by CARRIE FORREST, MPH IN NUTRITION (www.cleaneatingkitchen.com)
Before you think about going vegan, you might want to learn about eight potential dangers and health risks that can result from a plant-based diet.
Have you ever wondered if a vegan or plant-based diet would help you manage your weight and resolve any nagging health problems? That’s the promise that is often made around this trend.
But, you hear less about the health problems that can occur from a strict plant-based diet that excludes all animal products. This article includes eight reasons that may dispel the myth that veganism is the healthiest diet and works for everyone.
I’ve also included some suggestions for how to counter these potential health risks of a vegan diet.
What Is a Vegan Diet?
What is a vegan diet? Simple put, a vegan diet is one that excludes any food that comes from an animal. This includes eggs, dairy, meat, fish, poultry, and even honey.
Some people take a vegan diet even further and embrace it as a lifestyle, and will not purchase or use any clothing or personal care products that include animal-based ingredients.
A “whole foods, plant-based diet” is more often the term used for an approach that includes fewer processed foods, and a greater emphasis on fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds.
However, even that term can get confusing as paleo diets are considered to be a plant-based approach, but they do include animal products.
What Vegans Eat
If a vegan or plant-based diet does not include any animal products, then what does it include?
Vegans eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, soy, legumes (beans), nuts, and seeds.
A vegan diet doesn’t necessarily means it’s healthy, though, since it by definition does not exclude a lot of processed foods, sugar, or gluten. Just look at the popularity of fake meats which are incredibly processed and not necessarily healthy by any stretch of the imagination.
The healthiest vegan diet is likely a plant-based diet that also is one of the best diets for climate change.
Although some people may thrive on a vegan or plant-based diet, it should be noted that it is considered an extreme diet because of how many foods it excludes, as well as the potential for nutritional deficiencies.
This article includes eight real problems with a plant-based diet, including my experience as a woman whose health declined as a result of being on a strict vegan diet.
If you are 100% committed to eating a vegan diet but you are always feeling tired, you might also want to read my article with tips for how to reverse fatigue on a vegan diet.
This article includes links to scientific studies whenever possible. However, some of these potential diet dangers are anecdotal and not based on human studies. So, as always, it’s important that you consult your healthcare provider to help determine what type of diet is best for you.
Eight Potential Vegan Diet Dangers
Please note, my intent with this article 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. 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.
On the contrary, protein sources from animals do not contain anti-nutrients and are among the highest sources of foods in terms of nutrition for humans.
The risk is that when people remove animal protein from their diet and replace it with higher amounts of legumes, then there could be an increased risk of gut inflammation. While there are no direct human studies on this topic, it is a potential risk that you should be aware of.
One way to counteract the potential effects of anti-nutrients may be to increase foods with natural probiotics, such as tempeh, sauerkraut, fermented pickles, and others. An increase of probiotics in your system may help improve gut healthoverall.
And, if you are having gut issues, see my list of the best gut healing foods that may help! I also have an article on the best leaky gut diet.
Again, as a result of excluding all forms of animal protein, many vegans turn to soy as a protein source.
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 interferencedue to phytoestrogens found in all forms of soy. Soy has also been found to be a contributor to the intake of the toxic metal cadmium in vegans and vegetarians.
Read more about the potential dangers of eating soy.
To help counteract or avoid any negative results from eating too much soy, you may consider eating fermented soy sources such as tempeh, or limiting your soy consumption to several times a week. You may also wish to avoid non-organic forms of soy which can be a source of GMOs in the diet.
If you do choose to consume soy, try making healthy recipe as opposed to buying processed versions. I recommend my Air Fryer Tofu as a great option.
3. 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. See my related post on how to eat to support your menstrual cycle.
While iron supplements can be taken to help reverse or prevent anemia, most women dislike taking iron supplements because potential negative side effects including constipation. It can also be difficult to take enough iron supplements to overcome anemia, especially without eating animal sources of iron.
See my list of the best vitamins for women over 30 or the best vitamins for a teenage girl which include iron to help boost ferritin levels.
You may also want to consider adding cricket protein to your diet. While eating insects is not normally accepted in a vegan diet, it may be a lower-impact way of adding animal protein back into your diet without eating animals like cows, fish, or chicken.
Having your ferritin levels checked regularly if you are a woman of child-bearing age is essential to ensure you don’t become anemic on a plant-based diet. See my article on how to order lab tests without a doctor.
You may also want to consider cooking with a cast iron pan (see my list of the safest cookware).
4. 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. And, 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.
There are issues associated with low omega-3 levels and some are quite serious. Pregnant women also need to be extremely aware of their omega-3 intake as the fatty acids help nourish the fetal brain development.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be tested through a blood test, and should be monitored if you start experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety. Please do contact a healthcare professional as soon as you think you might be depressed, as you don’t want the symptoms to get worse.
Once you have your levels tested, you can use algae-based omega-3 supplements to help increase your levels. In the worst case scenarios, you can consider taking a fish oil supplement to get your levels stabilized.
You may also want to consider the best magnesium supplements to help with anxiety.
5. 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.
Read more about the best MTHFR diet and supplements.
If you are at all concerned that you aren’t getting enough vitamin B12 in your diet, then ask your doctor for a vitamin B12 test.
If it turns out you are low in vitamin B12, then you may need to get an injection or use sublingual supplements, plus have your levels monitored regularly.
6. Inhibition of zinc absorption on vegan and vegetarian diets
Similarly to deficiencies that can occur with 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.
Because of this potential issue with zinc absorption, 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.
Good zinc levels are really important for boosting the immune system so it’s important to make sure you’re eating enough food sources of zinc or that you take a zinc supplement.
Plant-based sources of zinc are not as bioavailable as animal sources, so make sure you are getting enough from food sources or from supplements. Be careful with zinc, though, as you don’t want to take too much.
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, but are very high in carbohydrates.
Vegans may also replace the calories from protein sources with refined carbohydrates including bread, crackers, and cookies.
Over-consuming carbohydrates can lead to non-alchoholic fatty liver disease, blood sugar disregulation, and other troublesome symptoms. See my articles on how to follow a sugar-free diet and how to do a sugar detox.
You may also want to check out this article on the best gluten-free carbohydrates if you are unsure about which ones you should be eating.
Eating a diet that includes moderate to higher levels of protein has been shown to have a positive effect on satiety and weight management. It can be harder to find quality sources of protein on a vegan diet that aren’t also carbohydrate sources (like beans) or are soy-based.
Without a quality source of lean protein in the diet, vegans may experience fatigue or low exercise tolerance. If that is the case, you may need to consider adding protein powder to your diet.
See my list of the best clean protein powders.
You may also need to consider eating more complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes as opposed to eating simple carbohydrates like crackers or bread.
8. Risk of disordered eating
Orthorexia is a type of eating disorder that is defined by an over-fixation on healthy eating patterns. It can result in over-restriction, obsession, and other serious eating disorders.
At least one study found that vegans and vegetarians tended to display more orthorexic eating patterns, and most eating disorder specialists do not recommend restrictive diets such as veganism or vegetarianism for people trying to recover from an eating disorder such as orthorexia.
Read more about orthorexia and food obsession.
If you find that your eating disorder is getting worse on a vegan or plant-based diet, then you should consider working with a qualified therapist.
In the worst case scenario, your therapist may advise you to consider moving away from a vegan diet while you repair your relationship with food.
You may also need to consider eating more calorie-dense foods if you are recovering from an eating disorder. See my Weight Gain Smoothie or my list of the best Weight Gain Smoothies for recipe inspiration.
Additional Health Risks of Veganism
While some of the health risks of a vegan diet are outlined above, this list is not complete.
There are other risks of a plant-based diet including becoming isolated from friends and family due to an extremely restricted diet, the risk of eating too many high histamine foods and developing histamine intolerance, the risk of triggering a gluten intolerance when consuming too many gluten-containing foods, and other risks.
The bottom line is that a vegan diet is not natural for humans and most cannot stick with it (up to 84% of vegans and vegetarians end up eating meat again).
While it can be used on a short-term basis for weight loss or for other health reasons, it may result in significant nutritional deficiencies over the long term as well as other risks including eating disorders and isolation.
This is especially true if a vegan is not taking supplements and is not being closely monitored by a healthcare professional with regular blood work.
Most of you know me as creator of the Clean Eating Kitchen website. I have a master’s degree in public health with a specialty in nutrition, but I’m also a woman on a healing journey, looking to find more natural and holistic ways to feel better and recover from health issues resulting from decades of eating a Standard America Diet (you can read more about me here).
My Introduction to Veganism
Back in 2010, I had a friend who had gone on a vegan diet because she no longer wanted to eat animals (usually referred to as an ethical vegan). This was my first exposure to a vegan diet.
I then saw Oprah interview Alicia Silverstone about her book The Kind Diet and was even more curious about the purported health benefits of going vegan.
I got a copy of the book and was smitten with the idea that cutting out animal foods could potentially fix all the health problems that I was having, especially the inability to manage my weight that I learned years later was a result of undiagnosed thyroid disease.
My Experience Being Vegan & Then Moving Away from Veganism
The first year on a vegan diet was okay. I had a hard time giving up some of my favorite foods, especially dairy yogurt and eggs. I didn’t lose any weight going vegan, but I had reduced acne outbreaks once I stopped eating dairy (I am still dairy-free).
About one year into my vegan diet experiment, I started experiencing an outbreak of hives after eating. The hives were intense. One morning my eyelid was swollen shut. I thought perhaps gluten might be the issue, so I also then cut out gluten (I am also still gluten-free).
Around that time, I also came across a more extreme version of veganism, one that cuts out all oils, processed foods, refined carbs, and sugar. I thought maybe, just maybe, that I had found the answer to losing weight and feeling good.
One thing led to another and I was eventually diagnosed with severe Hashimoto’s disease and then thyroid cancer in 2012. My world came crashing down. At the time, I had been following this extreme form of veganism for almost two years and thought I was supposed to be protected from such a terrible diagnosis.
I continued on the vegan path even after my diagnosis and treatment, thinking if I just tried harder or got more restrictive, then I would be healthy. My diet got more and more restricted and I felt an eating disorder mindset start to consume me. I was always hungry, yet I wouldn’t allow myself to eat the foods that would nourish and heal me.
Finally, after careful thought and lots of fretting, I decided to stop being vegan. I wrote a blog post about not being vegan anymore and lost a lot of friends over my decision (that blog post has over 500 comments on it).
Once I was immersed into the vegan culture, it made it that much more difficult to mentally make that mental shift of eating meat again. I experienced bullying and shaming when I wrote publicly about my decision.
Ultimately, I consulted with a dietitian, an eating disorder specialist, and functional medicine practitioners to recover my health and a balanced relationship with food.
At this point, I now have a much more balanced relationship with food, and I follow a clean eating diet full of real, whole foods. I eat a mostly gluten-free, dairy-free diet to manage my autoimmune conditions. I consume animal products, although I am very careful to try and choose wild, pasture-raised, organic, and local options whenever possible.
Overall, my energy levels are much more consistent and I don’t have the blood sugar swings that I had while I was eating a plant-based diet. My lab work shows that I have much higher levels of iron than I had while I was vegan, and overall I feel so much better.