Can Older Adults and The Elderly Follow Vegetarian/Vegan Diets?

Can Older Adults and The Elderly Follow Vegetarian/Vegan Diets?

The more senior members of our population (>70 years), due to various reasons, can be at increased risk of a variety of health issues.

These health issues can include:

  • frailty
  •  poor eyesight
  • diabetes
  • heart disease
  • hypertension
  • cancer
  • pneumonia,
  • osteoporosis, falls and fractures
  • dementia
  • arthritis
  • anaemia
  • food intolerances especially lactose –intolerance
  • malnutrition

These issues can be compounded by financial problems and mobility problems.

In vegetarian / vegan older adults, there are certain considerations that must be thought through when looking at meeting nutritional needs.

Nutritionally speaking, it is known that with ageing, energy needs decrease AND YET recommendations for several nutrients; including CALCIUM, VITAMIN D, and VITAMIN B6 are higher.

In addition, typical eating habits of elderly people show lowered intakes of micronutrients, especially calcium, zinc, iron, and Vitamin B-12.

Studies show that older vegetarians have dietary intakes that are similar to non-vegetarians.

Meeting Nutritional Needs

VITAMIN B-12 (cobalamin):

Older adults may have difficulty with Vitamin B-12 absorption from food, as often an inflammatory condition called atrophic gastritis (age-related inflammation of the stomach), develops reducing Vitamin B-12 absorption.

Vitamin B-12 is found only in animal products, causing a deficiency in anyone following a vegetarian (especially a vegan) diet, which worsens the longer a person is on a vegetarian/vegan diet (e.g.  in older vegetarian adults).

Although it can take several years for deficiency symptoms to develop, and person excluding the consumption of animal products from their diet will eventually become deficient if their diet is not adequately supplemented.

All vegans should supplement their diets with Vitamin B12.

While some plant foods such as mushrooms, tempeh, miso, and sea vegetables, are often reported to have some Vitamin b-12, they are not a reliable source and will not prevent deficiency. These foods contain an inactive form of Vitamin B-12, which interferes with the normal absorption and metabolism of the active form in the body. A reliable source of biologically active Vitamin B-12 is recommended on a regular basis, either from fortified foods or supplements.

Tips for meeting Vitamin B-12 needs:

  • include dairy foods and eggs in the diet regularly (one glass of milk PLUS one tub of low fat, sugar-free yoghurt PLUS one egg PLUS 40g low fat cheese provides the daily requirement.
  • For those following a vegan diet, include fortified soy beverages such as Soya Life Instant meal Replacement Drink, and fortified soya porridges such as Soya Life Porridge. 2 glasses Soya Life Instant Meal replacement drink provides the requirement.
  • For those not eating foods fortified with, or containing Vitamin B-12., it is ESSENTIAL to take a Vitamin B-12 supplement.


There are two types of iron in food: haem and nonhaem iron. Haem iron is found in animal foods and nonhaem iron is found in eggs and plant foods.

Nonhaem iron is not as well absorbed by the body, but its absorption is increased significantly in the presence of vitamin C.

Absorption is also regulated by requirements; lower body stores result in increased absorption and reduced excretion. Tannins in tea and coffee, and phytates in wholegrains and legumes can inhibit the absorption of iron, although the presence of vitamin C can help overcome the effects of these inhibitors.

Vegetarian diets can contain as much or more iron (nonhaem) than mixed diets, primarily from wholegrain breads and cereals.

Surprisingly, iron deficiency is not more common in vegetarians, although iron stores (serum ferritin levels) are often lower.

Tips for meeting Iron needs:

  • Eat legumes, tofu, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains, and iron fortified cereals regularly
  • Include a vitamin C rich fruit or vegetable at each meal
  • Limit intake of tea and coffee to between meals rather than with meals.


While zinc is found widely in plant foods, its absorption is dependent on body stores and requirements; the body appears to adapt to lower intakes by reducing losses and increasing absorption. As with iron,absorption is reduced by phytates found in wheat bran, wholegrains and legumes. Processing a food by leavening (yeast in breads), soaking, fermenting or sprouting can reduce the phytate level and make zinc more readily available.

Tips for meeting zinc needs

  • Eat legumes, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, brown rice and wholegrains (breads, cereals) regularly
  • Use sprouted legumes (e.g. mung beans) in salads and sandwiches
  • Avoid excessive intake of unprocessed wheat bran.


Research has found calcium intakes are generally similar between vegetarians and non-vegetarians, and a recent review of the literature concluded that there are no differences in bone health indices between lacto-ovo vegetarians and non-vegetarians.  Plant versus animal sources of calcium and their effectiveness in maintaining bone health remain contentious. Despite a much lower intake of calcium, one recent study found vegan postmenopausal women had bone mineral densities identical to that of non-vegetarians.

For lacto-ovo vegetarians, dairy foods provide plenty of calcium. With some careful planning, vegans can obtain their calcium from calcium fortified soy beverages (Soya Life Instant Meal Replacement Drink), calcium fortified soy yoghurt, tofu (set in calcium salts) or other plant foods containing calcium. Some plant foods provide a significant amount of bio-available calcium, despite often having lower calcium content than dairy foods. Absorption of calcium is improved in the presence of vitamin D and some research has found it to be inhibited by sodium, caffeine and excess animal protein.

Tips for meeting calcium needs:

  • Aim for three portions of calcium rich foods each day from a variety of sources including dairy products, calcium fortified products and plant foods, such as tofu set with calcium, almonds, unshelled tahini, dried figs and dark green leafy vegetables (e.g. broccoli and Asian greens such as bok choy, kale, collard greens and Chinese cabbage). One portion is equal to:

– 250 mL low fat milk or calcium fortified soy beverage (with at least 100 mg calcium/100 mL)

– 40 g low fat cheese

– 200 g low fat sugar free yoghurt or calcium fortified soy yoghurt

– 150 g of calcium set tofu

– 1 ½ cups Asian greens

– 1 cup almonds

– five dried figs

– 3 tablespoons of unshelled tahini

  • Limit salt intake
  • Limit caffeine found in tea, coffee, cola and ‘energy’ drinks

Vitamin D

Cutaneous Vitamin D production decreases with ageing so that dietary or supplemental sources of Vitamin D are especially important.


Although current recommendations for protein for healthy older adults are the same as those for younger adults on a body weight basis, this is a controversial area.

It is essential that older adults consuming a low energy diet will need to eat concentrated sources of protein (egg, dairy, soya, legumes etc).

Older adults can meet protein needs on a vegetarian diet if a variety of protein-rich plant foods, including legumes and soy products, are eaten daily.

It is a good idea for older adults to consult with a Registered Dietician to ensure that all micronutrient and protein needs are being met within a practical and easy-to-follow balanced vegetarian / vegan diet.

A useful option for older adults, especially those elderly people who are battling with mobility problems to consider using the following:

Soya Life Meal Replacement Drink

  • A fully balanced meal replacement for either/ all of the main meals (breakfast, lunch or supper)
  • Can be used to supplement meals, where appetite is poor and inadequate food is eaten at a specific meal
  • Useful as an in-between meal snack as well.
  • Provides all the essential minerals and vitamins in high doses
  • Very tasty
  • Lactose and wheat free

Vegetarians and vegans are often healthier in their later years of life due to the fact that vegetarian diets have many known health advantages.

With careful menu planning, ensuring that all micronutrient needs are met, elderly people can truly enjoy a varied vegetarian diet, whilst experiencing benefits to health and energy levels at the same time.

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