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Vegetarians Can Get Enough Zinc and Other Minerals From Food Alone

By Judy McBride
March 25, 1998

Vegetarians who include milk and eggs in their diets can meet their zinc requirements by eating plenty of whole grains and legumes such as beans and peas, according to an Agricultural Research Service scientist.

Among its many functions, zinc helps the body guard against infections and repair wounds. Meat is a major source of zinc in the United States. Vegetarian diets typically contain 10 to 30 percent less zinc than nonvegetarian diets. They also contain a lot of fiber and phytate, which tend to reduce mineral absorption.

Nearly 2 million people in the U.S. are lacto-ovo vegetarians, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. Lacto-ovo vegetarians consume milk and eggs but no meat, poultry or fish.

ARS nutritionist Janet R. Hunt assessed zinc status of a group of women who were fed just such a vegetarian diet. She also assessed their iron status, because the body absorbs iron much more readily from animal foods than from plant foods.

Twenty-one women consumed the lacto-ovo diet and a typical U.S. diet for 8 weeks each while living at the Human Nutrition Research Center in Grand Forks, N.D. The women showed very little difference in balance measurements--that's absorption minus excretion--between the two diets for zinc and several other minerals.

The vegetarian diet supplied 14 percent less zinc despite efforts to include high-zinc foods. And the women absorbed 21 percent less zinc from the vegetarian diet, putting the absorption deficit at 35 percent. But they absorbed enough to replace what they excreted, and their health remained good.

The women absorbed 70 percent less iron while eating the vegetarian diet, but they showed no signs of iron-poor blood.

Research at the Grand Forks center got back in full swing late last year after a devastating flood last April closed the center and damaged most of the city.

Details of the study are in a story in the March issue of ARS' Agricultural Research magazine. The story is also on the World Wide Web at:


Scientific contact: Janet R. Hunt, ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, Grand Forks, ND, 58202-9034, phone (701) 795-8328, fax (701) 795-8393, email

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