How healthy is vegan?

Around one million people in Germany do without all animal products. They only eat fruits and vegetables, grains, and nuts. That can be healthy –

The niche is everywhere now. No longer an exception, but almost mainstream: Around a million people in Germany eat vegan today, estimates the Vegetarian Association Germany based on surveys. In Berlin alone, there are now around 50 vegan restaurants. In Munich, even the Oktoberfest now serves meat-free lumberjack grilled steaks and vegan meatloaf, and in 2016 the German book market recorded more than 200 new releases of vegan cookbooks.

For the majority of vegans, renouncing all animal products – food as well as wool sweaters or leather shoes – is a decision of conscience. But health reasons are no longer just a side effect: More and more new vegans are using the change in diet as self-medication against skin problems, digestive problems, migraines, or gout.

Little research has been done on veganism

There is still comparatively little research into whether and how vegans benefit from their diet in terms of health. What is certain is that not eating animal-based foods is harmful if you have an otherwise balanced diet – but it does take some effort: In order to avoid deficiency symptoms, new vegans need to acquire some knowledge about foods and their ingredients.

But that is precisely what is often a problem, complain nutritionists. Vegans are usually much better supplied with a number of nutrients such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, or folic acid than the population average – but at the same time, they often have deficits in iron, calcium, and some essential fatty acids, although the requirement is also sufficient through plant-based foods to cover. Good sources of calcium include sesame seeds, almonds, kale, arugula, spinach, dried figs, fortified soy products, and some types of mineral water. A sufficient supply of vitamin D also improves the absorption of calcium from food.

The absorption of iron from plant-based foods can also be increased in a targeted manner with the simultaneous intake of vitamin C or other organic acids from fruit and vegetables (tea and coffee, on the other hand, inhibit iron absorption). Lentils and chickpeas, dried apricots and peaches, pumpkin seeds or pistachios as well as oat flakes, millet, and the grain-like amaranth provide a lot of iron. 

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are mainly found in vegetable oils, walnuts, flaxseed, and some microalgae, also available as dietary supplements. For vegans, doctors particularly recommend the regular consumption of linseed and rapeseed oil to improve the supply of omega-3 fatty acids.

Vegans tend to live healthier lives

The sometimes poorer supply of certain nutrients does not necessarily lead to deficiency symptoms in vegans. Since they usually live healthily, do not smoke, hardly drink alcohol, and exercise more, they often have a lower nutritional requirement than the average population: they have to compensate for less harmful influences with vitamins and minerals than their fellow human beings.

The greatest risk for vegans is the insufficient supply of vitamin B12, which is involved in cell division, blood formation, and the functioning of the nervous system and occurs almost exclusively in foods of animal origin. Because the body’s own stores last three to five years, a deficiency in vitamin B12 usually only becomes noticeable late – but it can lead to permanent neurological damage.

Vegans therefore have to cover their needs with dietary supplements, fortified foods or a specially developed vitamin B12 toothpaste. For groups with particularly high nutritional needs such as infants, toddlers, pregnant women and breastfeeding women, many medical professionals as well as the German Nutrition Society and the Federal Center for Health Education have so far advised against vegan nutrition.

No other diet will make people lose more weight

For everyone else, it’s better not to give up too much at once. Bioethicist Erwin Lengauer, who coordinates the international research project “Vegstudies” at the University of Vienna, advises those who want to live vegan in the long term should approach the goal step by step.

In the long term, studies recommend switching to a vegan diet as an effective remedy for obesity: test subjects did not lose more pounds with any other diet. Because avoiding animal products leads to lower body weight, lower blood pressure, and better blood lipid values. A vegan diet is also suitable as a therapy for certain chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

For the treatment of diabetes, studies from the USA have shown that plant-based nutrition – for example, in controlling blood sugar and blood lipid levels – is even more effective than conventional nutritional therapy. This can often significantly reduce the dose of drugs that regulate blood sugar levels. The vegan diet also improves blood circulation and pain sensitivity in patients who suffer from nerve damage typical of diabetes.

Avoiding animal products also seems to have a preventive effect: Vegans maybe even better protected than vegetarians from type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, which often result from obesity and high blood pressure. Men in particular benefit from this protective effect, as US researchers have found in an evaluation of several long-term studies. However, far more women than men are vegans in western cultures.

Even better-educated people and city dwellers have so far been overrepresented. Even if the total renunciation of animal products is not yet considered a major social trend – it has long been an economic factor. And now even a subject: in 2016, the first veganism course started at a German university of applied sciences with a Bachelor’s degree in “Vegan Food Management.”

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