Veganism is increasingly gaining popularity. A vegan diet comprises plant-based food, which means, besides non vegetarian products, vegans also refrain from milk and dairy products. Reports claim veganism can help a person lose weight, fight diabetes and generally improve one’s overall health.
Well-planned vegan diets follow healthy eating guidelines, and contain all the nutrients that our bodies need. Both the British Dietetic Association and the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recognise that they are suitable for every age and stage of life. Some research has linked that there are certain health benefits to vegan diets with lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer, says The Vegan Society.
According to them, going vegan is a great opportunity to learn more about nutrition and cooking, and improve one’s diet. Getting necessary nutrients from plant foods allows more room in our diet for health-promoting options like whole grains, fruit, nuts, seeds and vegetables, which are packed full of beneficial fibre, vitamins and minerals, they say.
However, it is important to note that eliminating all animal products from the diet increases the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies. Micronutrients which a vegan person should be careful about include vitamins B-12 and D, calcium, and long-chain n-3 (omega-3) fatty acids. Unless vegans regularly consume foods that are fortified with these nutrients, appropriate supplements should be consumed.
Every year ‘World Vegan Day’ is observed on November 1 with the purpose of encouraging more people to follow vegan diet. While veganism can have amazing health benefits, on ‘World Vegan Day’ The CSR Journal takes a look into some of the side effects which vegan diet might cause on the human body.
Vitamin B12 deficiency and anemia
People who are vegans, they often have Vitamin B12 deficiency, because this is mostly found in non-vegetarian foods. The most common sources of Vitamin B12 are meat, eggs, fish, mushroom, oysters, dairy products like milk, cheese, paneer, and yogurt, fortified cereals and fortified food including whey powder, and nutritional yeast, vegetables like Spinach, beetroot and potato, Bananas in fruits.
Being a vegan keeps you away from food products that come from animals, including dairy products, meat, fish and eggs. Hence, it is necessary to take fortified foods and B12 supplements. Vegans who avoid common fortified foods (such as breakfast cereals fortified with B12, unsweetened soya drinks fortified with vitamin B12, yeast extract and nutritional yeast flakes fortified with vitamin B12) are at risk of developing Vitamin B12 deficiency. If you are a vegan mother breastfeeding a baby and your own intake of B12 is low, then chances are high that your infant will have B12 deficiency.
Symptoms of Vitamin B12 Deficiency include weakness, tiredness, vision loss, heart palpitations and shortness of breath, pale skin, constipation, diarrhea, loss of appetite, gas, nerve problems like numbness or tingling, muscle weakness, and problems while walking, mental health issues like depression, memory loss, or behavioural changes.
According to The Vegan Society, 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. Vitamin B12, whether in supplements, fortified foods, or animal products, comes from micro-organisms.
To get the full benefit of a vegan diet, vegans should either eat fortified foods two or three times a day to get at least three micrograms of B12 a day or take one B12 supplement daily providing at least 10 micrograms or take a weekly B12 supplement providing at least 2000 micrograms, they suggest.
For vegans, who refrain from consuming animal products including dairy, eggs, and even honey, anemia can also be caused by Vitamin B12 deficiency. In that case, spinach, green leafy vegetables, lentils, whole grains, legumes, pumpkin seeds, tofu, quinoa, chickpeas, soybean, cashews, avocado, kale, Brussels sprouts, oatmeal and kidney beans should be included in your diet to prevent falling prey to anemia.
Due to the absence of red meat in a plant-based diet, vegans and even vegetarians often experience vitamin B12 and iron deficiency as discussed above. This can lead to fatigue, headaches, dizziness and if not taken care of, this can lead to anaemia.
Ahmedabad-based Hetvi Thacker, who is a vegan since the last 5 years, shared her experience, saying, “We have to rely on supplements for Vitamin B-12. But that is true for vegetarianism as well. We also have to work hard to fulfil the protein requirements. A lot of vegan protein sources available in India come with a lot of fat content as well. For example, peanut butter – while it is rich in protein, it has much more fat. And then the only option is tofu, or soy chunks or some lentils. Basically the variety is very less. So if you lead an active lifestyle, either you have to eat very carefully otherwise the physical recovery is very slow or even poor at times. We also have to rely on supplements for some other minerals such as Zinc and calcium. So, I have started to consume multivitamins daily. The multivitamins take care of it all. I just have to focus on protein.”
Lack of energy
A common problems experienced by vegans is lack of energy if they are not eating their food in adequate amount. This is more often experienced by people, who were earlier on vegetarian or non-veg diet, and have suddenly adopted veganism. This is because a vegan diet normally comprises less calories, proteins, fat and carbohydrates as compared to their previous diets. Hence, it is important to eat till you feel full. It is extremely important to have a balanced vegan diet in order to ensure that you are not deficient in vitamins or minerals.
Lack of adequate protein also makes one feel less energetic during the day. Among the major nutrients are proteins, non-veg sources and milk, curd, paneer. These are very good sources of first class proteins. If you have to get it from vegan sources, then you have to consciously eat more seeds, soya, lentils, legumes which can also be good sources of protein for the vegan.
Low levels of calcium can cause extreme fatigue, which involves a lack of energy and a feeling of lethargy. Hence, it is necessary to include items like tofu, almonds, beans, peas, lentils, soy-based drinks, fruits like oranges, raw figs, dried figs, blackcurrants, blackberries, and raspberries in your daily diet so that you don’t miss out on your body’s requirement of calcium.
Just as if you are not eating in adequate amount, you may experience lack of energy; similarly, this may also leave you feeling hungry and craving for food throughout the day. If you have recently turned vegan, it is important to ensure that your body’s nutritional needs are met. Otherwise your body may crave the foods you have been eating previously to meet its nutritional demands. For example, if a vegan person does not include plant-based proteins in adequate amount in their daily diet, their body may crave chicken or eggs which they probably used to consume before turning vegan. However, not just animal products, a vegan person may also experience craving for vegan foods if their body does not get adequate nutrition.
The Vegan Society says the amount of protein our body needs every day depends on how active we are. It suggests that around 1 g of protein per kg of body weight per day is the protein requirement for the general vegan sedentary population. However, endurance athletes need about 1.2–1.8 g of protein per kg of body weight daily while strength athletes want to get 1.2–2 g per kg of body weight daily.
What you eat can influence how you feel, both physically and mentally. While veganism can have amazing health benefits like fighting obesity, lower blood pressure, heart disease, and a reduced risk of cancer, it can also lead to mental health issues like depression. Omega-3 fatty acids are abundant in foods, such as fish, seafood and in dietary supplements such as fish oil. While a vegan person refrains from consuming fish, it is necessary to include walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, green leafy vegetables like spinach, beans and other non-animal sources of omega-3 like soybeans and brussels sprouts in their daily diet. Lack of omega-3 fatty acids can cause or worsen mental issues like depression and mood swings apart from negatively impacting our body in multiple ways.
While a vegan diet may perhaps not cause depression or mood swings, it may enhance these issues if you already have them, according to some reports. Whether you are a vegan or not, lack of adequate nutrition in one’s body may contribute to depression. Deficiencies in nutrients such as protein, B vitamins, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, selenium, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids have a significant impact on brain and nervous system function, which can affect the appearance of depressive symptoms as per reports.