The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Publication Date: 09/2003
Summary: Iron and zinc are currently the trace minerals of greatest concern when considering the nutritional value of vegetarian diets. With elimination of meat and increased intake of phytate-containing legumes and whole grains, the absorption of both iron and zinc is lower with vegetarian than with nonvegetarian, diets. The health consequences of lower iron and zinc bioavailability are not clear, especially in industrialized countries with abundant, varied food supplies, where nutrition and health research has generally supported recommendations to reduce meat and increase legume and whole-grain consumption. Although it is clear that vegetarians have lower iron stores, adverse health effects from lower iron and zinc absorption have not been demonstrated with varied vegetarian diets in developed countries, and moderately lower iron stores have even been hypothesized to reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Premenopausal women cannot easily achieve recommended iron intakes, as modified for vegetarians, with foods alone; however, the benefit of routine iron supplementation has not been demonstrated. It may be prudent to monitor the hemoglobin of vegetarian children and women of childbearing age. Improved assessment methods are required to determine whether vegetarians are at risk of zinc deficiency. In contrast with iron and zinc, elements such as copper appear to be adequately provided by vegetarian diets. Although the iron and zinc deficiencies commonly associated with plant-based diets in impoverished nations are not associated with vegetarian diets in wealthier countries, these nutrients warrant attention as nutritional assessment methods become more sensitive and plant-based diets receive greater emphasis.