A lot of people have been misled into believing that vegan or vegetarian diets are optimal for their health and mental performance, while in reality this is far from the truth.
Although some people may thrive on a vegan or plant-based diet, it should be noted that it is considered an extreme diet due to the types of foods it excludes, as well as the potential for nutritional deficiencies.
Please note, my intent is not to discredit any of the benefits that can result from eating more plant foods, but to provide cautionary evidence of what can happen if a vegan diet is taken too far and warning signs are ignored.
1. Lower Quality Protein
It’s much harder to get sufficient protein from a vegan diet. This is true for vegetarians as well, but only to a lesser extent.
Steak or fish contain 20-30 grams of protein per 100 grams of product. The main protein sources for vegans – vegetables, beans, soy, tempeh, and rice – contain only 5-20 grams of protein per 100 grams of product.
Inadequate protein consumption leads to protein deficiency. This leads to edema, fatty liver, hair, skin and nail issues, poor recovery and growth, weakened immune system and loss of muscle and bone density.
Whilst there are high protein sources for vegans, such as hemp protein powder, that you can use to increase your protein intake, they contain large amounts of unstable polyunsaturated fatty acids. That PUFA content only becomes higher in other hemp products, such as hemp seeds. Hemp is not a great option to meet protein requirements given the dangers of PUFA overconsumption.
It is not impossible to get your daily need for protein through a vegan diet—rather it iis significantly more challenging when trying to get your daily protein needs met exclusively through plant food consumption.
2. Legume protein sources can increase risk of leaky gut
Since a vegan diet excludes all forms of animal protein including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, people following a vegan diet often turn to legumes as a plant-based protein source. Legumes have high levels of antinutrients including lectins and phytates, both of which can increase intestinal permeability, also called leaky gut.
3. Soy protein sources can cause hormone disruptions, including estrogen and thyroid hormone
Soy protein is another option those following plant based diets use. While unprocessed forms of soy may be okay for some people, processed forms of soy are commonly found in a vegan diet, including tofu, soy milk, and soy-based processed foods sold as meat substitutes.
Processed soy foods are no better for human health than any other highly-processed foods, but with the added risk of hormone interference due to phytoestrogens found in all forms of soy.
4. Risk of anemia due to a lack of heme iron
Iron-deficient anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, and both vegans and vegetarians are at higher risk of this condition. While plant foods contain a form of iron, it is called non-heme iron and it is much less absorbable by the body. Iron-deficient anemia can lead to serious symptoms including fatigue, and women of child-bearing age should be aware of how a vegan or vegetarian diet can quickly lead to anemia.
While iron supplements can be taken to help reverse or prevent anemia, most women dislike taking iron supplements because of negative side effects. The simple solution is to consume heme-based iron from high quality, humanely raised, pastured red meat sources.
5. Increased risk of depression with low omega-3 fatty acid intake
Without a food source of omega-3 fatty acids from fish or fish oils and an increased consumption of omega-6 fatty acid from foods like nuts, vegans might be at higher risk from depression.
Algae-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids are an option, but they can be expensive and hard to find. Furthermore, since many vegan diets may include a higher than average intake of nuts, the balance of fatty acids in the body can still get off-balance.
6. Risk of Vitamin B12 deficiency
Since vitamin B12 is only available in animal foods, vegans are at a much higher risk of developing a deficiency in this vital nutrient. In fact, most nutrition professionals agree that those on a vegan or vegetarian diet must supplement with a high-quality vitamin B12 supplement to avoid irreversible health conditions that can result from deficiency.
It should also be noted that many people have a genetic variation known as MTHFR that can impact how B vitamins are absorbed. In this case, even certain B vitamin supplementation might not be enough to prevent a deficiency.
6. Inhibition of zinc absorption on vegan and vegetarian diets
Similar to vitamin B12, vegan and vegetarian diets can result in low zinc status. It is theorized that the problem in this case is that higher consumption of plant foods containing phytic acid may inhibit the ability of the body to absorb zinc.
It is often recommended by nutrition professionals that vegans and vegetarians should increase their intake of zinc up to 50% of the recommended daily allowance to ensure adequate levels.
7. Risk of consuming too much carbohydrate
Vegan diets are generally lower in protein and can cause blood sugar swings in certain individuals. There is also the risk of over-consuming carbohydrates on a vegan diet, especially since legumes are often consumed as a protein source.
Over-consuming carbohydrates can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, blood sugar disregulation, and other troublesome symptoms. Eating a diet that includes moderate to higher levels of protein has been shown to have a positive effect on satiety and weight management.
I am aware that many vegans and even vegetarians choose to eat this way to minimise harming animals. I appreciate this concern, but please note that you can still source animal products from well loved and properly cared animals.
Not Going To Change? Supplement
If you don’t want to change your diet choices, but you do want to boost your health and cognitive function, then I highly recommend supplementing the vitamins and minerals you are missing out on.
Functional Nutrition Coach, Beautycounter Consultant
p:403-869-9679 | e:[email protected] |