Is a Vegetarian Diet Healthy for Seniors?

Pamela Cannaday by Pamela Cannaday | Licensed since 2011
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This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

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Whether it’s for health, the environment, or a love of animals, there are many reasons to consider a vegetarian diet. If you’re an older adult, a vegetarian diet can be a heart-healthy way to get the nutrition you need according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Here’s how to make a vegetarian diet a part of your lifestyle.

What is a vegetarian diet?

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a vegetarian diet contains no animal proteins.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, a vegetarian diet can take on many forms:

  • Semi-vegetarian diet: A mostly plant-based diet that may include animal proteins, chicken or seafood, eggs, and dairy. This category includes pescatarians.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet: A plant-based diet that includes dairy and eggs.
  • Lacto-vegetarian diet: A plant-based diet that includes dairy.
  • Ovo-vegetarian diet: A plant-based diet that includes eggs.
  • Vegan: A diet entirely based on plant-based foods, excluding both animal proteins and animal by-products (such as cheese, honey, gelatin or eggs).

Health benefits of a vegetarian diet

There is some evidence that a vegetarian diet may lower your risk for diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. According to Harvard Health Publishing, a vegetarian diet tends to be lower in cholesterol and saturated fat, and vegetarians are more likely to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as a healthier body weight.

However, the same publication also noted that the long-term impact of a vegetarian diet is still inconclusive and becoming a vegetarian won’t necessarily be good for you.

How seniors can eat a vegetarian diet

If you’re an older adult considering a vegetarian diet, keep in mind this can be healthy choice as long as you eat from a wide variety of foods.

Seniors considering a vegetarian diet should be aware of how aging may affect their body’s nutritional needs. Seniors who have trouble chewing hard fruits and vegetables can still get their fiber and needed nutrients with smoothies, soups, or softer alternatives (such as pureed or braised vegetables).

Your specific nutritional needs may vary depending on your health goals and medical conditions. Talk to a doctor about whether a vegetarian diet may be right for you.

The government-run website ChooseMyPlate.gov offers the following suggestions for how a vegetarian diet can incorporate the right foods:

  • Vitamin B12 is only available naturally through animal products, so if your vegetarian diet avoids any meat or dairy, make sure to get Vitamin B12 from fortified sources (such as cereal) or take a supplement.
  • Think beyond veggies. Many grocery stores carry vegetarian meat alternatives made from soy or grains (for example, tempeh or seitan).
  • If your vegetarian diet allows it, eggs and dairy can be good sources of protein. Otherwise, foods like nuts, tofu, and beans are also high in protein.
  • Fill up on high-fiber and low-fat foods like whole grains and beans instead of cheese or sugary foods.
  • Get iron and calcium through plant-based sources, fortified products, or supplements.

Modified calorie and food group recommendations for a vegetarian diet can be found in the appendix of The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.

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