How to Eat Right When You're Vegetarian and Have Food Allergies

Allergies to vegetarian protein sources can make eating a challenge.

Moroccan spiced quinoa salad with avocado
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If you've got a food allergy or intolerance, your diet is — of course — restricted through no choice of your own. In contrast, people choose to become vegetarian for any number of reasons. These reasons can range from the desire to see if avoiding meat will lead to better health or more energy, to the commitment to holding to strong religious or ethical beliefs, to concerns about the safety of the food supply.

Whatever the motivation, combining multiple restricted diets can be challenging, and many people with food allergies are concerned about whether it's possible for them to get adequate nutrition on a vegetarian diet. Whether those concerns are justified depend in large part on which foods to which they're allergic. Dairy and eggs, for instance, are excluded in conventional vegan fare, and many vegans eat healthy, varied diets.

Other food allergies, however, pose greater challenges for vegetarians. Vegetarian foods that cause allergies can be roughly divided into non-meat protein sources, foods used as grains, and fruits and vegetables, although some foods (for instance, wheat) fit into more than one category.

Here's what you need to replace in your diet, some alternate foods to consider, and obstacles you're likely to run into if you're allergic to some especially common foods.

How to Cope with Allergies to Proteins

You need protein for cell repair, growth and development.

Unfortunately many common sources of protein on the vegetarian diet include allergens — the most common are soy, wheat (as seitan), peanuts and tree nuts.

Your body needs about four to six ounces of protein daily for women and six to eight ounces daily for men (though some people may have higher or lower protein needs).

This equates to 45 grams a day for women and 55 grams for men.

Most foods, even green vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage, contain at least a small amount of protein. But some foods — meat, dairy products, seafood, legumes, and some grains — are much denser sources than others. Protein is one of the most common initial concerns of many people upon beginning a vegetarian diet, but in fact your body's protein needs are generally easy to meet with plant sources.

In the 20th anniversary edition of her book Diet for a Small Planet, Francis Moore Lappé claimed that, in general, people eating a sufficient number of calories would only be deficient in protein if their diets were highly dependent on a few very low-protein foods. That hasn't changed. Most people, even vegetarians, meet and even exceed their protein needs without even thinking about it.

A few common allergens, however, are so frequently used as vegetarian proteins that they deserve special consideration.

Soy, in the form of tofu and tempeh, is a vegetarian staple.

You'll find it in packaged vegetable broths, meal substitute bars, frozen meals, and as protein-rich "soy nuts" or "soy nut butter." If you're allergic to soy, it is possible to get adequate protein, but you'll need to be sure to plan your meals to get four to eight ounces of protein per day. You'll also find that many prepared vegetarian foods, especially dairy substitutes, are off-limits. You'll need to avoid meat substitutes, which are generally made from soy (some are made from wheat; check labels).

The other food most commonly used as a direct substitute for meat is wheat, in the form of seitan (wheat gluten). It's sometimes sold as patties and used in vegetarian chilis. Wheat is also a common binder in legume-based vegetarian burgers. In addition, peanuts and tree nuts are sometimes used to make vegetarian burgers, though they're not common meat substitutes.

If you're allergic to one or more high-protein vegetarian protein sources, you'll need to meet your protein needs in other ways. Amaranth, quinoa, and teff are top choices as vegetarian allergen-free protein sources. These three grains aren't very well-known in America, but are suitable for vegan diets, high in protein, and gluten-free.

Whole-grain amaranth and quinoa are fairly easy to find, and quinoa-corn pasta blends are becoming more widely available at major supermarkets. Teff, an Ethiopian grain, may be more difficult to find, but some health food stores or grocery co-ops may stock it.

Alternatives for Those Allergic to Grains

Grains, especially whole grains, are an important source of carbohydrates, which your body uses for energy. Many also are rich in B vitamins. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that adults consume three ounces of whole grain products daily.

However, many people are allergic to particular grains, including (most commonly) wheat, corn and barley. And when you're a vegetarian, you'll find many vegetarian entree options in recipes and at restaurants are grain-based: pasta, polenta, couscous, risotto, soups with pasta or barley, or corn-based Latin fare.

Wheat is the only grain among the "big eight" most common food allergens, and it is used in vegetarian diets as both a grain and protein source. Pasta, couscous, bread, and many cereals are among the foods off-limits to vegetarians with wheat allergies or celiac disease.

However, largely due to the increase in people being diagnosed with these conditions, there are excellent substitutes on the market for almost any wheat-based food imaginable. Most supermarkets carry gluten-free pasta, cereal, and bread. And any foods that are labeled gluten-free are safe for barley allergies as well.

Corn, on the other hand, is probably the single most difficult food allergy to live with. Not only is corn itself a very common grain (think: corn chips, polenta, tortillas, and grits), it's also extremely common as an ingredient in processed foods.

Corn syrup, dextrose, and xanthan gum are but a few of the ubiquitous ingredients derived from corn.

In fact, because the list of foods made from corn grows so frequently, it's difficult to offer a complete list. And unlike wheat, corn isn't covered by labeling laws that require that its presence be clearly noted on ingredient lists.

So-called "alternative" grains, which have become more widely available over the last decade, can add much-needed variety to your diet.

In addition to amaranth, quinoa, and teff, you might try millet, sorghum, and cassava. Rice is another common grain that is considered less allergenic.

Allergies to Fruits and Vegetables Easier to Manage

Fruits and vegetables are valuable sources of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and antioxidants. Your body needs varying amounts of different vitamins, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends eating two cups of fruit and two-and-a-half cups of vegetables each day to help you get those important nutrients.

The most common allergenic fruits and vegetables include onions, celery, tomatoes, garlic, apples, melons and citrus.

Fortunately, unlike many of the foods already mentioned, fruits and vegetables don't tend to be common "hidden ingredients" in processed foods. In general, you'll find them mentioned by their own names on labels and used in fewer foods than some other allergens.

The biggest difficulty people in this category face is an allergy to aromatic vegetables — onions, garlic, celery, or similar vegetables that are used to add flavor to soups or other cooked foods.

These vegetables appear in countless recipes and are found in many processed foods.

In particular, you'll likely find it difficult to buy packaged vegetable broth, a staple food that is used as the basis not only for soups but for grain cookery, if you're allergic to certain vegetables. Try making your own: this recipe allows you to use whatever aromatic and flavorful vegetables you can eat.

Otherwise, beyond avoiding your allergens, you'll need to be aware of the vitamins and minerals that are especially abundant in the foods you can't eat and find other sources of those nutrients. For example, if you can't eat leafy green vegetables and you're following a vegan diet, you may need to be particularly careful about your iron intake.

Meal Planning and More

If you're avoiding common allergens on a vegetarian diet, consider planning your meals ahead at least some of the time to ensure you're eating a variety of foods and that you're getting enough of the nutrients you'll be missing in the foods you can't eat.

You might try making a list of foods you'd like to add to your diet and cooking one or two a week. This is a good way to ease into eating new grains or vegetables without overwhelming yourself with new tastes.

For foods such as soy or corn that tend to be staples of a vegetarian diet, or for multiple allergies to relatively common foods, strongly consider working with a dietitian or a nutritionist to ensure that you're eating a healthy diet. These professionals may be able to recommend overlooked sources of good nutrition, help determine safe and allergen-free sources of supplements your body may need, and assist with meal planning.

Some dietitians and nutritionists have particular expertise with food allergies and intolerances; contact a local allergist or allergy support group to see if they have recommendations for a practitioner in your area.


Lappé, Francis Moore. Diet for a Small Planet. 20th Anniversary Edition. New York: Random House. 1985.

United States Department of Agriculture. Inside the Pyramid. Internet resource. 1 Jan 2008.

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