Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Symposium on ‘Plant foods and public health’

Health effects of vegetarian and vegan diets

Timothy J. Keya1 c1, Paul N. Applebya1 and Magdalena S. Rosella1

a1 Cancer Research UK Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, Richard Doll Building, Roosevelt Drive, Oxford OX3 7LF, UK

Abstract

Vegetarian diets do not contain meat, poultry or fish; vegan diets further exclude dairy products and eggs. Vegetarian and vegan diets can vary widely, but the empirical evidence largely relates to the nutritional content and health effects of the average diet of well-educated vegetarians living in Western countries, together with some information on vegetarians in non-Western countries. In general, vegetarian diets provide relatively large amounts of cereals, pulses, nuts, fruits and vegetables. In terms of nutrients, vegetarian diets are usually rich in carbohydrates, n−6 fatty acids, dietary fibre, carotenoids, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E and Mg, and relatively low in protein, saturated fat, long-chain n−3 fatty acids, retinol, vitamin B12 and Zn; vegans may have particularly low intakes of vitamin B12 and low intakes of Ca. Cross-sectional studies of vegetarians and vegans have shown that on average they have a relatively low BMI and a low plasma cholesterol concentration; recent studies have also shown higher plasma homocysteine concentrations than in non-vegetarians. Cohort studies of vegetarians have shown a moderate reduction in mortality from IHD but little difference in other major causes of death or all-cause mortality in comparison with health-conscious non-vegetarians from the same population. Studies of cancer have not shown clear differences in cancer rates between vegetarians and non-vegetarians. More data are needed, particularly on the health of vegans and on the possible impacts on health of low intakes of long-chain n−3 fatty acids and vitamin B12. Overall, the data suggest that the health of Western vegetarians is good and similar to that of comparable non-vegetarians.

Correspondence:

c1 *Corresponding author: Professor Tim Key, fax +44 1865 289 610, email tim.key@ceu.ox.ac.uk