Becoming a vegan seems to be one of the latest trends and receives a lot of attention from bloggers, fitness gurus, and of course the nutrition industry. While there are tremendous benefits to increasing vegetable and fruit intake while decreasing meat consumption, there are specific drawbacks to consider before you go vegan. If someone isn’t careful, they could do a lot of damage by creating unnecessary nutrient deficiencies. If you’re going to be vegan, make sure to take time to educate yourself and take precautions to avoid any unintended health consequences.
Studies have shown that vegetarians have lower rates of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, but there is no difference in the mortality rate amongst vegetarians and nonvegetarians. One of the primary drawbacks many vegans encounter are nutrient deficiencies. Here are some of the common deficiencies the vegans (and vegetarians) have:
- B12 – 83% of vegans are deficient in B12. Common signs include fatigue, cognitive dysfunction (memory), anemia, neurological and psychiatric problems. Vitamin B12 deficiency has been known to look like dementia or even psychosis. The only natural source of B12 is in animal protein, so it is vital for vegans to supplement B12.
- Vitamin D – This fat-soluble vitamin is 58% lower in vegetarians and 74% lower in vegans. Vitamin D is also necessary for calcium absorption which is already compromised for vegans.
- Omega 3’s –Vegans consume a lot of Omega 6 fatty acids which can be inflammatory, but do not consume and absorb enough Omega 3’s which are anti-inflammatory. People need a healthy ratio of Omega 6’s to Omega 3’s and vegans tend to be over in Omega 6’s. Primary sources are found in fish (such as salmon), other sources include nuts and seeds, but the omegas are not as readily available.
- EPA + DHA – Being deficient in Omega 3’s also means deficiencies in the Omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are both critical for growth and development, especially in children. DHA is also found in cell membranes, especially those protecting the eyes and brain. In addition, EPA and DHA are necessary for a lot of processes in the body that help with preventing or treating diseases. The body has a hard time converting omega 3’s from plant food sources into EPA & DHA. Vegans have 50% lower EPA and nearly 60% lower DHA than omnivores. Also, the conversion of Omega 3’s into DHA relies on the availability of zinc, iron, and pyridoxine which is also limited for vegans.
- Calcium – Absorption of calcium is decreased due to increases in oxalates and phytates which are anti-nutrients, they block nutrients from being absorbed (see more about these anti-nutrients below). Oxalates and phytates are commonly found in legumes, grains, nuts and seeds which are vegans main sources of protein. So even though dark leafy greens and legumes are high in calcium, the oxalate and phytate disrupt the absorption of key nutrients such as calcium.
- Zinc – Phytates are anti-nutrients that are found especially in legumes, some grains, and nuts. They interfere with the absorption of zinc. Vegans and vegetarians need to consume 50% MORE iron than omnivores to get the recommended amount.
- Iron – Vegan and vegetarian diets reduce non-heme iron absorption by 70% and total iron absorption by 85%. This is another key nutrient that is critical for several functions in the body and is found in highest levels in shellfish and red meat.
- Vitamin A – Another fat-soluble vitamin that doesn’t exist in plant foods. Beta-carotene which is the precursor to retinol (active vitamin A) is available in plants but the conversion is not effective. The amount of plants that a vegan would need to consume in order to have the recommended dosage is unrealistic. A single serving of liver per week covers the recommended dosage of vitamin A.
From a nutritional stand point, vegans need to make sure that they supplement properly to avoid any nutrient deficiencies and associated health consequences. We are not against eating a vegan diet – it’s phenomenal for your health to a plant-based diets with an abundance of nutritious vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. There are so many benefits to a plant-based diet, but when you cut out meat completely as a vegan there are vital nutrients that need special attention.
In addition to some of the nutrient deficiencies, there are also considerations to bare in mind when deciding to follow a vegan lifestyle. Considering veganism has become a major trend, many companies are quick to label their products “vegan” as promotional strategies. However, just because food is labeled with “vegan” doesn’t mean it’s the best option for your health. Highly processed foods like potato chips, sugar laden dairy free ice creams, and the infamous vegan Oreo’s are not the best food options for optimal health. The food industry is taking full advantage of capitalizing on veganism by creating vegan bars, protein powders, shakes, dinners, and snacks. While many of these may look like great options, if you examine the label closer you will see sub-optimal ingredients being used. Soy, corn, unhealthy oils (safflower oil, palm oil, canola oil), and cane sugar are many of the common ingredients in these products. All these ingredients are associated with major health concerns such as hormonal imbalances, heart disease, and increased rates of diabetes. Don’t let advertising fool you when buying these packaged items! Be cautious and review labels to avoid any detrimental ingredients.
While grains and legumes have numerous health benefits such as being high in protein, fiber, and other minerals such as folate, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium; they also contain anti-nutrients such as phytic acid (those phytates discussed earlier) that interferes with the absorption of various nutrients. Grains and legumes also contain lectin that can damage the gastrointestinal track in some individuals which creates an inflammatory response and leads to leaky gut. Soaking or sprouting grains and legumes is a great way to breakdown phytic acid and remove the lectins, restoring all the bountiful health benefits of these foods and aiding in absorption.
Whether you’re vegan or wanting to be vegan to lose weight, eat healthier, or save the planet, deciding to be vegan is an individual choice. We also want to reassure you that you don’t HAVE to become a vegan. Eating a plant-based diet, meaning MOSTLY foods derived from vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes and fruits, is a terrific choice for everyone and research has shown a reduction in several chronic diseases for those who choose to follow this type of diet. A plant-based diet tends to include a minimal amount of high quality animal products which differentiates it from veganism. Animal protein should be viewed more as a side to vegetables instead of the main dish. Regardless if you choose to include animal products or not, focusing on increasing fiber rich grains, nuts and seeds, vegetables and fruits will regulate and stabilize blood sugar which is critical for health (including weight loss).
Choosing a way of eating isn’t a one-size fits all approach; it all depends on the motivation behind the decision and what will work best for your individual needs. It is always essential to be cautious of the changes you decide to implement and learn how to prevent any pitfalls. Whether you’re vegan or wondering if veganism is right for you, we’re here to support you!
Let us be your resource on your individualized health journey to discovery the way of eating that will lead you towards success. Schedule a complimentary Healthy Veganism Breakthrough Session here!
If you decide not to be vegan know that environmentally speaking, conventional livestock farms and slaughterhouses are harmful for the environment, releasing greenhouse gases and air pollutants, wasting water, and contaminating agriculture with toxic water. However, buying local, organic, and grass-fed meats, poultry, and eggs are quite beneficial for the environment, economy, and YOU! Choosing high quality animal proteins means there aren’t added hormones and antibiotics, they’re high in Omega 3’s, and rich in other nutrients and minerals. While these proteins will cost more per pound, they save thousands in other costs all while supporting and helping to sustain the local economy. If you think about it, buying local chicken or beef is more environmentally friendly (and more nutrient dense) than shipping avocados from Kenya, Australia, and Mexico (we still love our avocados though).
Just some food for thought!