I believe that many people choose a plant-based/vegan/vegetarian diet because of the surrounding glamour. A vegan lifestyle, that was pretty much marginalized before, is slowly becoming the norm. You see more and more vegan and animal friendly products on the supermarket shelves. You can get all sorts of vegan products, that were not available a couple of years ago, pretty much everywhere in Europe and the US. Some restaurants are now even proud to serve vegan food, vegan coffee and so on. It has without a doubt become much easier to be a vegan. Vegans are no longer frowned upon, they have become the new elite. When you think about a vegan person you no longer think about ‘hippies of the 60s’. No, you think about a well to do and educated person that really cares about stuff. Stuff like helping the environment, animal welfare and most importantly health.

I think it is wonderful that people decide to eat more veggies, cut on meat, and eat less junk. However, most people ‘fall’ in the diet without doing research and they tend to harm themselves and their body along the way. The big question here that many try so hard to answer is the following “Is a vegan/vegetarian diet the way to go?” In 2016 the German Nutrition Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung) came out with a position on this subject. So before you go vegan/vegetarian you should first consider the pitfalls of this diet.

What is a vegan diet actually?

By now everyone has heard the word ‘vegan’ quite often. Big companies started to cater to vegan needs like never before. You have vegan sausages, cheese, yogurts, milk, bread, etc. on the supermarket shelves. The choice is overwhelming. And it is great. Some of these products, when fortified with vitamins and minerals, can be an excellent addition to your daily diet. Now, a vegan, in essence, is someone who doesn’t eat meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. You can, therefore, have a very broad range of diverse vegan diets. One of them is a junk vegan diet. Don’t forget, a vegan can live on foods like beer, chips, and bread and not eat plants at all. So just keep in mind that when you hear the word vegan it doesn’t necessarily mean healthy.

In its paper “Vegan Diet” the German Nutrition Society (DGE) focuses mostly on a whole food vegan diet. Here are some foods you can eat while on a vegan diet: whole grains, veggies, fruits, nuts, and seeds. What you can’t eat is meat, eggs, dairy, and other animal related products. Some people even exclude honey from their diet.

Why would you want to eat like this? To be honest, it’s quite an attractive and appealing diet or lifestyle. Eating like that, some people reason, can support the environment and is ethical in comparison to a normal diet. But some people just want to improve their health and trim their waist.

According to the DGE, eating plants is healthy and beneficial. Diets based on veggies, such as vegetarian and vegan diets, supply your body with good amounts of vitamins (C, E, thiamine, folate), minerals (magnesium en potassium), dietary fiber, and phytochemicals. On top of that, this diet is low in saturated fat and cholesterol as it omits meat and animal products.

Pitfalls

So what is wrong with a vegan diet? The German Nutritional Society came to a conclusion. They concluded that eating restrictively plant based can lead to some serious deficiencies. The danger is that with time the vegan diet can become more restrictive, less varied and not that well designed to support the body’s nutritional needs. Here are some of the most important vitamins and nutrients that you may be missing on the vegan diet:

1. Vitamin B12

This is a very important vitamin to keep a close eye on. It’s produced by micro-organisms. It is mostly found in animal foods. You can find some form of vitamin b12 in plant sources such as shiitake mushrooms, sea algae, and spirulina. However, the DGE cautious that those foods should not be the primary source of this vitamin. Those foods contain fairly low levels of vitamin B12 and their bioavailability is not yet clear.

Deficiency Risk

Low levels of vitamin B12 can impair cell function and DNA synthesis. This can lead to megaloblastic anaemia or neurological disorder (i.e. diseases of the brain). Low levels of this vitamin can apparently also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Vitamin B12 is stored in the liver. The first deficiency symptoms may therefore appear after some time without you even knowing it.

DGE recommendation

To prevent vitamin B12 deficiencies the DGE recommends to:

  • take a vitamin b12 supplement;
  • consume foods that are fortified with this vitamin;
  • test your blood regularly.

2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The omega-3 fatty acids include ALA, EPA and DHA. The primary source of EPA and DHA is fish or fish oil supplements. ALA is found in plant sources such as flax-seeds, walnuts and plant oils. Your body should by itself convert ALA into EPA and DHA. The problem is that its conversion rate is limited and it is available to your body only in small amounts. You should ensure therefore that you get enough of these essential fats as they are crucial to an overall good health and well being. Taking adequate amount of omega-3 fatty acids can lower the risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia; improve eye, bone, and joint health and it can also lower blood pressure. For more information check University Health News

DGE recommendation

  • Take fish oil supplements;
  • alternative for vegans and vegetarians is micro-algae oil supplements. They contain DHA and have been approved as Novel Foods
  • eat fatty fish;
  • eat food fortified with oil from micro-algae.

3. Iron

Iron is needed to make hemoglobin. The main task of hemoglobin, which is a protein, is to help your red blood cells carry oxygen. You can find iron in various plant sources such as spinach, legumes and whole-grain cereals. However, iron from vegetarian sources is less bioavailable than iron from non-vegetarian sources, meaning that it is less available for absorption in your body. Therefore, vegans should keep an eye on this mineral.

To improve biovailability from plant sources you should eat foods that contain vitamin C when you eat plant foods that contain iron. For more information on iron deficiency symptoms check WebMD.

DGE recommendation

  • To improve biovailability from plant sources you should eat vitamin C rich foods when you eat a meal that contains iron rich foods such as spinach for instance.
  • Keep in mind that substances such as phytates and polyphenols limit the absorption of iron. You should therefore not drink tea or coffee before or after your meal.
  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding you should take iron supplements

4. Vitamin D

The sun vitamin. Whether you get enough of this vitamin depends on where you live. Vitamin D is synthesized by your skin when exposed to the sunlight (UVB). If you live in a sunny region you should be fine. But those of us who don’t get to see that much of the sun throughout the year should consider taking vitamin D supplementation. It’s very important to think about this vitamin as it helps your body to absorb calcium, thus strengthening your whole skeleton. It can also help in preventing hypertension, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis (more on WebMD)

DGE recommendation

  • Eat foods fortified with vitamin D;
  • take vitamin D supplements;
  • you can also eat mushrooms such as chanterelles;
  • expose your skin to the sunlight for at least 15 min daily;
  • eat fatty fish or eggs.

The other vitamin, nutrients and minerals mentioned in the paper, that can be lacking on a vegan diet, are:

  • riboflavin
  • protein
  • calcium
  • iodine
  • zinc
  • selenium

Although, I do not talk about them here, this does not mean that they are less important.

What is the DGE recommended diet?

The DGE argues that there is not enough evidence to conclude that a vegetarian diet (pesco, ovo-lacto vegetarians and vegan) performs any better at extending your lifespan than a high vegetable low meat diet. This is why the DGE recommends a wholesome mixed diet. Such a diet limits the intake of meat and meat products as well as fish and focuses more on high intake of veggies, whole grains and legumes. The meat and meat products are there to provide the essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

Here is what DGE recommends:

  • at least 2 portions of fruit (250g) daily
  • at least 3 portions of vegetables (400g)
  • 200-250g low fat milk and dairy products
  • 2 slices (50-60g) low fat cheese
  • 300-600g lean meat products on a weekly basis
  • 1 portion of low fat saltwater fish weekly
  • 1 portion of fatty saltwater fish weekly
  • 3 eggs weekly
  • 1 portion of whole-grain products daily (rice, noodles, pasta)
  • 1 portion (200-250g) of cooked potatoes daily.
  • 4 to 6 slices of bread daily.
  • 10 to 15g of oil (rape, walnut or soy) or 10-30g margarine or butter, daily for cooking.
  • low calorie drinks, around 1.5L daily

For detailed information you can click here.

Bottom Line

Off course you can achieve good health on a vegetarian and a vegan diet as long as you eat varied food groups and pay attention to your nutrient intake and the following points:

  • take vitamin B12 supplements
  • watch your nutrient intake
  • consume fortified foods or take supplements
  • do regular checkups
  • consult a dietitian

However the DGE does not recommend a vegan diet to the following group of people:

  • pregnant women
  • lactating women
  • infants
  • children
  • adolescents

These people are in a vulnerable phase in life where they need a lot of nutrients, minerals, and vitamins. Eexclusion of animal products may cause nutrient deficiencies and can lead to serious health problems.