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Julie Hess and Chris Johnson discuss fruit recommendations found in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (Photo by John Borge)

Adapting Dietary Guidelines for Vegetarians, Vegans

The menu du jour for nearly 10 percent of Americans has just expanded.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) provides nutrition recommendations for all healthy Americans, but some people find themselves unable to meet those goals based on lifestyle choices. Enter Julie Hess.

Hess, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) nutritionist at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in Grand Forks, ND, conducted a study that examined the DGA and found that altering its Healthy Vegetarian Dietary Pattern could help people who choose certain types of vegetarian diets or who are vegan.

“The vegetarian pattern in the DGA includes eggs and sources of dairy foods, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese,” Hess said. “We know that not all Americans who eat vegetarian diets also eat eggs and/or dairy foods, but there are not recommendations in the DGA for how to substitute for one or both of these foods and still get adequate nutrition.”

In addition to the vegetarian pattern, the DGA has recommendations for healthy U.S.-style and healthy Mediterranean-style diets, both of which include meat.

“Americans have personal preferences, budgetary constraints, cultural traditions, and other factors that influence their decisions about what to eat,” she said. “There are many ways to build a healthy diet.”

Approximately 6% of Americans prefer a vegetarian diet, while another 3% identify as vegan.

According to Hess, there are several vitamin, mineral, and other nutritional requirements that the DGA considers when building healthy dietary patterns to recommend. “A few specific nutrients – calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and fiber – are especially important, because most Americans do not get enough of them in their diets. In fact, these nutrients are called ‘nutrients of concern’ for that reason.”

The vegan and dairy-free vegetarian diet patterns that Hess developed provide enough of those nutrients to be comparable to other DGA dietary patterns.

“The most important parts of a healthy diet really come down to foods, though – eating enough vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, protein foods, and oils while limiting added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium,” she said.

For those considering a switch from a diet that includes meat to one that is vegetarian/vegan, the DGA provides many nutritious options. According to Hess, the DGA’s vegetarian dietary pattern varies the amount of beans, peas, lentils, soy products, and nuts and seeds to account for the absence of meats, poultry, and seafood in the pattern. The DGA’s dairy group also contains plant-based options, including fortified soy milk and yogurt, which can be selected in place of dairy milk, cheese, and yogurt.

Hess’s study only looked at adapting the DGA’s vegetarian pattern for non-pregnant, non-lactating, generally healthy adults, but her lab is exploring whether additional adaptations of a vegetarian diet may provide enough nutrition during pregnancy and lactation, too.

“While there is always room for improvement with something as important as the DGA, it’s cool to see that our current guidelines are flexible enough to allow for a vegan or a dairy-free vegetarian diet while still providing good nutrition,” she said. – By Scott Elliott, ARS Office of Communications