Position of The American Dietetic Association:
Vegetarian Diets

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A considerable body of scientific data suggests positive relationships between vegetarian diets and risk reduction for several chronic degenerative diseases and conditions, including obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and some types of cancer.

Position Statement

It is the position of The American Dietetic Association that vegetarian diets are healthful and nutritionally adequate when appropriately planned.

Vegetarianism In Perspective

There is no single vegetarian eating pattern. The vegetarian diet is mainly plant foods: fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds, and nuts. Eggs, dairy products, or both may be included as well. The lactovegetarian diet is fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy foods, and their products whereas the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet also adds eggs. The vegan, or total vegetarian, diet completely excludes meat, fish, fowl, eggs, and dairy products. Even within specific classifications of the diet, considerable variation may exist in the extent to which animal products are avoided. Therefore, individual assessment is required in order to accurately evaluate the nutritional quality of a given diet. Studies of vegetarians indicate that they often have lower mortality rates from several chronic degenerative diseases than do nonvegetarians1,2. These effects may be attributable to diet as well as to other lifestyle characteristics such as maintaining desirable weight, regular physical activity, and abstinence from smoking, alcohol, and illicit drugs.

In addition to possible health advantages, other considerations that may lead to the adoption of a vegetarian diet include environmental or ecological concerns, world hunger issues, economic reasons, philosophical or ethical reasons, and religious beliefs.

Implications For Health Promotion

Mortality from coronary artery disease is lower in vegetarians than in nonvegetarians1,2. Total serum cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels are usually lower, whereas high density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglyceride levels vary, depending on the type of vegetarian diet followed3,4. Low-fat, low-cholesterol vegetarian diets may decrease levels of apoprotein A, B, and E; alter platelet composition and platelet function; and decrease plasma viscosity. One study demonstrated reversal of even severe coronary artery disease without the use of lipid lowering drugs by using a combination of a vegetarian diet deriving less than 10% of its energy from fat, smoking cessation, stress management, and moderate exercise3. Vegetarians have lower rates of hypertension5 and non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus than do nonvegetarians; lessening these risk factors may also decrease the risk of cardiovascular and coronary artery disease in the vegetarian population.

Seventh-Day Adventist vegetarians have lower rates of mortality from colon cancer than the general population6. This may be attributable to dietary differences that include increased fiber intake; decreased intake of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and caffeine; increased intake of fruits and vegetables; and, in lactovegetarians, increased intakes of calcium. The dietary differences, especially in vegans, may produce physiologic changes that may inhibit the causal chain for colon cancer7. Reduced consumption of meat and animal protein has also been associated with decreased colon cancer in some, but not all, studies of omnivores. Lung cancer rates are lower in vegetarians, chiefly because they usually do not smoke, but possibly also because of diet8. Research suggests that vegetarians are also at decreased risk for breast cancer9.

Obesity, a major public health problem in the United States, exacerbates or complicates many diseases. Vegetarians, especially vegans, often have weights that are closer to desirable weights than do nonvegetarians10.

Vegetarians may be at lower risk for non-insulin-dependent diabetes because they are leaner than nonvegetarians. Also, vegetarians' high intake of complex carbohydrates, which are often relatively high in fiber content, improves carbohydrate metabolism and may lower basal blood glucose levels11.

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©American Dietetic Association
Used with permission
Healing Heart Foundation