Navigating a restricted diet

Navigating a restricted diet

How do you avoid food allergies as a vegetarian, and how do you substitute the substitutes?

While a vegetarian diet is certainly restrictive, a variety of options can supplement meat products, including soya, legumes, mycelium (from fungus) and seitan (made from wheat). When you add serious food allergies and intolerances to the mix, however, ‘restricted’ takes on a whole new meaning. What’s left to eat for vegetarians who need to stay away from many of the foods that replace meat, while still trying to achieve optimum nutritional value? We show you how to successfully navigate food allergies on a vegetarian diet, while still being able to eat tasty, healthy dishes.

The most common allergies

According to clinical dietician Tabitha Hume, the highest number of reported food allergies relate to soya and gluten, with many people also experiencing intolerance to lactose. But this doesn’t have to be a problem, she says. ‘I think
the main problem is fear of how much you can’t have, rather than finding out just how much there is to have!’

Vegetarianism is most difficult for people who haven’t yet figured out what they’re doing, but consulting an expert can make the process so much easier. Tabitha advises getting in touch with one of the many registered dieticians whose main focus is plant-based eating. Similarly, working around your allergies doesn’t have to be a frustration; you just need to find the best substitutes to replace the things you can’t eat.

Main categories of vegetarianism

  • Vegetarians eat no meat, but eat dairy and eggs.
  • Pescetarians are vegetarians who don’t eat meat, but eat fish.
  • Flexitarians or ‘semi-vegetarians’ are vegetarians who occasionally eat meat.
  • Vegans eat no animal products whatsoever, such as milk, eggs and honey.
  • Raw vegans follow the vegan diet, but only eat food heated below 46˚C.
  • Macrobiotic vegetarians only eat unprocessed vegan food and some fish, and no sugar
    or refined oils.


True allergies

Firstly, Tabitha stresses, it’s important to ascertain whether your allergy really is a ‘true allergy’. It can be easy to confuse allergies with symptoms created by other problems, so it’s important to make sure before cutting a healthy food source out of your life. Many people rely on the results of an IgG test, which checks your blood for the presence of food-specific immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies. However, Tabitha advises that an IgE test, an allergen-specific
immunoglobulin E (IgE) test that measures the levels of different IgE antibodies, is far more reliable, and is considered the gold standard among dieticians. She warns that the IgG test will show many reactions as allergies, even though they’re not allergies but simply normal responses to the introduction of a new protein into your body.

Allergies run in the family. If members of your family have a history of allergies, you’re much more likely to develop a food allergy.

If you discover you’re allergic to certain foods, it’s important to take your allergies seriously. Food allergies may result in severe reactions that could result in hospitalisation. These allergies can even be fatal if anaphylaxis occurs, which blocks the airways and prevents breathing. Immediate treatment with epinephrine and auto-injectors is the only effective way to treat severe allergic reactions.

Once you’ve determined whether or not you’re truly allergic or intolerant to certain foods, all you need to do is find suitable replacements.

If you’re allergic to

Replace with mycelium
products, beans, lentils,
chickpeas or seitan.

Replace with rye,
chickpea flour or
buckwheat flour.

Replace with soya milk
or almond milk.

The gluten-free trend

With the ‘gluten-intolerant’ fad being so commonly misdiagnosed, the rise in gluten-free products has skyrocketed, followed by increased insulin and glucose levels leading to weight gain, says Tabitha. This is because the majority of gluten-free products are high GI, meaning they release glucose very quickly into the bloodstream, spiking sugar levels
and flooding the blood with far too much insulin, which puts our bodies into ‘storage mode’.


Write it down 

If you think you might be intolerant to certain foods, try keeping a food journal where you record everything
you eat throughout the day, as well as how you feel after eating. This can help you become more aware of what is affecting your body negatively so you can cut these elements from your diet and replace them with something that agrees with your system.

I think the main problem is fear of how much you can’t have, rather than finding out just how much there is to have!

Becoming comfortable with your new diet

‘Think about what you want to eat and then make it with what’s available. Don’t focus on how few things there are left to eat and then try putting them together in a meal, as this won’t work’, says Tabitha. For instance, if you’re craving cottage pie, use soya mince instead of meat. If you can’t have soya mince, use red kidney beans or mycelium products. Use almond milk instead of dairy to make creamy mashed potatoes. Swap cheese for nutritional yeast for a parmesan-like richness in the mash. Just keep going down the list until you find a great substitute that’s right for you.

‘Gone are the days that vegetarians are thought of as strange-looking hippies who eat a lot of floury mung beans and bland steamed vegetables. My patients are encouraged to eat plant-based as much as possible and they quickly realise how easy and delicious a change it can be,’ Tabitha encourages.

Did you know? 

Lactose intolerance is not an allergy. In fact, being lactose tolerant is a genetic mutation, as milk tolerance is
supposed to fade as weaning takes place.


The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, and treatment. Always consult your GP or a doctor for specific information regarding your health.

Nolwazi Dhlamini

About Caitlin Geng

Your Family’s Content Editor, and a real word nerd who loves reading and writing. She was recently married, in 2018, and is a ‘mom’ to two loveable pugs. Caitlin received 3rd place in the ‘Galliova Up and Coming Food/Health Writer of the Year’ category in 2019!


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