Nutrition Concerns and Health Effects of Vegetarian Diets


Vegetarians exhibit a wide diversity of dietary practices, often described by what is omitted from their diet. When a vegetarian diet is appropriately planned and includes fortified foods, it can be nutritionally adequate for adults and children and can promote health and lower the risk of major chronic diseases. The nutrients of concern in the diet of vegetarians include vitamin B12, vitamin D, ω-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and zinc. Although a vegetarian diet can meet current recommendations for all of these nutrients, the use of supplements and fortified foods provides a useful shield against deficiency. A vegetarian diet usually provides a low intake of saturated fat and cholesterol and a high intake of dietary fiber and many health-promoting phytochemicals. This is achieved by an increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, legumes, nuts, and various soy products. As a result of these factors, vegetarians typically have lower body mass index, serum total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, and blood pressure; reduced rates of death from ischemic heart disease; and decreased incidence of hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers than do nonvegetarians.

Appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful and nutritionally adequate and are beneficial in the prevention and treatment of certain chronic diseases. Poorly planned vegetarian diets can be deficient in vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, iron, and long-chain ω-3 fatty acids. Vegetarians need to incorporate into their diet foods that provide adequate levels of these vitamins, minerals, and ω-3 fatty acids. Tables outlining the foods and fortified products that contain significant levels of these nutrients are available.6,78 There is a need for additional studies of the association between the spectrum of types of vegetarian diets and risk of chronic disease.