Vegetarian Diets and Older Women

Sharon Palmer, RD wrote in Today’s Dietitian …..

Vegetarian diets carry risks for older women. This assumption may be common regarding the appropriateness of plant-based diets for women as they age, even among health care professionals. Yet it hasn’t kept older women—even celebrities such as Mary Tyler Moore and Michelle Pfeiffer—from flocking to vegetarian and vegan diets. Indeed, according to a 2012 poll by The Vegetarian Resource Group, 4% of adults (both men and women) aged 45 to 54 are vegetarian or vegan—the same rate as observed in the general population—and 3% of adults aged 55 and older are vegetarian or vegan.

It’s true that older women have important nutrition concerns, such as maintaining a healthy weight, protecting bones, and warding off heart disease. But that doesn’t mean a plant-based diet is off limits for these women. In fact, this style of eating may be beneficial for older women. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the Academy) reported in its 2009 position statement on vegetarian diets that appropriately planned vegetarian and vegan diets are healthful and nutritionally adequate, and they may provide health benefits in the treatment of certain diseases during all stages of the life cycle.

“There’s no reason at all why women of any age can’t adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet,” says Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, a plant-based nutrition expert who specializes in diets for older women and the coauthor of Vegan for Her and Never Too Late to Go Vegan. “Some nutrient needs change with age, but those needs can be met from plant foods.”

Potential Health Benefits

“In some cases, vegetarian women may have nutrient intakes that lower their risk for chronic disease,” says Messina, who also provides nutrition resources on her website,

“In terms of heart health, vegan diets are free of cholesterol. Depending on food choices, vegan and vegetarian diets can be low in saturated fats,” adds Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, LDN, a plant-based nutrition expert, author, and nutrition advisor for The Vegetarian Resource Group.

Indeed, vegetarian dietary patterns have been linked with numerous health benefits, including a lower risk of ischemic heart disease, hypertension, cancer, and type 2 diabetes; lower levels of LDL cholesterol and blood pressure; and decreased BMI. In the landmark Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2), data on different dietary patterns—vegan, vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semivegetarian, and nonvegetarian—were analyzed from about 96,000 Seventh-day Adventist participants in the United States and Canada. According to Ella Haddad, DrPH, MS, RD, an associate professor in the department of nutrition at Loma Linda University School of Public Health, who evaluates data in the AHS-2, “For heart disease—the No. 1 killer in women—the risk seems to be lower among vegan and vegetarians, according to the AHS-2.”

In a new study analyzing data from both men and women enrolled in the AHS-2, researchers linked lacto-ovo vegetarian diets with a 9% reduction in all-cause mortality and vegan diets with a 15% reduction compared with nonvegetarian diets, although the findings were more robust for men than women. In the EPIC-Oxford study, researchers found a 32% lower risk of ischemic heart disease among vegetarian adults (men and women combined) compared with nonvegetarians.

One of the main advantages of a well-planned plant-based diet is its rich nutrient profile, which may be even more important for older women. “Vegetarians eat more fiber and less saturated fat and have diets that are richer in antioxidants, so there are some definite advantages to eating this way as we age,” Messina says.

“I think that it can be challenging for older women in general to meet nutrient needs as their energy needs decrease with aging,” Mangels says. “This means that eating a nutrient-dense diet is especially important. In some ways, a whole-foods vegan or vegetarian diet may actually make this easier because of the many nutrient-dense foods that are often included. This is important because of the reduction in calorie needs that goes with getting older. Women can eat very well on a nutrient-dense vegan or vegetarian diet without feeling deprived.”

Since energy needs decline as women age, they often struggle with weight gain. It’s well documented that plant-based diets—in particular vegan diets—are associated with lower BMI. A new study analyzing data from the AHS-2 found that mean BMI was lowest in vegans (23.6) and incrementally higher in lacto-ovo vegetarians (25.7), pesco-vegetarians (26.3), semivegetarians (27.3), and nonvegetarians (28.8).7 Thus, a plant-based diet may help women meet their nutritional needs while avoiding weight gain and its cascade of health problems, which may occur as a result of higher body fat.

Meeting Protein Needs

One of the greatest challenges for older women on plant-based diets may be adequate protein intake, especially in light of recent recommendations to increase protein intake while aging…….

Read more at Today’s Dietitian …..

Today’s Comic