The present study examines the prevalence and characteristics of vegetarians in the Taiwanese elderly. We analysed data from the Elderly Nutrition and Health Survey in Taiwan (1999–2000), which used a multi-staged, stratified, clustered probability sampling design. Community-dwelling elderly (n 1071), aged 65 years and older, were included. Sociodemographic, anthropometric, lifestyle and metabolic variables, and eating habits were obtained through household interviews and health examinations. Nutrient intake was assessed using a 24 h dietary recall. Multivariable logistic regression analysis was performed to examine factors significantly and independently associated with vegetarian status and to estimate the OR of the hypertension and the metabolic syndrome (MS) for vegetarians compared with omnivores. About 25 % of the Taiwanese elderly persons were vegetarians. Systolic pressure (OR 1·01, 95 % CI 1, 1·02, P = 0·038), female sex (OR 5·02, 95 % CI 3·11, 8·1, P < 0·001), smoking status (P = 0·034; current smoker (OR 0·45, 95 % CI 0·24, 0·85, P = 0·014)) and regular exercise (OR 1·87, 95 % CI 1·37, 2·56, P < 0·001) were independently associated with vegetarian status among Taiwanese elderly persons. Vegetarians consumed significantly lower daily total energy (P < 0·001), lower cholesterol (P = 0·002), a higher percentage of fat as PUFA (P = 0·022), higher Ca (P < 0·001) and higher crude fibres (P = 0·041) compared with omnivores. Between the two vegetarian diets, ovo- or lacto-vegetarian diets contained more beneficial micronutrients, such as K, Ca and Mg, and higher crude fibres than vegan diets (all P < 0·05). The likelihood of having hypertension and the MS was not significantly different between vegetarians and omnivores as examined by sex- or multivariate-adjusted logistic regression.