Is being vegan dangerous to your health? Following the rise in popularity of veganism in its capitol city of Berlin, Germany has released a reactionary statement asserting that the diet is hazardous, especially for children and pregnant women.
This is a surprising move from the government, especially as many consider Berlin at the forefront of the rising vegan movement in Europe. Research has estimated that somewhere around 10 percent of the city’s population follows the practice, with new vegan butcher shops popping up every day. The city is even host to Veganes Sommerfest, a large annual festival that takes place every August in Alexanderplatz. Recently a Portuguese food writer documented her conversion to a plant-based lifestyle based after attending the event and experiencing the city’s embrace of the diet. “We have cooperatives such as La Stella Nera in Neukölln, which will make you forget you're not in Italy,” she wrote for Germany’s The Local. “Or that you ever thought vegan cheese couldn’t replace the real thing.”
So understandably it came as a shock to that vegan community when the government recently released the statement, containing plenty of scare terminology. “A purely plant-based diet makes it more difficult to give the body some of the important nutrients it needs,” the statement reads. Despite a small addendum made at the end mentioning the “considerable health benefits” to the lifestyle, the stance made is quite a strong one. The fact is any eating habit can be devoid of proper nutrition when not given the proper consideration, and a well-thought-out vegan diet can not only be environmentally friendly, but also quite beneficial.
“It is most certainly can be a advantageous diet when done correctly, and one of the only diets I support,” says Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and adjunct assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “Eating a plant-based, whole-foods diet, full of a wide variety of foods is not hazardous at all, and instead extremely healthy.” Studies support this belief, showing that vegans tend to have lower levels of cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer in comparison to those who regularly eat meat. Since their diets are commonly more diverse, they consume more healthy fiber, magnesium, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, iron, and phytochemicals while ingesting less saturated fats. Of course, this is the case only when meal planning is properly executed. Though the statement may lack nuance (at the very least), this can be used as an opportunity to remind those following or are curious about the diet, whether for ethical or health reasons, of a few considerations. Here are the facts on the two main arguments portrayed in Germany's statement.
The statement reads: “Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to brain damage including depression and psychosis, and trouble with muscle functions. It’s entirely absent in a vegan diet, unless the diet is supplemented with pills.” Hunnes makes it clear that this is an easily avoided issue. “Though it is true that left untreated a deficiency of the vitamin is something to be concerned about, it is very difficult to have such an issue in developed countries,” she says. “Despite animal products being the main source historically, there are plenty of non-dairy beverages and products that are fortified with it now.” Hunnes adds that we only really need a very small amount of B12 in our diet, around 12mcg per day. If there is a major concern, that quota can be reached easily through supplements or nutritional yeast.
There is no greater concern to parents than the health of their children, so the thought that they are endangering their children through their own life choices would be an understandably worrying claim. In the statement, the government says that pregnant women who are vegan are at risk of malnourishing their babies. Hunnes assures that this is false. “There is only going to be a problem if the mother’s diet is poor,” she says. “If someone is only eating processed, refined, sugary foods, then there are going to be a lack of micronutrients. So in turn there would be deficiencies developed in the baby as well.” But vegan or not, all women of childbearing age are recommended to take a prenatal vitamin, which have the full complement of vitamins and minerals needed. Such pills also take care of the B12 requirement, with some containing as much as 750%. For those feeding their babies by breastfeeding alone, vitamin D should be supplemented in all cases. “Regardless of diet, the nutrition of a pregnant mother should always be considered important,” Hunnes concludes.
The Takeaway: Following a plant-based diet is not only healthy, but has great benefits, when done correctly. Hunnes reminds that diversity is the key in a vegan diet, with a few products that should be consumed every day if possible — "Fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, non-dairy beverages fortified with calcium and vitamin D, nuts, seeds are all instrumental,"— in addition to supplements when necessary, she says.
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