Home > Exercise, Food and Drink, Nutrition > Healthier Vegetarians

Healthier Vegetarians

February 4, 2011 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Southern California is a great place to live if you’re a vegetarian. There are literally hundreds of restaurants and specialty stores that cater to virtually ever type of vegetarian sub-set: lacto vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, pescetarian, raw foodists and vegans. A few months ago I was invited to a business lunch that took place at an organic, vegan restaurant. Although this isn’t my preferred form of eating, I relished the opportunity to experience such a meal. Ultimately, I opted for a delicious plate of sun-dried tomato hummus with a side of sliced avocado. Instead of the pita chips it normally comes with, I asked for cucumber slices and washed it down with a cup of organic white tea. Was it the most satisfying meal I’ve ever had? Certainly not. But I managed to derive a good amount of nutrition and pleasure from it, given the circumstance.

Some people seem to do quite well on a vegetarian diet. Genetic factors and thoughtful food selection are often the deciding forces behind the tolerability of such a menu plan. In addition, it’s helpful to understand the role that strategic nutrition and supplementation can play in supporting this lifestyle over the long term. That’s the advice I give when working with a vegetarian client.

The December 2010 edition of the journal Nutrition provides invaluable data for all vegetarians and anyone considering becoming one. Researchers from Arizona State University examined the digestibility of protein from plant-based foods such as cereals, fruits, legumes, nuts/seeds and vegetables in comparison to the average “dietary reference intake” or DRI. The analysis was based on a group of 21 young adult vegetarians who completed 4 days of food logs. Here are are some of the intriguing findings of this observational study:

  • Only 21% of the documented diets consisted of animal protein sources (dairy and eggs).
  • The total DRI of the participants’ dietary pattern was 82% protein digestibility.

Why is this relevant? The general expectation among nutritionists is that the average vegetarian will consume about half of their protein from animal sources that are better absorbed than plant-based protein. However, this is not always the case. Therefore, the authors of this trial determined that protein requirements in “vegetarians consuming less than the expected amounts of animal protein (45% to 50% of total protein) may need to be adjusted from .8 to about 1.0 g/kg to account for decreased protein bioavailability”. (1)

This finding is no trivial matter. Scientific studies in both sexes reveal that: a) vegetarian women tend to have a “lower muscle mass index” than their omnivorous counterparts; b) meat-containing diets support “greater gains in fat-free mass and skeletal muscle mass” when combined with resistance-training in older men. It’s possible that reduced protein digestability may contribute to both of these observations. (2,3)

Muscle Strength Pre & Post 12 Wk of Resistance Training (RT) in Older Men Who Consumed a Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian (LOV) or a Mixed Diet

LOV-diet group (n = 10) Mixed-diet group (n = 9)
Exercise Baseline Week 12 of RT Baseline Week 12 of RT
Right-Knee Extension
(Nm) 136 ± 8 179 ± 7 140 ± 11 189 ± 12
(% Change) 25 ± 3 37 ± 7
Left-Knee Extension
(Nm) 138 ± 8 181 ± 6 137 ± 8 185 ± 6
(% Change) 27 ± 4 37 ± 6
Right-Knee Flexion
(Nm) 139 ± 6 167 ± 7 120 ± 10 157 ± 11
(% Change) 20 ± 4 34 ± 8
Left-Knee Flexion
(Nm) 131 ± 6 164 ± 7 117 ± 31 154 ± 25
(% Change) 24 ± 5 38 ± 12
Chest Press
(N) 523 ± 19 576 ± 25 551 ± 30 627 ± 31
(% Change) 10 ± 2 15 ± 4
Arm Pull
(N) 541 ± 23 669 ± 27 596 ± 21 713 ± 34
(% Change) 24 ± 4 19 ± 2
Double Leg Press
(N) 1381 ± 77 1564 ± 67 1446 ± 60 1694 ± 96
(% Change) 14 ± 11 17 ± 12

Source: Am J Clin Nutr December 1999 vol. 70 no. 6 1032-1039 (link)

There are others ways of mimicking the benefits of an omnivorous diet without adding or increasing the amount of animal-based foods to your diet. Creatine supplementation is one example. Creatine is a protein derivative that is naturally produced in the body and contained in select dietary sources including fish and meat. It’s stored in muscle tissue as an energy source that assists mental and physical performance. Numerous studies report that vegetarians tend to have lower quantities of creatine in their systems. The good news is that supplementing with creatine or foods containing it effectively normalizes creatine stores and can, thereby, improve athletic performance and even certain aspects of brain function such as intelligence measures (Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices) and working memory. (4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

Many diets and lifestyle choices present certain challenges to reaching optimal health. In my experience, this is often true of a strict vegan or vegetarian diet. However, there are ways of making a plant-based diet much more health promoting. The key, as with any other diet, is to be well informed about specific considerations such as fatty acid intake, possible mineral and vitamin deficiencies and protein requirements. Pertinent blood tests can also assist in determining the real world effects of this dietary program on various health parameters. They can guide you in making necessary changes based on your individual response. When armed with up-to-date knowledge, many common vegetarian pitfalls can be avoided and greater health and well being can be achieved. (11,12,13)

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

Be well!


Tags: , ,
Posted in Exercise, Food and Drink, Nutrition

10 Comments & Updates to “Healthier Vegetarians”

  1. Nina K. Says:

    Good morning, JP ☺

    Great article! hm i could’t live on a vegetarian diet, i’m a natural born carnivore ☻. The most vegetarians i know, don’t eat meat or fish because they don’t wanna kill animals. So, are plants not living things in our world? I can’t understand this arguement. Just read a few minutes ago, that an chinese? researcher warned, that the vegetarians get way to less B12,iron and zinc and that would be very bad for heart health, despite the fact that veggis consume less bad fat …i think everything in moderation 😉

    Have a great weekend!:-)

  2. Pradip Gharpure Says:

    Interesting Article. As I am purely vegetarian i love to read such things. Veg diet really can be great thing for health development.

  3. Tab Benedict Says:

    Great post! I’ll be sharing it, thanks :)I found the creatine reference particularly interesting. I’ve never thought about that particular protein that way! Learn something new every day… 🙂

  4. Davide Says:

    Interestingly, vegetarians also tend to be very deficient in the amino acid, carnosine. Carnosine, of course, is almost exclusively found in red meat and plays an extremely important role in health.

  5. Seth Jared Says:

    I am currently dating a wonderful vegetarian. I’ve had more than one painful experience at a vegan restaurant, eating way too little and leaving extremely dissatisfied. However, if you are ever in the Valley (in Los Angeles) I recommend “Follow Your Heart” on Sherman Way. It’s actually the best vegan food I’ve ever had. Flavorful and filling. They somehow managed to make food without eggs or meat or dairy taste really good. They use this thing they call “Veganaise” which is like a fake mayo that tastes awesome. And really good soup. It’s the one place I’ve had veggie food that is as filling as a meat based meal.

  6. JP Says:

    Thank you for making that point, Davide. I should write about carnosine in the near future.

    Be well!


  7. JP Says:

    Thank you for the recommendation, Seth. Good to know there satisfying vegan options out there.

    Be well!


  8. JP Says:

    Update: Higher intake of fiber, veggies (in the context of a vegan diet) lowers inflammation …


    Complement Ther Med. 2015 Feb;23(1):32-7.

    C-reactive protein response to a vegan lifestyle intervention.
    Sutliffe JT1, Wilson LD2, de Heer HD2, Foster RL3, Carnot MJ4.

    This brief lifestyle intervention, including a vegan diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and various legumes, nuts and seeds, significantly improved health risk factors and reduced systemic inflammation as measured by circulating CRP. The degree of improvement was associated with baseline CRP such that higher levels predicted greater decreases. The interaction between gender and baseline CRP was significant and showed that males with higher baseline CRP levels appeared to have a more robust decrease in CRP due to the intervention than did their female counterparts. It is likely that the vegetable and high fiber content of a vegan diet reduces CRP in the presences of obesity. Neither the quantity of exercise nor the length of stay was significant predictors of CRP reduction. Additionally, those participants who had a vegan diet prior to the intervention had the lowest CRP risk coming into the program. Direct measure of body fat composition, estrogen and other inflammatory mediators such as IL-6 and TNF-alpha would enhance current understanding of the specific mechanisms of CRP reduction related to lifestyle interventions.

    Be well!


  9. JP Says:

    Updated 10/26/15:


    J Med Food. 2015 Oct 20.

    Nutritional Supplementation with Chlorella pyrenoidosa Lowers Serum Methylmalonic Acid in Vegans and Vegetarians with a Suspected Vitamin B12 Deficiency.

    Since vitamin B12 occurs in substantial amounts only in foods derived from animals, vegetarians and particularly vegans are at risk of developing deficiencies of this essential vitamin. The chlorella used for this study is a commercially available whole-food supplement, which is believed to contain the physiologically active form of the vitamin. This exploratory open-label study was performed to determine if adding 9 g of Chlorella pyrenoidosa daily could help mitigate a vitamin B12 deficiency in vegetarians and vegans. Seventeen vegan or vegetarian adults (26-57 years of age) with a known vitamin B12 deficiency, as evidenced by a baseline serum methylmalonic acid (MMA) level above 270 nmol/L at screening, but who otherwise appeared healthy were enrolled in the study. Each participant added 9 g of C. pyrenoidosa to their daily diet for 60 ± 5 days and their serum MMA, vitamin B12, homocysteine (Hcy) levels as well as mean corpuscular volume (MCV), hemoglobin (Hgb), and hematocrit (Hct) were measured at 30 and 60 days from baseline. After 30 and 60 days, the serum MMA level fell significantly (P < .05) by an average ∼34%. Fifteen of the 17 (88%) subjects showed at least a 10% drop in MMA. At the same time, Hcy trended downward and serum vitamin B12 trended upward, while MCV, Hgb, and Hct appeared unchanged. The results of this work suggest that the vitamin B12 in chlorella is bioavailable and such dietary supplementation is a natural way for vegetarians and vegans to get the vitamin B12 they need. Be well! JP

  10. JP Says:

    Updated 12/07/18:


    Fundam Clin Pharmacol. 2018 Dec 3.

    Effects of dietary supplementation with creatine on homocysteinemia and systemic microvascular endothelial function in individuals adhering to vegan diets.

    The incidence of cardiovascular diseases in vegetarian individuals is lower than that in the general population. Nevertheless, individuals who adhere to vegan diets have a higher prevalence of hyperhomocysteinemia with eventual adverse effects on vascular reactivity. Creatine supplementation (CrS) reduces plasma homocysteine levels and enhances vascular reactivity in the microcirculation. Thus, we investigated the effects of CrS on systemic microcirculation and homocysteine blood levels in strict vegan subjects. Forty-nine strict vegan subjects were allocated to the oral CrS (5 g micronized creatine monohydrate daily for three weeks; n=31) and placebo (n=18) groups. Laser speckle contrast imaging coupled with acetylcholine skin iontophoresis was used to evaluate cutaneous microvascular reactivity, and intra-vital video-microscopy was used to evaluate skin capillary density and reactivity before and after CrS. We demonstrated that CrS reduces the plasma levels of homocysteine and increases those of folic acid. After the CrS period, the homocysteine levels of all of the vegan subjects normalized. CrS also induced increases in baseline skin functional capillary density and endothelium-dependent capillary recruitment in both normo- (N-Hcy) and hyperhomocysteinemic (H-Hcy) individuals. CrS increased endothelium-dependent skin microvascular vasodilation in the H-Hcy vegan subjects but not in the N-Hcy vegan subjects. In conclusion, three weeks of oral CrS was sufficient to increase skin capillary density and recruitment and endothelium-dependent microvascular reactivity. CrS also resulted in plasma increases in folic acid levels and reductions in homocysteine ​​levels among only the H-Hcy individuals.

    Be well!


Leave a Comment