Well-planned vegetarian diets are considered adequate for all stages of the life cycle, despite limited data on the zinc status of vegetarians during early childhood. The bioavailability of iron and zinc in vegetarian diets is poor because of their higher content of absorption inhibitors such as phytate and polyphenols and the absence of flesh foods. Consequently, children as well as adult vegetarians often have lower serum ferritin concentrations than omnivores, which is indicative of reduced iron stores, despite comparable intakes of total iron; hemoglobin differences are small and rarely associated with anemia. However, data on serum zinc concentrations, the recommended biomarker for identifying population groups at elevated risk of zinc deficiency, are sparse and difficult to interpret because recommended collection and analytic procedures have not always been followed. Existing data indicate no differences in serum zinc or growth between young vegetarian and omnivorous children, although there is some evidence of low serum zinc concentrations in vegetarian adolescents. Some vegetarian immigrants from underprivileged households may be predisposed to iron and zinc deficiency because of nondietary factors such as chronic inflammation, parasitic infections, overweight, and genetic hemoglobin disorders. To reduce the risk of deficiency, the content and bioavailability of iron and zinc should be enhanced in vegetarian diets by consumption of fortified cereals and milk, by consumption of leavened whole grains, by soaking dried legumes before cooking and discarding the soaking water, and by replacing tea and coffee at meals with vitamin C-rich drinks, fruit, or vegetables. Additional recommended practices include using fermented soy foods and sprouting at least some of the legumes consumed. Fortified foods can reduce iron deficiency, but whether they can also reduce zinc deficiency is less certain. Supplements may be necessary for vegetarian children following very restricted vegan diets.
© 2014 American Society for Nutrition.