Is Veganism actually healthier?

Veganuary is in full swing.

This year, 6% of people in the UK will attempt to avoid meat and resist dairy for one whole month.

It is thought more than half will adopt their new, fashionable lifestyle on a more permanent basis, continuing to abstain from an animal-based diet beyond January.

Some will probably have already given up.

Ethical vegans are extreme in their lifestyle, avoiding all animal-based products, including leather shoes, woollen clothing and make up tested on animals.

More popular is lifestyle veganism – abstaining from consumption of animal-derived products. There are now over 72 million #vegan Instagram posts, nearly 3,000 vegan items for sale at Sainsbury’s and over 2,000 vegan books for sale in Waterstones.

Of those who describe themselves as ‘vegan’, 31% were persuaded to adopt such a diet by the widely publicised health benefits that eating less meat and dairy can bring. A similar number cited environmental factors in their decision making, but concerns about animal welfare was a contributing factor for more than half of those surveyed (53%).

Despite its growing popularity, there is a lot out there reprimanding the apparent benefits of a vegan diet.

The mainstream media cannot wholeheartedly be trusted in reporting these contentions, so I’m going to quickly look at some of the science behind them.

Your daily essentials

A lack of vitamin B12 can cause a multitude of problems, most notably mouth ulcers and paraesthesia (fancy word for pins and needles), and more seriously anaemia, whereby the levels of functional haemoglobin in the body are reduced, causing extreme fatigue and deliriousness (Moll & Davis, 2017). Numerous studies have also implicated a lack of vitamin B12 as a contributor to psychiatric disorders including bipolar and depression (Oh & Brown, 2003).

Vitamin B12 is usually obtained through consumption of animal based products such as meat, cheese and milk. Now clearly, a devout vegan will avoid these foods, thereby shrinking the number of sources in their diet.

This is where a trip to Holland & Barrett might be advised (other health stores are available).

If you do follow a strict vegan diet, you should hopefully know much more about the world of pills and tablets than I do. From the stance of an amateur supplement taker, it all looks very complicated. I could buy 30 nuggets of Solgar Methylcobalamin for £11.99, or some B12 Boost Oral Spray for £8.99….

Now what I do know is that whatever diet you choose to follow, it is vital to maintain a healthy level of nutrients and vitamins. Whether this requires a supplement or not will depend on how strict your diet is as well as individual factors such as weight and age.

The more forgetful vegan might instead prefer to top up their nutritional intake with meals fortified with the necessary vitamins and minerals.

Fortification is the process by which extra nutrients are added to food to increase its nutritional value. From the dietary advice I have read, vegans are strongly encouraged to eat fortified foods or take supplements simply to avoid the myriad symptoms associated with deficiency. But, taking too many tablets and having a surplus of essential nutrients such as vitamin B12 can cause equally troublesome symptoms.

There are three main techniques used to fortify foods.

  • Home fortification: use of products such as nutrient-rich butter, crushable tablets or sprinkles to nutritionally enhance everyday meals. All have been shown to reduce the problems caused by symptoms of deficiency (Somasse et al, 2018).
  • Commercial fortification: this is where the industry itself enrich their products. Most commonly seen in breakfast cereal and milk substitutes, this is currently the easiest way for the vegan consumer to obtain extra nutrients, and is also a highly profitable technique for the trade.
  • Biofortification: enhancing the nutrient content of the crop itself, before it reaches production lines. Using natural genetic variation, breeding techniques and genetic engineering, fortified crops can be produced on mass. Research suggests this will be the most cost-effective and sustainable method of nutrient supplementation in the future (Wakeel et al. 2018).

On to calcium. If GCSE science taught you anything, it may be that calcium is required for strong teeth and bones and tends to come from dairy products such as milk.

But of course there are alternatives that can comfortably satiate your recommended daily intake (around 700mg for the average adult): these include soya products such as tofu and some rather unusual vegetables such as collard and okra.

Now many dieticians may argue that plant-based products offer equal or perhaps even greater levels of calcium compared to animal-derived products. It is important to recognise though that most almond milks, soya milks and such-like have been fortified, so it is actually quite hard to reliably compare them to natural alternatives.

More importantly, we must be aware of how much your body absorbs, not just how much you consume. Intake efficiency (the amount you absorb compared to the amount you consume) depends on several factors such as age, gender and vitamin D intake, so the best milk for you might not be the best for your parents.

Iodine is one of the building blocks of thyroid hormones, chemicals that control metabolism and regulate growth development. Statistics gathered in several studies have highlighted that lower levels of iodine, particularly amongst children on a plant-based diet, are causative to swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck and subsequent difficulty swallowing, as well as potential cognitive dysfunctions (Zimmermanm et al. 2008).

Common sources of iodine include some fish as well as common dairy items. The obvious and easiest replacement would be a tablet of course, but should you wish to obtain your iodine more naturally, you want to be eating more seaweed and bananas.

Is Veganism actually healthier?

Journalists are in constant battle to wrestle a bold statistic from researchers, who themselves seem to be in a never-ending competition to identify the latest healthy-eating alternative. Ultimately, this makes it very difficult to decipher whether a vegan diet is actually the healthiest diet for you.

Meta-analyses indicate that low-fat diets, coincident with a more plant-based regime, correlate with a lower risk of cardiovascular problems and type 2 diabetes, attributed in part to the lower intake, absorption and storage of iron that a plant-centred diet brings (Barnard et al. 2006).

Dieticians, nutritionists and active vegan champions may wax lyrical about the ways in which veganism has revolutionised their lives, but rarely do they fail to mention one key point: the ’well-balanced diet’.

A well-balanced diet is essential to reap the rewards of resisting meat – it is no good just replacing the chicken thigh with an extra potato, or the ham in your sandwich with a slice of cucumber. Getting the right proportions of nutrients, and at the right levels, can vary significantly from person to person, so planning your diet for you is a must.

It is hard to tell whether veganism is just a brief epidemic or whether it is here to stay. New fad diets are being developed all the time. The latest: the ‘planet-health diet’ which not only takes into account the need to encourage healthier, balanced eating, but also the need to reduce the strain on our environment and relax the need (or desire) for meat-based meals.