Nutrition status of vegetarians and vegans
There are many recent studies analysing the diet composition and nutrient intakes of vegetarians and vegans from across the world.
In the most recent one, vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivore diets were studied and compared in Belgium (Clarys et al., 2014). Vegans had the healthiest weight among all groups and received the highest score on the healthy eating scale (measured by two different ranking systems). The higher the score, the healthier the diet and the lower the risk of a number of chronic and lifestyle related diseases. The fat intake of the vegan group was better (more unsaturated healthy fats and less saturated fats) than in the other groups and they were also found to consume the most fibre and iron. Calcium intake was lower than in the other dietary patterns but still above the UK recommended dose (700 mg). Vegan protein intake was more than sufficient, whilst in meat eaters it reached almost twice the recommended intake levels, which has been shown to have negative health effects.
A similar study comparing various dietary patterns (omnivore, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian and vegan) in the US and Canada brought similar results (Rizzo et al., 2013). Vegans had the healthiest body weights, the highest intake of fibre and the lowest fat intake. The overall fat intake of vegans was healthier than in the other groups – they ate the least saturated and trans fats. The vegan group was found to have more than sufficient intakes of protein, vitamins and minerals (including calcium and iron above recommended intake). Based on the findings, the study authors suggested that the health protective effects of plant-based diets can be ascribed to the generally healthier profile of vegetarian diets.
When Davey et al. (2003) analysed food intakes of British vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters, their findings were in line with the above. Vegans had the lowest intake of saturated fats and the highest intakes of fibre, vitamin B1, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium and iron. The only mineral that was slightly below the recommended intake in some vegans was calcium but overall, vegans showed to have adequate intakes of all essential nutrients and had the healthiest fat intake profile (the least saturated and the most unsaturated fats). The healthfulness of vegan diets was also confirmed by a later study of UK population in which vegan diets had the best nutrient profiles of all diet groups, including the lowest fat and the highest fibre intakes (Key et al., 2014).
Orlich et al. (2014) looked at vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets more closely to assess the main differences. They found that vegans eat the most fruit, vegetables, soya and soya products, grains, pulses, nuts and seeds; and the least sweets, fizzy drinks, fried potatoes, refined cereals and added fats. Overall, vegetarian diets, and especially vegan ones, had much healthier patterns than omnivorous diets reflecting that plant-based diets are not based simply on exclusion of animal products but lead to a higher quality diet.
A vegan diet is healthful and suitable for adults and children alike. All parents need to ensure good nutrition for their children and vegan parents tend to be very well informed of their children’s nutritional needs. As mentioned above, American Dietetic Association is very supportive of a vegan diet for everyone, including children (Craig & Mangels, ADA, 2009): “Appropriately planned vegan, lacto-vegetarian, and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets satisfy nutrient needs of infants, children, and adolescents and promote normal growth.”
Their statement paper also points out that children raised on vegetarian diets have similar adult height and weight as those who became vegetarian later in life and that plant-based diets in childhood and adolescence can help establish lifelong healthy eating patterns. Vegetarian children and adolescents have lower intakes of cholesterol, saturated fat and total fat and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables and fibre than their peers.
Canadian Paediatric Society agree that a well-planned vegan diet is adequate and healthy at all stages of foetal, infant, child and adolescent growth (Amit, CPS, 2010). And British Nutrition Foundation reassures that UK vegetarian and vegan children’s growth and development are within the normal range (Philips, BNF, 2005).
While Viva!Health supports the recommendation that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their life, it’s not always possible and many parents need to use a formula milk. There has been much debate about soya formula milks, the only vegan alternative to human breast milk. Many studies looked into the issue and the latest review and meta-analysis collated all available human data to provide a complete picture (Vandenplas et al., 2014). The paper concluded that all anthropometric patterns (size, growth, development), nutrient levels and bone mineral content of children fed soya formula were similar to those of children fed cow’s milk formula or breastfed. There was no negative effect on reproductive and endocrine functions and immune and cognitive parameters were similar in all groups. The authors stated that “In conclusion, modern soya-based infant formulas are evidence-based safety options to feed children requiring them.”
A paper on vegan infant nutrition summarised the main considerations for vegan parents (Mangels and Messina, 2001). The authors highlighted that appropriately planned vegan diets can satisfy nutrient needs of infants and that vegan babies show growth rates similar to other infants. They emphasised that breastfed vegan infants may need supplements of vitamin B 12 or that vegan mothers need to increase their B12 intake, older infants may need zinc supplements and good sources of iron and vitamins D and B12 – depending on their overall food intake.
The same scientific team also looked into vegan children’s health (Messina and Mangels, 2001). Their review states that diets of vegan children meet or exceed recommendations for most nutrients and have higher intakes of fibre, lower intakes of fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than omnivore children. The only concerns the authors expressed was that some studies indicate vegan children have slightly lower calcium intakes. However, with the growing number and availability of fortified foods suitable for vegans, it’s now easy for children to meet all nutrient needs, including vitamins B12 and D.