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Scientist Evaluates Dietary Food Patterns for Healthy Adults Eating Dairy-Free Vegetarian or Vegan Diets

Contact: Maribel Alonso

June 13, 2022 

A scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS) assessed the current Healthy Vegetarian Dietary Pattern of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and found that it can be adapted for a dairy-free vegetarian or vegan diet while still meeting nutrient recommendations for non-pregnant and non-lactating healthy adults.

The 2020-2025 DGA edition, issued by USDA and Health and Human Services (HHS), provides recommendations on healthy dietary patterns for all healthy individuals and delivers a customizable framework of healthy options that can be adapted for affordability as well as personal or cultural preferences. Yet, it has been unclear if the Healthy Vegetarian Dietary Pattern can be adapted for an entirely plant-based diet without potential nutrition concerns.

A healthy dietary pattern is a combination of food and beverages that meet nutritional needs, promote health, and reduce the risk of chronic disease.

The study, completed by Dr. Julie Hess at the ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, followed similar food pattern modeling procedures as the DGA Scientific Advisory Committee, to model an alternate egg-free and dairy-free vegetarian and a vegan dietary pattern that meets most nutrient recommendations for healthy adults [non-pregnant and non-lactating] consuming diets containing 1800, 2000, 2200, or 2400 calories.

Fruits and vegetables Fruits and vegetables are essential parts of healthy diets for Americans in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

""In the two models, the dairy food group was replaced with dairy-free nutrient-dense options included in the 2020-2025 DGA, which are fortified soy milk and soy yogurt. Additionally, for the vegan model, eggs servings were replaced with equal proportions of vegetarian protein foods, including soy products, nuts and seeds, and beans, peas, and lentils," said Dr. Hess.

The results of this study found that amounts of many nutrients changed very little between the original Healthy Vegetarian Dietary Pattern and the vegan and dairy-free vegetarian adaptations. The vegan and dairy-free vegetarian diets had slightly more calories and slightly higher levels of some nutrients like vitamin D, vitamin B12, and choline. They provided less protein, sodium, cholesterol, phosphorus, and zinc than the original Healthy Vegetarian Dietary Pattern, though. The only nutrient that was below recommended levels in the dairy-free vegetarian and vegan diets was zinc (for adult males only).  

"The DGA is intended to provide guidance on healthy diets for all healthy Americans, including healthy adults following dairy-free vegetarian and vegan diets" said Dr. Hess.

Dr. Hess also stated that while this study does not provide evidence that a vegan dietary pattern will be nutritionally adequate for everyone, it shows that it is possible to eat a nutritionally adequate vegan dietary pattern with careful planning.

The study was recently published in The Journal of Nutrition.

The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in agricultural research results in $17 of economic impact.