Background: Interest in vegetarian diets is growing in Italy and elsewhere, as government agencies and health/nutrition organizations are emphasizing that regular consumption of plant foods may provide health benefits and help prevent certain diseases.
Methods and results: We conducted a Pubmed search, up to September, 2015, for studies on key nutrients (proteins, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and n-3 fatty acids) in vegetarian diets. From 295 eligible publications the following emerged: Vegetarians should be encouraged to supplement their diets with a reliable source of vitamin B12 (vitamin-fortified foods or supplements). Since the plant protein digestibility is lower than that of animal proteins it may be appropriate for vegetarians to consume more proteins than recommended for the general population. Vegetarians should also be encouraged to habitually consume good sources of calcium, iron and zinc - particularly vegetables that are low in oxalate and phytate (e.g. Brassicaceae), nuts and seeds, and calcium-rich mineral water. Calcium, iron, and zinc bioavailability can be improved by soaking, germination, and sour-dough leavening that lower the phytate content of pulses and cereals. Vegetarians can ensure good n-3 fatty acid status by habitually consuming good sources of a-linolenic acid (walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and their oils) and limiting linoleic acid intake (corn and sunflower oils).
Conclusions: Well-planned vegetarian diets that include a wide variety of plant foods, and a reliable source of vitamin B12, provide adequate nutrient intake. Government agencies and health/nutrition organizations should provide more educational resources to help Italians consume nutritionally adequate vegetarian diets.
Keywords: Bioavailability; Nutritional status; Vegan diet; Vegetarian diet.
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