BACKGROUND:Epidemiological studies indicate that a well balanced vegetarian diet offers several health benefits including a lower prevalence of prosperity diseases in vegetarians compared to omnivores. It was the purpose of the present study to compare nutritional and physical characteristics in matched samples of institutionalized vegetarian (V) and non-vegetarian (NV) elderly. METHODS:Twenty-two female and 7 male V (females: 84.1 ± 5.1yrs, males: 80.5 ± 7.5yrs) and 23 female and 7 male NV (females: 84.3 ± 5.0yrs, males: 80.6 ± 7.3yrs) participated. All subjects were over 65 years of age, and free of major disease or physical handicap. Dietary intake, blood profile, anthropometrics, and handgrip strength were determined. RESULTS:Mean daily energy intake was 6.8 ± 2.0MJ in V females, and 8.0 ± 1.4MJ in the NV females, only the V did not reach the recommended value of 7.8 MJ. Male V and NV had a mean daily energy intake of 8.7 ± 1.6MJ and 8.7 ± 1.2MJ respectively (RDI: 8.8 MJ). Mean carbohydrate intake was significantly below the RDI in NV only (female V: 47.8 ± 7.5E%, female NV: 43.3 ± 4.6E%, male V: 48.1 ± 6.4E%, male NV: 42.3 ± 3.6E%), while protein (female V: 17.3 ± 3.4E%, female NV: 19.5 ± 3.5E%, male V: 17.8 ± 3.4E%, male NV: 21.0 ± 2.0E%), and saturated fat intake (female V: 25.4 ± 8.2 g/day, female NV: 32.2 ± 6.9 g/day, male V: 31.4 ± 12.9 g/day, male NV: 33.4 ± 4.7 g/day) were too high in both V and NV. Mean micronutrient intakes met the RDI's in all 4 groups. Mean blood concentrations for vitamin B12, folic acid, iron, and calcium were normal in all 4 groups. Mean zinc blood serum was below the reference value in all groups, whereas estimated zinc intake was in agreement with the RDI. The mean blood cholesterol concentration was above the 200 mg/dl upper limit in the V group (213 ± 40 mg/dl) and below that limit in the NV (188 ± 33 mg/dl) group. Mean BMI was 26.1 ± 4.7 kg/m2 in the female V, 26.8 ± 3.7 kg/m2 in the female NV, 23.5 ± 3.7 kg/m2 in the male V, and 25.2 ± 4.2 kg/m2 in the male NV. V and NV scored below the reference values for the handgrip strength test. CONCLUSIONS: Generally, our results show a similar profile for V and NV concerning dietary intake, blood values, and physical characteristics. Attention should be paid to the intake of mono- and disaccharides and saturated fats in the diet of both V and NV. This study indicates that a vegetarian lifestyle has no negative impact on the health status at older age.