Vegetarians have a lower incidence of many chronic diseases than omnivores. However, vegetarian diets could potentially result in lower intakes of some minerals, particularly Zn. In a cross-sectional study, dietary Zn intake was measured using 12 d weighed records in ninety-nine vegetarians (ten vegans) aged 18–50 years and forty-nine age- and sex-matched omnivores. In men, the mean daily Zn intake and Zn density values were similar in omnivores, ovolactovegetarians and vegans, but in women they were significantly lower in vegetarians (mean intake 6·8 mg v. 8·4 mg in omnivores) and few achieved the recommended intake. Significantly more vegetarian than omnivorous women had a daily Zn intake < 6 mg (44 % v. 13 %). Mean serum Zn concentrations were similar in female omnivores and vegetarians, despite the differences in intake. However, omnivorous men had a lower mean serum Zn concentration (0·85 μg/ml v. 0·95 μg/ml) and more subjects had levels below the reference range of 0·72–1·44 μg/ml than ovolactovegetarians (P < 0·01). Overall more women than men had low Zn concentrations; and these women generally had intakes below 6 mg/d. There was a significant correlation between serum Zn concentration and dietary Zn density in vegetarians, especially females (P < 0·001), but not in omnivores. Ovolactovegetarians did not have a significantly greater risk of low Zn status than omnivores.