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Vegetarian and Vegan Senior Nutrition Guide

Published: September 3, 2022
Reviewed by: Deidre Sommerer, LPN, MS, CMC, CDP


As seniors age, the need for calories decreases but that doesn’t mean that the need for a well-balanced diet that’s full of nutrients and rich in vital minerals and vitamins isn’t important. Many American seniors struggle to consume the right amount of calories, as well as the right balance of nutrients, and for those who follow strict vegetarian and vegan diets, that challenge is even greater.

In this guide, seniors and their caregivers can access important nutritional guidance that pertains exclusively to vegetarians and vegans. It includes information about the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism, as well as particular challenges and obstacles that seniors following this type of diet commonly face. Furthermore, this guide includes resources that may help seniors access healthy vegetarian and vegan foods when access is limited.

Health Benefits of Following a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet

There are many potential benefits of following a vegan or vegetarian diet, many of which are likely to appeal to older adults and senior citizens. While research on the subject is limited, people who follow vegetarian or vegan diets often report an increase in energy and cognitive function. Furthermore, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has published research suggesting that such a diet may lead to better sleep, better immune function and a decreased risk of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

In the table below, these potential benefits are further explained:

Benefit How a Vegan/Vegetarian Diet Helps
Increased energy Because carbohydrates don’t take as long to digest as protein, vegans and vegetarians typically burn fewer calories while digesting their meals, resulting in a higher level of energy throughout the day.
Healthier skin Vitamins and minerals that are commonly found in plant-based foods, including vitamin E and vitamin C, as well as other bioactive compounds like beta carotene and phenolic acids, can contribute to a healthier appearance, helping to make skin glow and reducing blemishes.
Lower stress Some studies have suggested that a vegetarian diet may contribute to a healthier, happier mood thanks to long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
Improved immunity Biomarkers studied by several researchers suggest that vegetarian or vegan diets may reduce inflammation, which can result in improved immunity.
Improved cognitive function Inflammation has been linked with cognitive impairment and because plant-based diets tend to reduce inflammation, researchers and doctors have begun studying the effect of vegetarianism on cognitive function. While these studies are limited, results thus far suggest that a plant-based diet may be beneficial for seniors struggling with cognitive impairment.
Improved sleep and mood Vegetarian and vegan diets may help seniors to increase their serotonin production, as well as regulate melatonin levels, resulting in improved sleep and mood.
Decreased risk of disease As mentioned earlier, studies have shown that veganism and vegetarianism are thought to decrease the risk of chronic illnesses including cancer, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease.

Challenges of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets and Solutions

While the benefits of a vegan or vegetarian diet are plentiful, there are downsides to eliminating meat and/or other animal byproducts entirely. Most notably, these include limited access to a variety of plant-based foods, as well as issues with nutrient deficiencies.

The challenges that seniors most frequently face when following vegetarian or vegan diets are outlined below.

Access to Food Options

Although grocery chains and restaurants are becoming more mindful of customers who consume plant-based foods exclusively, access to animal-free foods can be limited, especially for seniors who live in remote areas. This same issue is common among seniors who live in continuing care homes such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as those who choose to dine with family members either at home or in restaurants.

Unfortunately, the lack of options can often result in seniors resorting to eating dinners without sufficient protein, which is a vital part of a balanced diet.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Meat often contains important nutrients, including protein, which is responsible for building and maintaining lean muscle, as well as iron and vitamin B12. Without ample protein in a senior’s diet, they may face issues with strength, metabolism and energy levels. Thankfully, the inclusion of plant-based protein in one’s diet can combat these barriers to optimal health in vegan and vegetarian seniors.

Overcoming Nutritional Challenges

While the challenges of following a vegan or vegetarian diet can feel overwhelming for seniors, particularly when it comes to trying to socialize with friends and family who don’t follow the same diet, there are ways to overcome them.

Seniors who are entering long-term care should consider discussing their dietary restrictions with homes prior to signing any contract or moving into a new facility. Many long-term care homes offer various plant-based options for residents, with some providing multiple choices at every meal. Some communities may provide more options than others, so it’s worth doing your research.

Additionally, including a broad range of high-protein foods, like beans and legumes, plant-based meat alternatives and tofu, can help seniors avoid health problems and nutrient deficiencies related to their diet.

Getting Started on a Plant-Based Diet

Seniors who may be interested in switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet may find the potential health benefits of doing so appealing. Others may consider switching their diet to align with their own beliefs and morals. Regardless of the reason, there are some steps that should be followed prior to making any dramatic changes to one’s diet.

  • Talk to your healthcare provider: Dietary changes can be difficult on the digestive system and on the body in general. That’s why it’s important to consult a physician or another healthcare provider who can provide guidance and oversee the change.
  • Meet with a registered dietician: A dietician can help new vegans and vegetarians develop meal plans that include adequate protein, vitamins and minerals.
  • Go slowly: Because of the stress the digestive system is likely to go through when undergoing a major dietary change, it’s important to take it slow. A gradual transition to eating less and less meat until it’s completely eliminated and eating more and more plant-based foods might work better for some seniors than becoming vegetarian or vegan in one day or week.
  • Explore a variety of plant-based options: Plant-based proteins have been improved dramatically in recent years. Seniors should take time to try different brands of meat substitutes until they find something they like.
  • Take supplements daily: Daily supplements, especially calcium, vitamin D, iron and vitamin B12 can help seniors maintain optimal health, especially when these elements are missing from their daily diet. Always check with your doctor before taking supplements, however, to make sure they won’t interfere with medications you’re taking.

Special Considerations for Seniors Living With Health Conditions

Many seniors are living with health conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, cancer and mobility issues. These barriers can make it more challenging to access the necessary foods to follow a balanced diet, especially when meat and/or animal byproducts aren’t on the menu.

Diabetes

Seniors living with diabetes should be careful to stick to foods and vegetables that are lower in carbohydrates. By following the glycemic index, seniors can more easily maintain a healthy blood sugar level and avoid sudden spells of extreme hunger.

It’s also beneficial for diabetics to include plenty of leafy greens, legumes and whole grains, which can also help regulate blood sugar levels.

Renal Disease

According to the Kidney Foundation, a vegetarian or vegan diet can actually be beneficial to those with renal disease. That’s because meat can be difficult for the kidneys to process. Of course, a healthy lifestyle is a vital part of living with renal disease. That diet should include a variety of plant-based proteins, low-sodium foods and a balance of sodium, potassium and phosphorus.

Cancer

Because cancer can attack nearly any part of the body, the diet a senior with cancer should follow can vary dramatically. Any person diagnosed with cancer should discuss their diet with their oncologist or primary care provider to ensure that it’s appropriate for their unique condition.

Mobility Issues

Seniors with mobility problems, particularly those who are homebound, may struggle to access the foods they need to stay healthy. In most cases, Meals on Wheels and other organizations can make special accommodations for housebound seniors with special diets, including vegan or vegetarian diets.

Vegetarian and Vegan Options in Senior Living Communities Across the United States

Dietary options can vary depending on the community seniors live in. There are several located throughout the United States that are known for providing customized diets for seniors who are vegan, vegetarian or otherwise limited in what they’re able to eat.

It’s important for seniors to discuss their dietary limitations with their care coordinator upon admission, or prior to signing a contract with a new assisted living facility or nursing care community, as some facilities may not provide vegan or vegetarian options as part of their daily meal plan.

Some of the best communities making this option available are listed in the table below.

Community  Website  Food Philosophy
Brookdale Senior Living brookdale.com Brookdale Senior Living is a chain that provides seniors with a continuum of care that includes independent living, assisted living, memory care and nursing homes at various facilities across the United States. These communities vary in amenities but typically provide seniors with three daily meals that include customized meal planning.
Atria Senior Living atriaseniorliving.com Atria Senior Living serves seniors in 45 states, providing independent living, assisted living and memory care services. The community provides its residents with specialized diets, including vegan and vegetarian diets.
Five Star Senior Living fivestarseniorliving.com Seniors across the United States rely on Five Star Senior Living to provide care ranging from independent living and Alzheimer’s care to assisted living and nursing care. Menus are customized to match seniors’ unique tastes, prescribed diets and restrictions such as veganism or vegetarianism.
Sunrise Senior Living sunriseseniorliving.com Sunrise Senior Living operates more than 270 assisted living facilities across North America, providing memory care and personal care services for seniors with cognitive impairment, mobility issues and dementia. Its care team provides custom meal plans, accommodating a range of special diets including vegan and vegetarian diets.
Cogir Senior Living cogirseniorliving.com Cogir Senior Living is a smaller chain of communities that provides assisted living and nursing home care for seniors in neighborhoods across the west coast. It’s known for accommodating a variety of special diets, as well as on-site snack bars and restaurants.
Watermark Retirement Communities watermarkcommunities.com Watermark Retirement Communities provide independent living and assisted living services for seniors at locations throughout 21 U.S. states. The company provides its residents with an array of dining options, including restaurant-style vegan and vegetarian cuisine for those who request it.
Vi Living viliving.com Vi Living is a continuing care chain that provides seniors with various levels of care in its 10 communities, which are located throughout the U.S. The chain is known for luxury living, providing seniors with lavish restaurant-style meals that are customized to suit residents’ tastes and dietary restrictions.
Beehive Homes beehivehomes.com Beehive Homes provides assisted living and memory care for seniors at locations throughout the United States. Its culinary team is dedicated to meeting the unique needs and tastes of every resident, providing options that include vegan and vegetarian meals. Unlimited snacks and beverages are part of the amenities.
Erickson Senior Living ericksonseniorliving.com Erickson Senior Living serves seniors in 11 states, providing campus-style retirement living for those requiring assisted living, memory care or skilled nursing care. Independent living is also available at each of the chain’s 20 communities. Erickson provides three daily meals to its residents, accommodating special dietary needs and ensuring variety for those following vegan or vegetarian diets.

State Resources to Help Seniors Access Nutritious Foods

Seniors who struggle to access fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods can access various government-funded and nonprofit organizations that help to provide nutritious foods, free of charge. Find your state below to learn more about the options available in your area.

Alabama Indiana Nebraska Rhode Island
Alaska Iowa Nevada South Carolina
Arizona Kansas New Hampshire South Dakota
Arkansas Kentucky New Jersey Tennessee
California Louisiana New Mexico Texas
Colorado Maine New York Utah
Connecticut Maryland North Carolina Vermont
Delaware Massachusetts North Dakota Virginia
Florida Michigan Ohio Washington
Georgia Minnesota Oklahoma West Virginia
Hawaii Mississippi Oregon Wisconsin
Idaho Missouri Pennsylvania Wyoming
Illinois Montana

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