We’re huge advocates of plant-based eating, but we have to acknowledge that this way of life can come with pitfalls.
There are potential dangers from eating a vegan diet but the good news is that they are very easy to avoid if you know how.
So, here’s a brief guide to avoiding any health complications because you’ve made the right, ethical decision regarding your diet. (Find out why people go vegan if you don't already know).
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
The biggest danger that you face on a vegan diet is Vitamin B12 deficiency and it’s why there were no vegans prior to the 19th century.
There is no B12 in a vegan diet and going without Vitamin B12 for long enough is fatal. Even over a short period Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to irreversible health problems.
The good news is that Vitamin B12 is super easy to synthesize in a lab without harming any animals and you can simply take a B12 supplement to avoid becoming Vitamin B12 deficient.
However, if you have a genetic variation known as MTHFR then you must consult with a doctor about taking on a vegan diet as even supplementation may not be enough for you to get sufficient amounts of B12 in your diet.
This is one of the big differences between vegan and vegetarian diets, and some people say that it's easier to get health benefits on vegetarian diets because of the increased risk of vitamin deficiency on a solely plant-based diet.
Poor Zinc Absorption
It’s not fully understood why a vegan diet can inhibit the body’s ability to absorb zinc but it may be something to do with the high levels of phytic acid in some plants. Thus a plant-based diet makes it harder to get zinc than if you were eating meat, even if you take in the same amount of zinc.
However, as zinc is essential for your immune system and zinc deficiency can make you very ill (particularly if you’re male – where it can cause serious sexual problems) you want to avoid zinc deficiency.
This is easy, simply take a zinc supplement that provides, at least, 50% more than the recommended daily amount of zinc. This problem is equally applicable to both vegetarian and vegan diets. Animal foods don't exhaust zinc in the same way the even vegetarian diets will.
High Carb Dieting
Almost by definition vegan diets are lower in protein (though you can try these vegan protein bars to try and combat that) than omnivorous diets, because a lot of the protein people eat is animal flesh.
Protein has a lot of calories and thus, we try to replace those calories and it’s all too easy to do this by eating a ton of carbohydrates (sugars, if you like). Plant-based diets can be terrible for your teeth.
Too much sugar is definitely bad for you and you can end up with diabetes, fatty liver disease and more.
So, you need to try and find additional protein sources to eat and, ideally, low carb sources. Soy foods and soy milk can be a good start but if you're following a vegan diet, you may not want to eat too much soy which can have other implications.
Orthorexia is an eating disorder. It’s when an individual becomes obsessed with what they think are “healthy” eating patterns but, in fact, have become so restrictive that they’re endangering their health.
Some fruitarians are an example of this. Veganism is a good thing but you can’t get a balanced diet from eating just fruit. Meat eaters can find that if they only eat meat (and thus, animal protein and fat) they too suffer from orthorexia but it's more common with those on a strict vegan diet.
If you have suffered from orthorexia in the past or have another eating disorder, we’d note that eating disorder specialists do not recommend that you go vegan or vegetarian without professional help and supervision. Eating a healthy vegan diet is an essential way to make the most of this life. Don't introduce health risks.
Yes, I know, we just told you that you need more protein and now, we’re going to tell you that you need to be careful about how much of that protein comes from legumes.
That’s because legumes are rich in chemicals such as phytates and lectins, now, in normal quantities that’s not a problem but in large concentrations these become “anti-nutrients”.
That is instead of doing good things for you, they do harm and the harm is that they increase the permeability of your intestines.
Yes, they may give you a “leaky gut”. Well, at least according to animal studies, they haven’t done the research in people, yet.
This is a sensitive topic in the vegan world because you will hear a lot of non-vegans mocking the consumption of soy because it contains phyto-estrogen a plant chemical which has similar properties to the human sex hormone, estrogen.
However, while that shouldn’t concern you (there’s no evidence that phyto-estrogens are bad for us) you should be concerned about eating too much soy protein.
That’s because it’s a heavily processed food and like all heavily processed foods, it seems to concentrate human toxins and may deliver much larger doses of phyto-estrogen than ordinary soy, which, in turn, can disrupt your body’s hormone production.
Heavy Metal Poisoning
And if that wasn’t a good enough reason to become cautious about eating a ton of soy protein in your diet, there’s another reason to be cautious about soy.
There is a body of research that shows people who eat soy are more likely to absorb heavy metals from their diet into their bloodstream.
While heavy metals in tiny quantities are necessary for life, if we absorb too many of them, we can get heavy metal poisoning which can be catastrophic for our health and the treatment for this kind of poisoning is expensive too.
Anemia is also a possibility due to the lack of heme-iron in the diet.
This is also a problem for people following a vegetarian diet.
This is a particular concern for women of child-bearing age and you should consider taking iron supplements to avoid this problem.
There may also be a risk of depression due to a lack of omega-3-fatty acids (from fish) and the use of omega-6-fatty acids (from nuts) as a replacement.
This is hard to combat as though you can get an omega-3-fatty acid supplement made from algae, it’s expensive, and it may still not fully balance the omega-6-fatty acid in your body.
Talk to your doctor if you are becoming depressed on a vegan diet and they may be able to help.
Final Thoughts On The Potential Dangers Of A Vegan Diet
Yes, there are potential dangers of eating a vegan diet but they shouldn’t be a deal-breaker when it comes to going plant-based.
Note: not all these issues listed above apply to vegetarians (check vegan vs vegetarian to find out the difference).
Instead, you need to take action to avoid dietary deficiencies becoming a health problem and then you can focus on enjoying your new, ethical way of life!