regardless of whether they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. For more information, see:

How can I get enough iron?

Although meat is the best source of iron, other good sources include:

  • pulses, such as beans, lentils and peas 
  • nuts
  • dried fruit, such as raisins 
  • dark-green vegetables, such as watercress, broccoli and spring greens
  • wholegrains, such as brown rice and brown bread
  • cereals fortified with iron

As long as you remember to regularly include these foods in your diet, you should be getting enough iron.

Adult men (aged 18 and over) need about 8.7mg of iron a day, and women (aged 19 to 50 years) need about 14.8mg a day. Women over 50 years of age need 8.7mg of iron a day.

How can I get enough calcium?

Calcium helps you maintain strong bones. Non-vegans get most of their calcium from dairy foods, so it's important for vegans to get calcium from other foods.

Good sources of calcium for vegans are:

  • fortified unsweetened soya, rice and oat milk
  • leafy green vegetables (but not spinach)
  • almonds
  • sesame seeds and tahini
  • dried fruit
  • pulses
  • brown (wholemeal) and white bread

Adults need about 700mg of calcium a day, so it's important that vegans regularly include plenty of these foods in their diet.

The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. Fortified margarine and fat spreads, fortified breakfast cereals and egg yolks contain vitamin D. You also get vitamin D when exposed to sunshine.

Examples of iron and calcium in your diet include:

  • 100g of canned red kidney beans (drained and reheated) contains 2mg of iron
  • an 80g serving of boiled spring greens contains 1.1mg of iron, similar to a 30g portion (1 tablespoon) of raisins
  • a 25g serving of almonds contains about 60mg of calcium
  • a serving of boiled broccoli (80g) contains about 28mg of calcium
  • 2 slices of wholemeal bread (80g) contain around 1.9mg of iron and around 85mg of calcium

Bones get stronger when you use them and the best way to do this is through regular exercise.

How can I get enough vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in foods from animal sources, so sources for vegans are limited and a vitamin B12 supplement may be needed. If you eat dairy products and eggs, you probably get enough.

Vegan sources of vitamin B12 include:

  • yeast extract, such as Marmite, which is fortified with vitamin B12 
  • breakfast cereals fortified with vitamin B12
  • soya products fortified with vitamin B12

Adults need about 1.5 micrograms of vitamin B12 a day. Check the labels of fortified foods to see how much vitamin B12 they contain.

What are good vegetarian and vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids?

Sources of omega-3 fatty acids suitable for vegetarians and vegans include:

  • flaxseed oil
  • rapeseed oil
  • soya oil and soya-based foods (such as tofu)
  • walnuts

Omega-3 enriched eggs are also a good source if you're a vegetarian and include eggs in your diet.

Evidence suggests that the type of omega-3 fatty acids found in these foods may not have the same benefits for reducing the risk of heart disease as those found in oily fish.

However, if you follow a vegetarian diet, you can look after your heart by eating at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day, cutting down on food that is high in saturated fat, and watching how much salt you eat.

What are good sources of protein for vegetarians and vegans?

Most vegetarians have enough protein in their diet. Good sources of protein for vegetarians and vegans include:

  • pulses and beans
  • cereals (wheat, oats and rice)
  • soya products (tofu, soya drinks and textured soya protein, such as soya mince)
  • nuts and seeds

For non-vegans:

  • eggs
  • lower-fat dairy products (milk, cheese and yoghurt)

A variety of protein from different sources is necessary to get the right mixture of amino acids, which are used to build and repair the body's cells.

Are Quorn products suitable for vegans?

Not always. Since most Quorn products contain a small amount of egg white and most also contain milk ingredients, they're not all suitable for vegans.

However, some vegan products are available in the Quorn range. Their suitability for vegans is clearly marked on the packaging.

Do I need a special diet if I exercise?

You don't need a special diet for exercising if you're a vegetarian or vegan. The advice about exercising is the same for vegetarians and vegans as it is for non-vegetarians who exercise regularly. 

Most vegetarians have enough protein in their diet for the body to grow and repair itself. If you exercise regularly, make sure you eat plenty of complex carbohydrates, such as rice and pasta for energy, and drink enough fluids when exercising harder.

Read about food for sport and exercise.

Is it healthier to eat organic fruit and vegetables?

Vitamin and mineral levels in food vary, depending on the soil the plants were grown in, when they were picked and how they were stored. There's no scientific evidence that organic food is healthier.

Eating organic food is a personal choice and many people choose to do so for environmental reasons. It's important to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, whether they're organic or not.

Page last reviewed: Thu Aug 2018 Next review due: Mon Aug 2021

NHS Attribution