Going Vegan? 6 Science-Backed Side Effects Into Consideration
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In this day and age of increasing health-consciousness, many people are choosing to adopt food habits and lifestyles which are healthier—and veganism is one of them. A vegan diet is one that completely excludes all animal products and foods that come from animals. This means no meat, poultry, fish, dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc), eggs, honey, or any other edible items that come from animal sources.   

Vegans consume a plant-based diet, meaning they only eat foods that come from plants. This includes vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and plant-based meat and dairy alternatives made from these types of ingredients. 

The vegan diet limits all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty for food production. Ethical vegans aim to exclude the use of animals for any purpose, not just in their diet. This means abstaining from wearing or buying leather, wool, fur, silk, avoiding products tested on animals, and not visiting zoos or aquariums. And yet, despite all this reported benefits, health and ethics-wise, a vegan diet may have many side effects too. 

Here are some such side-effects of adopting a vegan diet that you should know about. If you want to adopt a vegan diet despite these limitations and negative effects, do consult a doctor and nutritionist before.  

Nutritional Deficiencies 

A vegan diet eliminates all animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood. This can lead to deficiencies in several key nutrients if a vegan diet is not well-planned. As per National Library of Medicine Vitamin B12 is missing from a vegan diet as it is mainly consumed through the nonveg, which affects nerve function, brain health, and red blood cell formation. Plant-based sources of iron like spinach and lentils contain non-heme iron, which is not absorbed as well as the heme iron found in meat. Iron deficiency can cause anemia and fatigue.  

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Dairy products are a major source of calcium in most diets. Without dairy, vegans need to consume plant-based sources like broccoli, kale, calcium-fortified plant milks, and tofu made with calcium sulfate. Inadequate calcium intake can negatively impact bone health. These healthy fats are predominantly found in seafood and fish oil. Vegans can get ALA omega-3s from plant sources like flaxseeds and chia seeds but may fall short on EPA and DHA forms of omega-3 without supplementation. Low omega-3 intake has been associated with increased inflammation and heart disease risk. 

Increased Risk of Bone Fractures 

 A vegan diet may lead to an increased risk of bone fractures, especially in those who do not ensure adequate calcium intake. This is because cutting out dairy products can make it more difficult to consume enough calcium. Calcium is essential for building and maintaining strong bones. When calcium intake is insufficient, the body will take calcium from the bones to maintain normal calcium levels in the blood. Over time, this can weaken the bones and make them more prone to fracturing. 

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The studies done by the National Library of Medicine have found that vegans tend to have lower bone mineral density and higher fracture rates compared to non-vegans. One study found that vegans had a 30% higher risk of fractures over a 5-year period. The fracture risk was highest for vegans who had low calcium intakes.    

Low Muscle Mass 

One potential side effect of a vegan diet is lower muscle mass compared to those following non-vegan diets. This is primarily due to the lack of certain amino acids that are crucial for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. The nine essential amino acids cannot be produced by the body and must be obtained through diet. While most plant foods contain all essential amino acids, many are lower in certain amino acids like lysine and methionine. In a study by the National Library of Medicine it is reported that as compared to meat-eaters, there was an increased risk of hip fractures observed in vegetarians 

Without adequate intake of essential amino acids, especially leucine, the body is unable to effectively synthesize new muscle proteins. This can lead to lower muscle mass over time, particularly for those who are physically active or participate in strength training exercises.  

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Energy Deficiency 

A vegan diet that lacks certain nutrients can lead to energy deficiency. The main nutrients that vegans may be deficient in that can cause low energy levels are vitamin B12, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products. It plays a vital role in energy metabolism and red blood cell formation. Low B12 levels are common in vegans and can result in anemia and fatigue. Iron is needed to transport oxygen in the blood. Plant-based iron is not absorbed as well as iron from meat. Vegans are at a higher risk of iron deficiency anemia, which causes tiredness and weakness. 

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that help fight inflammation and support brain function. The main omega-3s are found in fatty fish and fish oil. Vegans must rely on plant sources like flax and chia seeds which provide a less potent form of omega-3s. Without adequate B12, iron, and omega-3s from fortified foods or supplements, a vegan diet can easily lead to chronic fatigue and low energy levels. Ensuring sufficient intake of these nutrients is crucial for maintaining energy on a vegan diet.  

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Gut Health Issues 

Following a vegan diet can lead to gut health issues due to a lack of probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in the digestive system and support gut health and immunity. Prebiotics are fibers that feed these healthy bacteria. Both probiotics and prebiotics are found naturally in many animal products like yogurt, kefir, cheese, milk, etc. By avoiding these foods, it can be challenging for vegans to get enough probiotics and prebiotics in their diet. This may negatively impact the balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome. 

An imbalance of gut bacteria is linked to inflammation, impaired immune function, nutritional deficiencies, and conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. There is also a strong connection between gut health and mental health. 

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Poor Brain Health 

A vegan diet may negatively impact brain health in some people. As per the National Library of Medicine there are two key nutrients that are limited in vegan diets and important for proper brain function are choline and the omega-3 fat DHA. Choline is involved in the synthesis of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in muscle control, mood, memory, and brain development. Low choline intake can lead to neurological disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Most vegan foods are lacking in choline. 

DHA is a long-chain omega-3 fat found primarily in fish and fish oils. It’s a major structural component of the brain, comprising over 30% of the polyunsaturated fatty acids in brain tissue. DHA insufficiency has been linked to reduced cognitive function, memory loss, depression, and other brain disorders. The DHA found in marine algae supplements doesn’t provide the same benefits as DHA from fish and krill oil. 

Without monitoring intake, vegans are prone to inadequate choline and DHA levels. This may negatively impact various aspects of brain health, including cognitive function, mental health, and development in children. Vegans should make a concerted effort to eat choline-rich plant foods like cruciferous vegetables and supplement them with a DHA+EPA algae oil to help satisfy these important nutrients for brain health.