Vegetarians International Voice for Animals

Nutrition basics

All the information you need about getting more than enough protein, calcium and iron from our delicious vegan meals. If you have any questions just email 30dayvegan@viva.org.uk or ring 0117 9441000.

Protein

» Read protein fact sheet [PDF]

Protein is needed for growth, repair of tissue and protection against infection. Protein is made up of small 'building blocks' called amino acids. Vegetable-based foods contain all the amino acids the body needs. By eating a range of whole, plant-based foods you will get all the different amino acids you need - and in the right proportions. 

Especially good sources of high quality protein include soya products (eg soya beans (sold frozen in many supermarkets), tofu, soya milk, veggie mince), cereals (eg brown rice, pasta, wholemeal bread), pulses (eg baked beans, chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans), nuts and seeds (including the protein-packed 'superfood' quinoa which quickly cooks and is often used like rice).

Meat contains all the amino acids that comprise protein, but that doesn't mean it is better for us than plant protein. Animal protein is linked to cancers, heart disease and many other diseases. Also, eating large amounts of animal products, even leanlooking meats, means eating saturated animal fats and cholesterol. It is these artery-clogging substances which are a main cause of heart disease, kidney failure and stroke, as well as many cancers.

Meat also contains little carbohydrate, no fibre or calcium, and few vitamins - but frequently contains dangerous microbes such as Salmonella and E. coli. The problem of food-borne infections is a growing one.

In view of all this, it is a comfort to know that a well-balanced vegan diet supplies all the protein you need, whether you are a growing child or a mature adult.

How much protein do we need?

Not as much as we think - recommended amounts have more than halved in the past 20 years as several chronic diseases have been linked to eating too much animal (not plant) protein. The average adult needs to consume between 45 and 55.5 grams of protein per day.

Protein requirements (grams needed per day)

The figures below give the recommended daily amounts of protein per age group, but it can’t be stressed too often that you will not go short of protein, so don’t worry about it.

Age Group
(years)

Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI),
g per day

 

Females

Males

11-14

41.2

42.1

15-18

45.4

55.2

19-50

45 

55.5

 

 

To give you a comparison between some meat and vegetarian products, a standard 50g beef burger contains 10.2g of protein and three (90g) fish sticks 12.l g; half a can of 225g baked beans contains 11.5g of protein; an average serving of pasta (190g cooked) contains 8.5g, an average serving of kidney beans (160g cooked) 12.4g, and a small packet (25g) of peanuts contains 6.1g.

Calcium

» Read calcium factsheet [PDF]

Calcium is important for healthy bones and teeth and for the working of muscles. It is virtually absent from meat products.

Excessive amounts of animal protein (from meat, dairy, fish and eggs) in the diet can actually leach calcium from the bones, weakening the skeleton and leading to osteoporosis. Therefore it is much healthier to obtain calcium from plants than from dairy. 

Like all mammals, nature intended us to be weaned from our mother’s milk at an early age; we have not been designed to eat dairy beyond weaning – not surprising then that we are supremely good at absorbing calcium from plants.

Calcium is found in dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale, watercress and cabbage; pulses (any peas, beans and lentils); dried fruits; tahini (sesame seed butter used to make hummus) and nuts and seeds (particularly almonds and sesame seeds). Many soya milks and tofu are fortified with calcium. 
 

Iron

» Read iron fact sheet

Iron deficiency can be significant, especially in women of childbearing age (who lose iron each month in the menstrual flow).

However, all the world's leading health advisory bodies including the World Health Organisation, American Dietetic Association and the British Medical Association agree that meat eaters are just as likely to suffer from iron deficiency anaemia as vegetarians or vegans.

Everyone - especially women - should ensure a good supply of iron in their diet. It's needed for healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen to all parts of the body. 

Good sources of iron are baked beans, wholegrain bread, molasses, leafy green vegetables, dried fruit (particularly apricots and figs), cocoa, pulses (all types of beans, peas, lentils) and pumpkin seeds. 

Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron by a factor of four - another reason why fresh vegetables and fruits are so important in the diet.