What is a Vegetarian?A vegetarian is usually defined as a person who does not eat meat, fish, or animal by-products such as gelatine. Some vegetarians eat fish, whilst others do not eat eggs, dairy, or both, but obviously how far you take your level of vegetarianism is entirely down to you.
NutritionI'll start with the basics. Before you start rustling up ideas in the kitchen, it is important to understand the concept of a balanced diet. Whilst going vegetarian isn't going to turn you into a pale, sickly, scrawny mess (contrary to popular belief, vegetarian diets can be much healthier than meat-based diets, if correctly planned), you can't just cut out meat and replace it with nothing. You need to replace the meat-based protein with plant-based protein, such as beans, nuts and legumes. Of course you can also get protein from dairy products such as cheese, assuming you are just going veggie not vegan (which has a whole load of other benefits, but that's a tale for another day!). Beans and pulses are also great sources of iron, along with dark green leafy vegetables, seeds and dried fruits. To gain maximum iron absorption, you should try to eat these foods alongside foods that are rich in vitamin C, as this aids the body's absorption. On the other hand, you should not eat iron-rich foods at the same time as eating calcium-rich foods, or drinking tea and coffee (which contain polyphenols), as these may hinder the absorption of iron. For detailed information on vegetarian nutrition, see The Vegetarian Society.
MealsNow you understand the types of foods you should be eating, you can learn to put them together to create delicious, healthy meals. Breakfast shouldn't be too much of a problem if you usually have cereal or toast, but if you love your cooked breakfasts, then you don't have to go without. There are loads of great alternatives to sausage and bacon, usually made from textured vegetable protein (TVP), soya, or Quorn, and you can almost always find these in your local supermarket or health food shop. Similarly, there are also veggie alternatives to mince, so you don't have to forgo spaghetti bolognese, chilli con carne or cottage pie, and you can even find versions of burgers, chicken nuggets, fish fingers, meatballs and more! These alternatives are great for new vegetarians, especially if you aren't a genius in the kitchen. For lunch try sandwiches with cheese and salad, hummus and roasted veg, or even slices of mock ham, chicken or beef. And of course you can experiment with lentils, chickpeas and beans, using them in curries, risottos, casseroles etc. A great website for recipes is vegweb.com, or just have a good search on the internet or in veggie recipe books.
Eating OutMost restaurants and cafes will have at least one vegetarian option on their menu, which will usually be marked with a 'V' or similar. If you know in advance where you will be eating out, it's a good idea to look on their website for a menu, or ring them up to enquire about veggie options. If you see none available, most places should cater for your needs if you inform them in advance. Veggie options usually include jacket potatoes, vegetable lasagne, mushroom risotto, pasta and tomato sauce and veggie burgers, and Indian/Chinese restaurants will always have suitable dishes. Most restaurants aren't aware that parmesan cheese is not vegetarian as it contains rennet, so a dish containing this may still be labelled as veggie. Ask if they use a special vegetarian parmesan-type cheese, if not, ask them to leave it out for you and politely educate them on the subject! A word of warning on eating out though - don't be too trusting. Although I'm sure most places are fine, I have heard tales of people being brought a meat dish by accident. So if there are similar options on the menu, such as meat chilli and Quorn chilli, you may want to avoid ordering the veggie option if you are worried (that's how good veggie versions are, you can't really tell the difference!), but if it is something like a bean chilli, then you can obviously tell if your dish contains beans or meat. Also, I always double check my food before I start eating, just in case. I once ordered a veggie burger, and when it arrived I thought it was a Quorn burger, but it was actually chicken, which wasn't even on the menu! Luckily I didn't consume it all, however, I did eat one bite! I felt terribly guilty and extremely sick for the rest of the evening, but mistakes can happen and you shouldn't feel bad if they happen to you as it probably isn't your fault! Just learn from your mistakes - i.e be thoughtful about what you order and always double check. Other than that, there are loads of delicious veggie options to be found when eating out.
Fast FoodSome fast food outlets now do veggie options, but be aware that they will usually cook these on the same grill as meat, so if you are not happy with this then you may want to eat somewhere else. Also be aware that chips, especially in 'traditional' fish and chip shops, may be fried in beef fat, so do ask what they are cooked in. Chips may also be fried in the same oil as fish, so if this bothers you then avoid. Pizzas are a great choice as there will always be at least one veggie option, even if it's just margherita, but do check that the cheese is vegetarian. You can usually add extra toppings such as onions, mushrooms, peppers to create a delicious pizza just the way you want it!
Hidden IngredientsMany foods surprisingly contain non-vegetarian ingredients. You will soon get used to checking food labels for a vegetarian logo. Most supermarkets even produce a vegetarian list, which can be really handy. In short, if a product is not labelled in some way as suitable for vegetarians, then I avoid it. Even if you have read the ingredients ten times and cannot pinpoint a non-veggie ingredient, there may be one in there that you are not aware of. Here are some foods and ingredients to be mindful of:
- Gravy/meat sauce/stock - most beef/chicken gravies, stocks and sauces do actually contain real animal derivatives, so always go for the vegetable versions
- Crisps - most meat-flavoured crisps are usually fine to eat as they use plant-based ingredients, however some do contain real meat derivatives, so always check the label
- Carmine/cochineal/E120 - a red dye derived from crushed beetles, can be found in sweets, jams, cakes and even cosmetics
- Fish oil - some breads, margarines or olive oil spreads that are labelled as omega-3 enriched may use fish oil instead of plant oils, so always check the source
- Gelatine - commonly found in marshmallows, sweets, yogurts, cheesecakes, and also medicines in capsule form. Obviously you shouldn't just stop taking your medicine if it is absolutely necessary, but ask your doctor if there is an alternative if you find that yours contains gelatine
- L-Cysteine/E920 - this is an additive sometimes found in items like bread, and can be artificial, or derived from animal feathers/hair, or even human hair! So if a product contains this but is not labelled as vegetarian, then avoid
- Castoreum - also known as the anal glands of beavers! May be found in perfumes, but also raspberry-flavoured sweets, although I haven't discovered anything with this in yet...
- Rennet - a common additive in cheese, this is derived from calves' stomachs
- Soup - even if it is a vegetable soup, check that it is not made with animal stock
- Worcestershire sauce - contains anchovies
- Lard - solid animal fat, can be found in cakes and pastries
- Caesar salad/dressing - contains anchovies
- Roast potatoes - may be roasted in goose fat, so ask what they are cooked in (this includes at family and friends' houses!)
- Sugar - white sugar may be filtered using charred animal bones, so check it's labelled as veggie
- Whey - a by-product of the cheese-making process, this ingredient is usually ok, however if the cheese contained animal rennet, then the whey would not be vegetarian either. Whey is commonly found in chocolate, so check that it is labelled as vegetarian.
DrinksSurprisingly, not all drinks are suitable for vegetarians. Some soft drinks contain gelatine as a stabiliser for their orange/yellow colour, such as Lilt, Kia-Ora and Schweppes Orange Squash, but this is not stated on their labels! The best thing to do is check out the FAQ section on a brand's website, as they will normally issue vegetarian product information here. Alcoholic drinks may also contain ingredients such as isinglass (the swim bladders of fish), gelatine, bones, eggs or shellfish, as these may be used in the filtration process. Alcoholic drinks do not have to label their ingredients, so who knows what may be in your favourite tipple? Most supermarket own-label drinks will state whether they are suitable for vegetarians, so look out for these. For other brands, some great websites to check out are Barnivore, which lists which alcoholic drinks are suitable for vegetarians and which ones are not, and Veggie Wines, which lists soft drinks and mixers as well.
I think that covers what to be aware of; it may seem like a lot to take in, but you will soon get the hang of it. If there's anything else you would like advice on, then just leave me a comment!