The debate over whether a vegan diet is healthier than a diet that includes animal products has been going on for decades. Both sides have presented opposing information, which is confusing for anyone trying to decide which side of the argument makes more sense. However, the truth is muddied when either side exaggerates or misrepresents facts to bolster their beliefs.
In my practice, I’ve been seeing an increasing number of young vegans who are experiencing a range of health problems, from hormonal imbalances caused by incredibly low cholesterol to anxiety stemming from poor blood sugar management. I don’t challenge their choice to be vegan – most do it for completely understandable reasons, whether religious or over animal welfare, environmental or health concerns – and I work with them to restore their health within their chosen dietary parameters.
If you’re trying to decide whether to go vegan like approximately two million other Americans have, there’s more to consider than how to get enough protein through non-meat sources. First, let me state that I’m not advocating for or against following a vegan lifestyle, but it’s important to understand the known health concerns associated with any dietary shift before embarking on it.
Vegan is different from vegetarian in that a vegan diet not only eliminates all meats and fish, it also excludes any and all products from meat or fish sources, such as dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt, etc.), eggs, gelatin, and so on. While plant-based diets are generally associated with lower cholesterol, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure and the like, these health benefits are achieved only through “appropriately planned diets”, as stated by the American Dietetic Association.
One of the pitfalls people can fall into on a vegan diet is not getting enough of the important nutrients that are provided by animal products. Protein, of course, is one of the primary deficiencies vegans can face if they don’t have a complete understanding of the difference between plant and animal proteins as well as their body’s protein requirements. Because plant proteins are different from animal proteins, vegans may need to take in more grams of plant protein than would be required from animal proteins. Also, it’s important to get plant proteins from a variety of sources, such as nuts, beans, seeds, whole grains, lentils, and more.
Because the heme iron in animal products is better absorbed by the body than the non-heme iron in plant sources, a sufficient amount of vitamin C needs to be included in the vegan diet, which increases absorption of non-heme iron. On the other hand, consideration should be given to the fact that phytic acid in the same plant protein sources – lentils, whole grains, nuts, beans – can inhibit non-heme iron absorption.
Another important nutrient found mainly in animal and dairy products is vitamin B12, which helps to regulate the nervous system. Deficiencies in this vital vitamin can cause health problems that range from fatigue and immune system disorders to pernicious anemia and neurological issues. Vegans need to make sure they choose foods fortified with vitamin B12 and/or take B12 supplements (always check with your functional medicine doctor to make sure any supplements you take are pure and that you take the right amount for you personally).
Omega-3 fatty acids, derived mainly from fish and eggs, is an important nutrient in many ways, including controlling blood pressure and contributing to heart health. If your diet is missing or low in Omega-3s, you may experience symptoms like fatigue, poor concentration, dryness of hair, nails, eyes and skin, sleep problems, moodiness, irritability, joint discomfort, lower energy, and others. A high-quality Omega-3 supplement as well as including flaxseed and walnuts in your diet is important to avoid these issues as well as other long-range health problems.
One final note: Sometimes people following what they consider to be a healthy diet forget that they also need to be vigilant about the amount of added refined sugars they ingest. Vegan snacks and desserts, especially if they’re processed, may fit within the scope of a vegan diet, but if consumed too frequently, they can still cause health problems. Similarly, soda may be vegan, but it’s an unhealthy beverage choice for anyone and should be avoided.