Vegan diets are on the rise. In Britain alone, 600,000 people class themselves as vegan, constituting 1.16% of the population. Whether it’s due to ethical or environment concerns, or even the health benefits of switching to a plant-based diet, veganism is well and truly on the march.
Although there are many advantages to reducing one’s meat intake, there are also – it has to be said – some drawbacks. Specifically as far as nutrition is concerned. To put it bluntly, a plant-based diet almost always results in some sort of dietary deficiency.
Of course, there are steps vegans can take to mitigate the risk of missing out on critical nutrients. In this article, we’ll consider the most important ones.
Although many still labour under the misapprehension that fat should be reduced at all costs, fat is a hugely valuable nutrient. Thankfully, more people seem to be coming to this realisation, spurred by the success of LCHF diets like Keto.
One of the largest studies on dietary fat to date concluded that eating more fat of all kinds reduced mortality by 23%, while also reducing the risk of stroke by 18%.
Proper sources of dietary fat (i.e. unprocessed) can help you lower cholesterol, improve brain function and even lose weight.
Now, although there are some excellent sources of meat-free fat – avocados, olive oil, nuts, coconut oil – vegans miss out on those found in fish, meat and eggs.
This was underlined recently by nutritionist Max Lugavere, who suggested vegans were at a higher risk of dementia due to insufficient brain-protective fat from eggs and meat.
Omega-3 is a great example of a brain-healthy fat vegans struggle to obtain. Sure, they can get Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA) from nuts, but the most valuable omegas – Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) – are found exclusively fish.
DHA is especially beneficial for brain health: believe it or not, DHA is the most abundant omega-3 in the brain, which is two-thirds fat. Among other things, DHA insulates brain circuits and maintains the integrity of the blood-brain barrier.
Iodine isn’t a nutrient only vegans are deficient in: on the contrary, many people fail to hit their RDA of the trace mineral, which is present mostly in foods such as fish and dairy.
The body needs iodine to make thyroid hormones, which regulate our metabolism. It’s also beneficial for bone and brain development during pregnancy and infancy.
Young women are especially at risk of iodine deficiency, with 70% found to be deficient in a 2011 study of 737 teenagers.
Iodine deficiency is a known cause of mental developmental problems in youngsters and can also impair fertility.
Recommended options for vegans include iodised salt, iodine-fortified nut milk and kelp. Supplementation should also be considered.
3. Vitamin D
Providing they spend enough time in the sun, vegans don’t have to worry about developing a vitamin D deficiency. Mother Nature is the best source, so getting out and about – while taking care not to burn – is the best solution.
Of course, we cannot always count on the sun. So what about diet? Unfortunately, food can only provide so much. And the best sources – offal, liver, fatty fish, milk and cheese – are off the menu for vegans anyway.
While Public Health England recommends people take supplements during autumn and winter, this too can be a problem for vegans – because many supplements are made from lanolin, extracted from sheep’s-wool.
Lactose is also often used as a bulking agent for certain tablet-based supplements.
There are two types of iron – heme iron, exclusively available from animal products like red meat and organ meat, and non-heme iron, which can be found in plants like kale and lentils. Guess which one’s more absorbable? You got it: it’s the animal iron.
That said, focusing on eating iron-rich vegetables and iron-fortified foods such as some plant milks and cereals can help you meet your recommended intake.
If you’re in any doubt as to your levels, you can speak to your practitioner about determining your hemoglobin and ferritin levels.
It’s also a good idea to eat plenty of vitamin C, as this nutrient dramatically increases the body’s absorption of non-heme iron.
Dietary iron has many functions, including manufacturing red blood cells which transport oxygen throughout the body.
Related: Iron in the Vegan Diet
5. Vitamin B12
According to a new survey conducted by The Hospital Group, almost a third of Britons are vitamin B12 deficient. Vegans in particular should be concerned, since meat is by far the most naturally-rich B12 food available.
In fact, The Vegan Society concedes that “the only reliable vegan sources of B12 are foods fortified with B12 (including some plant milks, some soy products and some breakfast cereals) and B12 supplements.”
A water-soluble vitamin, B12 helps maintain the body’s nerve and blood cells while contributing to healthy energy metabolism. It’s also vital for brain and nervous system functioning, the immune system and the process of cell division.
It is only natural that a diet which excludes animals and dairy results in some sort of dietary shortfall. The important thing is to know what you are missing out on, and take steps to ensure you meet your RDA.
Of course, this is not to say that those who eat meat, fish and dairy get all the nutrients they need. If we learned everything from the 2019 National Diet and Nutrition Survey, it’s that we can all do better: not only did most participants fail to meet the five-a-day recommendation, there was a downward trend in the intake of vitamin A, folate, iron, iodine and magnesium.
Eating a varied, balanced diet and supplementing where necessary is the best way forward, whether you eat meat or not.
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In Britain alone, 600,000 people class themselves as vegan, constituting 1.16% of the population.