Vegetarian Dietary Patterns for Adults
Author: Professor Walter J. Veith, PhD
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Summary: It has been shown that a vegan diet can provide all the body’s needs and can be followed without fear.

Vegan diets are in general lower in calories than omnivorous diets, and as a result vegans are normally slimmer than their omnivorous counterparts. It was found that vegetarians weigh eight kilograms less than meat eaters who are, on average, five to seven kilograms overweight.i

The lower weight of vegetarians has distinct health advantages in that slim people fall into lower risk categories regarding cardiovascular diseases and cancer.ii, iii

Obviously the body requires a minimum intake of energy to stay alive, and the number of calories required varies with gender, size, and body weight. Adults require around 1000-1700 calories per day at rest (basal metabolic rate or BMR), while activity increases the energy expenditure. The average energy consumed per day is 2000 calories for women and 2700 for men, but heavy manual labor or sporting activity can increase the requirements to as much as 4000 calories per day.

The vegan diet has a lower fat and protein content and a higher carbohydrate content than most other diets, and particular attention must be paid to energy intake as the energy supply from fat is 9,4 kcal/g, whereas carbohydrates and proteins supply only 4,2 and 4,3 kcal/g respectively.

Food guides are useful in teaching, but the average person will not pay much heed to them unless educated to do so. The vegetarian tribes of the world also do extremely well without the use of dietary charts and lists of recommended daily allowances (RDA). The diets that have been established in these tribes have, however, arisen over time and have been practiced for generations, whereas Western societies must rediscover simple wholesome eating practices. Moreover, there are so many so-called health foods and metaphysically inspired health notions that the health-food industry has become a minefield of misinformation. Under these circumstances it is prudent to make a thorough investigation of the issue, and not to avoid the voice of science.

The Basic Four

In general the Western societies adhere to the Basic-Four nutritional guide which correlates adequate nutrition with regular intake of the four basic food types: dairy products, breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables and meat. It is interesting that even this Basic-Four Food Guide was found to be lacking in vitamin E, vitamin B-6, magnesium, zinc and iron.iv

CC Dominique Godbout on Flickr

In the past, these four food groups were considered to be of equal importance—the plate was divided into four quarters each with one of these food groups. Recently, however, this Basic-Four diet has come under attack from health circles, but intensive lobbying by the meat and dairy industry has managed to keep it at least partially afloat in the minds of the general public. In the past American school children were taught that a healthy diet included meat every day, but now the US government has recognized that a vegetarian diet can be healthy.

In 1992 the USDA issued a revised recommendation in which the “food pyramid” was used for the first time. It was suggested that grains and cereals form the bulk of the diet, vegetables and fruits were suggested as next in importance, followed by animal products and finally fats, oils, and sugars which were to be used sparingly. The 1996 guidelines are a further advance on this, stating that “Most vegetarians eat dairy products and eggs and, as a group, these lacto-ovo-vegetarians enjoy excellent health.” The guidelines, however still warn against a strict vegan diet and supplementation of iron, zinc, and B-vitamins is suggested.v

The change of heart comes from an overwhelming body of evidence that the consumption of animal products is a health risk, and it can be expected that more changes in lifestyle will be recommended in the future. Already, Michael Jacobson, executive director of the “Centre for Science in the Public Interest” criticized the US government for not coming out more strongly against meat in the 1996 guidelines.

Vegan vegetarians need different guidelines to those commonly accepted in Western societies, and they need to plan their eating regimes carefully, nevertheless a balanced vegan lifestyle is not only possible, but can indeed be desirable in terms of health.

Healthy Vegetarianism

Ovo-lacto- and lacto-vegetarians have less of a problem in meeting caloric needs than do vegan vegetarians, and that is why the safety of lacto-ovo-vegetarian eating patterns is normally emphasized in dietetic recommendations, whilst specialized dietary planning is recommended for vegan type,vii The energy component of ovo-lacto-vegetarian diets is boosted by the animal fats included in these diets and is therefore not to be regarded as a positive aspect of these diets.

Vegan vegetarians must plan diets that will compensate for the omission of dairy products, by ensuring that they include adequate quantities of high energy foods in their diets. Provided this is done, it has been shown that a vegan diet can provide all the body’s needs and can be followed without fear. A number of suggested vegan diet patterns have been analyzed, and it was found that the diet suggested by Selma Chaij-Rhys came closest to satisfying daily nutritional needs of adults.viii, ix This diet uses a simple numerical formula and starts off by using grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and adds vegetable-protein foods fortified with vitamin B-12, such as fortified soy milk or simply a B-12 supplement.

This eating pattern will supply more than double the RDA of iron, particularly as the high vitamin C content will enhance the utilization and absorption of non-haem iron.x Riboflavin and niacin needs are also met. The pattern, however, falls short in protein and energy, particularly in men, but the use of a larger serving size would help to bridge the energy gap.

The Chaij-Rhys diet plan will supply adequate nutrition for women in all the nutrients with the exception of calories. Again, a somewhat larger serving will cater for all the needs, including energy needs.

Correct food combinations are essential when trying to meet protein needs, as various plant-protein sources complement one another. Legumes are high in lysine but low in the sulphur-containing amino acids methionine and cystine, and the combination of legumes with grains, which are high in methionine and threonine and low in lysine, will provide an excellent protein.xi To achieve a proper amino acid balance is thus not nearly as complicated as it sounds. For example, the ordinary peanut butter sandwich will supply complete proteins as it is a combination of a grain (wheat) and a legume (peanuts).

Read more about nutrition

This article is adapted from the book Diet and Health by Professor Walter Veith.



i. U. D. Register and L. M. Sonnenberg, "The vegetarian diet," J.Am.Diet.Assoc 62 (1973): 253-261.

ii. L. Beil, "Lean living," Science News 134 (1988): 142-143.

iii. R. Butrum et. al, "NCI dietary guidelines: rationale," Am.J.Clin.Nutr. 48 (1988): 888-895.

iv. J. L. King et. al., "Evaluation and modification of the Basic Four Food Guide," J.Nutr.Educ. 10 (1978): 27-29.

v. K. Kleiner, "Life liberty and the pursuit of vegetables," New Scientist 13 (January 1996).

vi. P. B. Mutch, "Food guides for the vegetarian," Am.J.Clin.Nutr. 48 (1988): 913-919.

vii. Michigan Department of Public Health, Basic Nutrition Facts (Slansing, MI: MDPH, 1980): H-808.

viii. D. Nieman, "Vegetarian dietary practices and endurance performance," Am.J.Clin.Nutr. 48 (1988): 754-761.

ix. P. K. Johnston, "Counseling the pregnant vegetarians," Am.J.Clin.Nutr. 48 (1988): 901-905.

x. M. V. Smith, "Development of a quick reference guide to accommodate vegetariansim in diet therapy for multiple disease conditions," Am.J.Clin.Nutr. 48 (1988): 906-909.

xi. J. T. Dwyer and C. Jacobs, "Vegetarian children appropriate and inappropriate diets," Am.J.Clin.Nutr. 48 (1988): 811-818.

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