British Journal of Nutrition

Research Article

Low iron status and enhanced insulin sensitivity in lacto-ovo vegetarians

Nancy W. Huaa1a2, Riccardo A. Stoohsa3 and Francesco S. Facchinia1a2a3 c1

a1 Department of Medicine, Division of Nephrology, San Francisco General Hospital, San Francisco, CA, USA

a2 Department of Medicine, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA

a3 Zentrum für Schlafmedizin und Stoffwechselstörungen, Dortmund, Germany


The efficacy of insulin in stimulating whole-body glucose disposal (insulin sensitivity) was quantified using direct methodology in thirty lacto-ovo vegetarians and in thirty meat-eaters. All subjects were adult, lean (BMI <23 kg/m2), healthy and glucose tolerant. Lacto-ovo vegetarians were more insulin sensitive than meat-eaters, with a steady-state plasma glucose (mmol/l) of 4·1 (95 % CI 3·5, 5·0) v. 6·9 (95 % CI 5·2, 7·5; P=0·0028) respectively. In addition, lacto-ovo vegetarians had lower body Fe stores, as indicated by a serum ferritin concentration (μg/l) of 35 (95 % CI 21, 49) compared with 72 (95 % CI 45, 100) for meat-eaters (P=0·0012). To test whether or not Fe status might modulate insulin sensitivity, body Fe was lowered by phlebotomy in six male meat-eaters to levels similar to that seen in vegetarians, with a resultant approximately 40 % enhancement of insulin-mediated glucose disposal (P=0·0008). Our results demonstrate that lacto-ovo vegetarians are more insulin sensitive and have lower Fe stores than meat-eaters. In addition, it seems that reduced insulin sensitivity in meat-eaters is amenable to improvement by reducing body Fe. The latter finding is in agreement with results from animal studies where, no matter how induced, Fe depletion consistently enhanced glucose disposal.

(Received January 26 2001)

(Revised April 20 2001)

(Accepted May 14 2001)


c1 *Corresponding author: Dr F. S. Facchini, fax +1 415 282 8182, email