An In-Depth Look At Plant-Based Vegetarian and Vegan Nutrition For Seniors

By: Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS®

Fact-checked by: Kathryn Bubeck, Registered Dietician

Whether you’re enjoying your golden years and looking for ways to improve your health, or you’re a caregiver learning how to take care of a loved one who’s a vegetarian, you’re in the right place. Learn more about managing plant-based nutrition for older adults.

Income Disclosure: I recommend products based on my personal experience working with seniors. I may earn a commission on items purchased from links in this guide. Learn More.

There are numerous reasons why people turn to the vegetarian lifestyle. It’s no different for older adults.

As a senior, you may choose to live a vegetarian lifestyle for health reasons. Or you may not like the taste or texture of meat. Maybe you simply love animals and the thought of consuming animal meat and products does not sit well with your conscience. Regardless, you should ensure your vegetarian diet is the cornerstone of your health.

As a exclusive plant-based eater myself, I know and appreciate the benefits (and the challenges) of consuming a plant-based diet. I’ve personally lost 35 pounds and now take less medication (after discussing with my doctor) since I converted to a vegetarian diet. 

In this article, I’ll take a closer look into the benefits and potential drawbacks of plant-based diets for seniors. 

Is A Plant-Based Diet Safe For Older Adults?

There is no straight answer to this question. The benefits of sticking to a plant-based diet are well documented. For instance, a BMJ study published in 2019 revealed that a vegetarian diet had a lower rate of heart attack compared to meat consumers. However, the same study revealed a slight (3 more cases per 1,000 people over ten years) increase in cases of hemorrhage stroke among plant-based diets compared to omnivores.

So, we can deduce that while plant-based diets are safe for older adults, such a diet can pose some risks. It’s, therefore, important that you consult your doctor before you transition into a vegetarian diet.

An additional concern comes in when someone believes they are eating a vegetarian diet but eat mac and cheese 3 times a day. While that’s technically vegetarian, it’s not healthy for anyone. This is why I personally use the term “whole food plant-based” when discussing my own diet with others indicating I eat only “real” food from plants – often ones I’ve grown myself.

So, the variety of plant-based diet you choose is an important factor.

What Are The Types Of Vegetarian Diets Seniors Can Consider?

Before we get into the details of plant-based diets for seniors, let’s briefly go over the different styles of vegetarian eating.

At its core, being a vegetarian means eliminating animal proteins and products from your diet. Aside from eliminating meat products from our diets, different vegetarian diets impose their own set of restrictions.

Each type is defined by what other foods are excluded and this list gets stricter the farther down you go.

1. Flexitarian (or Semi-Vegetarian)

This type of vegetarian diet makes allowance for individuals to consume meat and seafood every once in a while. However, a flexitarian follows a vegetarian diet the majority of the time. A flexitarian diet perfectly suits seniors looking to transition to a vegetarian diet or as an alternative to vegetarian diets if you can’t do away with meat completely.

2. Pescatarian

A pescatarian is a vegetarian who does not eat meat or poultry but eats fish. In some cases, you may also choose to eat eggs and dairy products. Many seniors choose to follow the pescatarian diet to serve as a stepping stone to a full vegetarian lifestyle or as an alternative to the much restrictive vegetarian diet. 

3. Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian

Aside from being the most common form of vegetarianism, the vast majority of people think of lacto-ovo-vegetarianism when they talk of vegetarianism in a general sense. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians are individuals who tailor their food consumption by excluding meat, pork, fish, shellfish, poultry, or any other kind of animal flesh. However, they consume dairy and dairy products and eggs and egg products.

4. Ovo-Vegetarian

Ovo-vegetarians are vegetarians who do not consume meat and dairy products but consume eggs. 

5. Lacto-Vegetarian

Lacto-vegetarians are vegetarians who do not consume meat and eggs but consume dairy products.

6. Vegan

Vegans cut out all animal-based foods from their diet. Not only do they refrain from eating any kind of meat, dairy, and eggs, but they also refrain from eating processed foods derived from animals such as gelatin. Many vegans even refrain from eating foods processed with animal products, even when the final product does not contain animal products.

7. Raw Vegan

A raw vegan diet consists of unprocessed plant-based foods that have not been cooked at temperatures above 46° Celsius/115 ° Fahrenheit. Individuals who follow this diet consider heating food above that temperature harmful and that it diminishes the nutritional value of the food. So, they eliminate all types of foods that require excessive heating during the cooking process. 

This is the most restrictive of the plant-based diets. Before trying this type of extreme vegan diet, you should definitely consult your doctor.

senior picking vegetables in the garden
Consuming lots of FRESH vegetables and fruits can counter some of the potential drawbacks of a vegetarian diet.

What Are Some Potential Benefits Of A Vegetarian Diet For Older Adults?

1. Increases Telomere Activity

Telomeres are the caps at the end of our DNA strands. Eating a plant-based diet has been found to increase telomerase, an enzyme that rebuilds telomeres. The benefit? It could slow down aging!

2. You Consume More Antioxidants

Studies have shown that a plant-based diet can help people maintain higher antioxidant vitamin levels compared to omnivorous diets. The increased availability of antioxidants helps to protect your body cells against free radicals. Studies have shown that free radicals might play a role in causing cancer, heart diseases, and other ailments.

3. Improved Immunity

Vegetarians have been shown to have a more effective immune system compared to omnivores. The white blood cells of vegetarians are better capable of fighting viruses and bacteria owing to a larger intake of vitamins and a low intake of saturated fats.

4. You Get More Dietary Fiber

Consuming a plant-based diet could potentially help us consume more dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is a type of carbohydrate that we can’t digest and break down into sugars. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.

Soluble fiber is processed by the body and is helpful for cholesterol and blood glucose levels. Insoluble fiber passes through our digestive system unprocessed, improving bowel movement, helping regulate blood sugar, and keeping hunger at bay.

Other benefits of dietary fiber include a decreased potential of getting heart diseases, type 2 diabetes, and diverticular disease (which is common among the elderly).

5. Improved Weight Management

Numerous studies have associated transitioning from an omnivorous diet to a plant-based diet with weight loss. Moreover, studies have shown that vegans and vegetarians typically have lower BMI than omnivorous eaters. A vegetarian diet can help the elderly manage their weight as it focuses on eating low-calorie food such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, and whole grains.

6. Consume Low Saturated Fat

Animal products are our biggest source of hydrogenated and saturated fats. Products such as cream, cheese, and butter have a high amount of saturated fats. Cutting out these food products from our diets reduces our intake of saturated fats, which, in turn, improves our health.  

Other potential benefits of a vegetarian diet include increased testosterone, improved skin health, better sleep, and better cognitive function.

A common pitfall of converting to a vegetarian diet is eating more pasta and processed grains than is recommended.

What Are Some Concerns For Seniors On A Vegan Diet?

On the surface, plant-based diets have significant benefits over animal diets. However, as all medical professionals will tell you, you should be careful with the type of plant-based diet you choose. The restrictiveness of the diet you choose to follow will influence the number of calories and nutrients you get. 

In this regard, one of the biggest concerns to keep in mind is the potential of calorie and nutrient deficiencies. Deficiencies are especially of grave concern for older adults who chose to follow a more restrictive diet, such as a vegan diet.

It’s, therefore, important that you take steps to counteract any potential deficiency. As a senior or a caregiver of the elderly, you want to ensure the plant-based diet is wholesome and has all the nutrients necessary for healthy living. With this in mind, you should make concerted efforts to avoid deficiencies. 

1. Mineral Deficiencies, Especially Calcium & Iron

Dairy products such as yogurt, milk, and cheese are our largest sources of calcium. Removing these foods from our diets might leave the elderly without sufficient calcium, which is important for the normal health of the nerves, muscles, heart, blood, bones, and teeth.

For instance, you can avoid calcium deficiency by eating plant-based foods rich in calcium. Legumes and green leafy vegetables are the best sources of plant-based calcium. So, ensure your diet has ample kale, spinach, broccoli, mustard greens, and Brussels sprouts that have highly absorbable calcium because they also contain Vitamin C. Vitamin C is necessary for maximizing calcium absorption. Other sources of plant-based calcium include oranges, tofu, figs, and collard greens.

You can also suffer from other types of mineral deficiencies, such as zinc and iron. Iron deficiency is more commonly referred to as anemia. Good sources of iron for plant eaters are lentils, spinach, tofu, blackstrap molasses, beans, and swiss chard.

2. Vitamin B12

We get the vast majority of vitamins from animal proteins. In the case of Vitamin B12, we only get it naturally from animal proteins. There is an interesting story why that is too.

Vitamin B12 is essential for making our DNA and brains function properly. The vitamin is also important for glucose metabolism, new cell growth, red blood cell formation, normal nervous system, healthy pregnancy, and embryo formation, and reduce the risk of macular degeneration.

Avoid vitamin B12 deficiency by including vitamin B12-enriched vegan foods. Vitamin B12-enriched foods are found in the form of fortified cereals, fortified plant-based milk, and soy products.

3. Protein

Seniors need a healthy amount of protein to support healthy muscle, skin, and bone formation and general sustenance. Keep in mind that we lose bone and muscle mass as we age and healing wounds takes longer.

To increase protein intake, consume protein-rich plant foods such as chia seeds, seitan, legumes, nuts, soybeans and soy products, spirulina, lentils, and wild rice. 

How Can Vegetarian Seniors Get The Right Amount Of Protein?

Adults require about 0.75 grams of protein per kilogram to remain healthy and maintain lean body mass. However, as we age, we need more protein. Seniors should consume about 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram.

You should have a meal plan that ensures you or your elderly loved one consumes the right amount of protein based on that guideline. In the plan, ensure every meal has ample protein-rich foods, as shown below. Supplementation with plant-based protein drinks is another option.

What Are Some High-Quality Plant-Based Nutrition Sources For Seniors? 

OneGreenPlanet.org recommends these nutrient dense plant-based foods for anyone on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Not many surprises here either – dark leafy greens and brightly colored veggies and fruits are the way to go.

  1. Kale – high in Vitamin C, A, K, B6 ad fiber, potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper, and manganese too.
  2. Watercress – good source of Vitamins A, C, & K plus phytonutrients the strengthen bones and reduce damage to neurons.
  3. Bok Choi – offers health benefits with cancer-fighting properties plus is high in potassium and B6.
  4. Spinach – high in niacin and zinc plus offers protein, fiber, Vitamins A & K, lots of B Vitamins and antioxidants.
  5. Brussels Sprouts – offer cholesterol lowering benefits and high in fiber.
  6. Carrots – Known for their ability to help with eyesight but they have also been shown to have tremendous cardiovascular benefits.
  7. Broccoli – these florets are a good source of Vitamin E, complex B Vitamins, and Vitamins A, C, and B6 plus is high in fiber, calcium, iron, and potassium.
  8. Other recommended nutrient-dense foods are strawberries, plums, raspberries, blueberries, onions, oranges, flax seeds, and cherries.

If you are looking for a ready-made organic, vegan nutrition source, I recommend the shakes from KateFarms.com. They were kind enough to send me some samples to try and I instantly became a customer. They are as smooth as chocolate milk without that gritty “protein flavor.”

Kate Farms Organic Meal Replacement Nutrition Shake
$48.00 ($4.00/bottle)

These delicious and convenient plant-based shakes come in flavors (vanilla, chocolate, and coffee) with USDA Organic protein and powerful phytonutrients for optimal health.

  • High percentage of phytonutrients sourced from various nutrient-rich foods like green tea, acai, turmeric, and broccoli. 
  • Reputation for using the best ingredients like USDA organic pea protein for high-quality nourishment that keep your aging body fed, energized, and healthy.
  • It comes in three flavors: vanilla, coffee, and chocolate.
See It At KateFarms.com

Tips For Switching To a Vegetarian Diet

If you’ve been thinking of transitioning to a vegetarian diet, there are some steps you should take to improve your chances of success and also for a safe transition.

1. Check With Your Doctor

Check with your doctor or dietician first. Moving from a diet that has animal products to a mostly (or only) plant-based diet is more than about the food you eat.

You also need to consider your current state of health and nutritional requirements. For instance, you need to consult your physician if you’re prone to vitamin B12 deficiency. With this in mind, you need to get the okay from your doctor first.

2. Consult With a Dietitian

You should also consult a registered dietitian. Even when your doctor gives you the go-ahead, you need a lot of guidance on the types of food to eat. A registered dietitian with experience working with older adults will design a meal plan that meets your specific nutritional and calorie requirements while maximizing the efficiency of your diet. 

Importantly, they will customize your diet using the variety of plant-based foods you find delicious and tantalizing. After all, if you’re to follow a plant-based diet in the long run, you want to eat the types of foods you love. 

Don’t know a dietician? Ask your doctor for a referral. My doctor’s office has a dietician on staff.

3. Take It Slow

If you are like me, you like to jump right in and get things done quickly. But that isn’t the best idea when it comes to your diet. Often, it can lead to stomach and digestive upset (speaking from experience here!).

Take things slowly as you transition into a vegetarian diet. Consider starting your vegetarian journey with a flexitarian diet. Start by cutting out red meat from your diet. Follow that with poultry, then fish, and finally cut out dairy products. 

4. Tweak Your Favorite Recipes

Tweak your favorite meat-based recipes by switching the meat with plant-based foods. A gradual transition is better for longevity in following a plant-based diet. Shocking your body by getting rid of animal-based food will be hard on you, leaving you susceptible to reverting to your old diet.

5. Mix It Up With Variety

When you finally start eating plant-based foods, eat a variety. Combining different plant-based foods maximizes the amount and variety of nutrients, minerals, and vitamins you consume. Taking this approach to eating your diet ensures you do not suffer from deficiencies. There’s nothing better than a stir fry of 7 or 8 of your favorite veggies.

RELATED: Nutrition Tips for Seniors & Elderly

What Does A Typical Day’s Food Look Like For A Vegetarian 

There are plenty of delicious recipes that take advantage of plant-based ingredients. Below is just a highlight of what meals for the vegetarian senior might look like:

Breakfast

Homemade smoothies or fresh juices with a toast, an omelet that combines different vegetables such as mushrooms, tomatoes, and/or sweet corn. Alternatively, you can opt for a sandwich that combines vegetables such as spinach, mushrooms, and tomatoes. 

Lunch

You can get a veg wrap, salad, hard or soft tacos, stuffed sweet potato or hot potato or veg soup for lunch.

Dinner

There’re plenty of dishes to choose from for dinner. From lasagna, stir-fries (cooked with corn, cauliflower, green beans, carrots, broccoli, and capsicum), homemade pizza, spaghetti Bolognese, and much more.

Snacks

For snacks, you have the choice of any fruits, nuts, kale chips, popcorn, roasted chickpeas, and much more. The list is endless.

Wrapping Up

While I tries not to get to preachy about vegetarian and vegan diets for seniors, I hope I have exposed you to the possibility. There are lots of well-documented benefits of plant-based eating – just make sure you have planned a way to combat the potential concerns as well.

Ready to get started? Call your doctor first!

About the Expert

Because I strive to provide you with accurate information, I had this article fact-checked by Kathryn Bubeck, RD, LDN a registered dietician in North Carolina. She has dual bachelor degrees in Nutrition and Health Behavior Management and is currently pursuing a medical degree with a focus on oncology.
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