Meat Free

The essential information on healthy vegetarian eating

Defining Vegetarianism

Vegetarians choose not to eat meat, poultry, game, fish and animal by-products such as gelatin and rennet. Vegans also exclude foods produced by animals such as eggs, dairy products and honey. Vegan diets need more careful monitoring to ensure a good balance of nutrients, but both types of diet offer healthy, interesting and delicious ways of eating.

Why stop eating meat?

People might stop eating meat for a variety of reasons:

  • Ethical: Some vegetarians simply want to prevent killing or cruelty to animals. Furthermore a meat-based diet is considered a wasteful use of resources in a hungry world.
  • Aesthetic: Some people simply prefer the taste of vegetarian foods.
  • Health: A diet that is low in fresh foods, high in processed foods, refined sugars and fats is unhealthy whether or not it includes meat. However, a well-balanced vegetarian diet offers many health advantages. Research shows that vegetarians tend to eat less saturated fat, more antioxidant-rich foods and more soluble fibre than meat-eaters, which may account for their lower cholesterol levels. Vegetarians generally have fewer problems with high blood pressure, gallstones and osteoporosis, as well as a reduced risk of certain types of cancer. Vegetarians are also on average 9kg lighter than the rest of the population.

In addition, by excluding meat, vegetarians avoid many health hazards related to animal-based diets such as food poisoning, BSE, CJD and waste disposal.

Where can a vegetarian find the nutrients provided by meat?

By excluding meat a vegetarian “loses” mainly protein, iron, zinc, vitamins A and B, especially B12.


Many people believe that vegetarian and particularly vegan diets cannot possibly provide sufficient protein. This is an old wives’ tale.

Eight essential amino acids are needed to make a complete protein. Dairy products, eggs and soya products (tofu, tempeh, miso, soya drinks and desserts) all provide complete protein in themselves.

Combining whole grains (unrefined wheat, rye, oats, millet, barley, spelt, rice, quinoa) with pulses (beans, peas, lentils) and supplementing with small amounts of nuts and seeds also provides plenty of protein. All the essential amino acids are found in combinations such as beans on toast, lentil curry with brown rice, musli with milk, hummus made from chickpeas and sesame tahini, peanut butter sandwiches made with wholemeal bread. It isn’t even necessary to combine different food types at the same meal since our bodies can store amino acids for later use.

As with meat-eaters, it is important (and normal) for vegetarians to base their eating pattern on a wide variety of high quality foods.


This is another nutrient often thought to be deficient in plant-based diets, and iron deficiency is indeed the most common deficiency in the diets of both meat-eaters and vegetarians. Whatever a person’s diet, it is advisable to avoid drinking milk or tea at mealtimes because both calcium in dairy products and tannic acid in tea can inhibit the absorption of iron from other foods. Iron-rich foods include dried fruits (weight for weight dried apricots contain four times more iron than lamb does) nuts, (especially brazils), wholegrains, dried peas, beans and lentils, leafy green vegetables, molasses and egg yolks. Although iron is most easily absorbed from meat, the plus for vegetarians is that they eat foods which provide good amounts of vitamin C, not contained in meat, and this boosts their absorption of iron.

Vitamin A:

An antioxidant vitamin, is required for the health of skin, eyes, mucous passages and the reproductive system. It is available for vegetarians as betacarotene, plentiful in red, orange and yellow vegetables.

B Complex Vitamins:

These support a multitude of functions in the body including the immune system, the digestive system and the nervous system. They are readily available from whole grains, beans, nuts, dairy produce, and products containing yeast such as vegetarian yeast-based spreads.

Vegetarians and especially vegans need to be particularly careful about maintaining their intake of B12, which is essential for the uptake of iron. This vitamin occurs in egg yolk, dairy products, yeast extracts and soya products but not in plant foods. Supplementation may be wise, either using B12 tablets or taking spirulina, chlorella or blue green algae which contain naturally occurring B12. All are available from health food stores.

What about animal fats?

Fats are vital to the body as a source of energy, to repair tissue, to transport vitamins and to manufacture hormones. Fats are made up of fatty acids, two of which (termed “essential”) are found only in food. These are linoleic and linolenic fatty acids. They are widely found in plant foods such as nuts and seeds as well as in oily fish. Our bodies are designed to need a regular intake of these essential fatty acids, particularly to promote energy, skin health and brain function. Plant sources of fats offer a far healthier option than the saturated fats found in meat which are associated with degenerative diseases such as heart problems and furred arteries.


Vegetarians are often more aware than meat-eaters of the benefits provided by wholegrains, and in many ways they have been trail blazers in their adherence to less processed, more nutritious foods free of genetically modified organisms. The first and last part of a plant to be doused in chemical spray is the outer husk, so for health-conscious people cooking wholegrain cereals it is sensible to chose organic, unsprayed versions.

Brown rice: Wash, discard loose hulls, bring to boil in 1 1/2 – 2 cups water to 1 cup rice and simmer for 35-45 minutes. Marigold vegetable bouillon can be added to the cooking water for extra flavour. Serve with stir-fryed vegetables and soy sauce sprinkled with toasted cashews or sesame seeds, or make a risotto with fried mushrooms, onions , garlic and oven-roasted vegetables. Health stores offer a variety of rices, rice flakes and flour.

Millet: High in protein and iron. Wash, strain and dry roast 15 minutes in oven or stirring in heavy-based pan till slightly nutty. Add 2 1/2-3 cups boiling water to 1 cup grain. Simmer approximately 15 minutes; remove from heat and leave to stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Cooked grain should be light and dry. Could be served with vegetables such as celery and cucumber in a mint-flavoured sauce or made into croquettes. Can be added to soups and casseroles. Millet flakes make a nutritious porridge often used as a baby cereal.

Quinoa: South American Inca grain with a good balance of amino acids. Can be dry roasted as millet then simmered in 2 cups water to 1-cup grain for 10-15 minutes, or cooked in water without roasting.

Pulses, Beans and Lentils: A nutritionist’s dream, being low in fat and high in protein, minerals (especially iron) and fibre. Bland flavours are easily enlivened with herbs and spices. As well as being used as a basis for hot main dishes and salads, they are easily whizzed up into spreads to make nutritious sandwich fillers and dips. The best known paté is hummus based on chick peas and calcium-rich tahini.

Red lentils: Cook for approx. 30 minutes. Make vegetable and lentil soup, as thick and peppery as you like. Leftover soup can be used with oven- roasted vegetables as a dhal-like sauce.
Puy lentils: cook for 15 minutes. Hold their shape better than other lentils. Season well with lemon juice and ground black pepper.

Beans, chick peas: available in tins but a 500g pack when cooked gives 5 times the volume of a tin. Soak overnight and do not add salt till cooking is complete to avoid toughening beans. Adding a strip of kombu seaweed both decreases cooking time and increases digestibility. Cooked beans can be frozen , then used as required. Cooking times for beans vary with the variety and will be found in good cookery books . (See references below)

Nuts and Seeds: Can be dry- or oven-roasted to complement the nutrition and texture of vegetarian meals. Place in heavy-based pan over moderate heat for a few minutes, shaking pan constantly and watching carefully that they don’t start to burn. Add a dash of soy or tamari sauce and remove immediately from the heat while stirring to make a delicious snack. Sprouted seeds and pulses: Excellent sources of protein, vitamins and live enzymes. If home-sprouted these make the freshest possible food.

Points to ponder

  • The largest and most intelligent of animals, the elephant, is vegetarian.
  • Growing crops to feed animals, which are then eaten, is wasteful. It is far more economic to eat the crops direct. It takes up to 10kg of vegetable protein to produce 1kg of meat. It takes 100,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg. of meat but only 900 litres to produce 1kg. of wheat.
  • Famous vegetarians include Leonardo Da Vinci, Paul McCartney, Albert Einstein, Brad Pitt, George Bernard Shaw, William Wordsworth, Mahatma Ghandi.
  • Ghandi, said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”.


  • Simply Vegetarian by T.Culleton, D. Higgs
  • The Bean Book by Rose Elliot
  • The Tofu Cook Book by Leah Leneman

This fact sheet is for information only and is not meant to be used for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation with a healthcare professional.

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