Plasma, Urine, and Adipose Tissue Biomarkers of Dietary Intake Differ Between Vegetarian and Non-Vegetarian Diet Groups in the Adventist Health Study-2

J Nutr. 2019 Apr 1;149(4):667-675. doi: 10.1093/jn/nxy292.


Background: Differences in food composition, nutrient intake, and various health outcomes have been reported for vegetarians and non-vegetarians in the Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2) cohort.

Objective: We sought to determine whether biomarkers of dietary intake also differed between individuals classified as vegetarian (vegan, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian) and non-vegetarians based on patterns of consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs.

Methods: Fasting plasma, overnight urine, and adipose tissue samples were collected from a representative subset of AHS-2 participants classified into 5 diet groups (vegan, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, non-vegetarian) who also completed food-frequency questionnaires. Diet-related biomarkers including carotenoids, isoflavones, enterolactone, saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and vitamins were analyzed in 840 male and female participants. Multiple linear regression was used to examine the association between diet pattern and biomarker abundance, comparing each of 4 vegetarian dietary groups to non-vegetarians, and adjusted mean values were calculated. Bonferroni correction was applied to control for multiple testing.

Results: Vegans had higher plasma total carotenoid concentrations (1.6-fold, P < 0.0001), and higher excretion of urinary isoflavones (6-fold, P < 0.0001) and enterolactone (4.4-fold) compared with non-vegetarians. Vegans had lower relative abundance of saturated fatty acids including myristic, pentadecanoic, palmitic, and stearic acids (P < 0.0001). Vegans had higher linoleic acid (18:2ω-6) relative to non-vegetarians (23.3% compared with 19.1%) (P < 0.0001), and a higher proportion of total ω-3 fatty acids (2.1% compared with 1.6%) (P < 0.0001). Results overall were similar but less robust for lacto-ovo- and pesco-vegetarians. 1-Methylhistidine was 92% lower in vegans, and lower in lacto-ovo- and pesco-vegetarians by 90% and 80%, respectively, relative to non-vegetarians (P < 0.0001).

Conclusion: AHS-2 participants following vegan, and lacto-ovo- or pesco-vegetarian diet patterns have significant differences in plasma, urine, and adipose tissue biomarkers associated with dietary intakes compared with those who consume a non-vegetarian diet. These findings provide some validation for the prior classification of dietary groups within the AHS-2 cohort.

Keywords: Adventist Health Study-2 cohort; biomarkers; diet patterns; linear regression; phytochemicals; vegetarians.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / chemistry*
  • Adipose Tissue / metabolism
  • Aged
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Biomarkers / urine
  • Cohort Studies
  • Diet*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Style
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Vegetarians*


  • Biomarkers