Veganism, or “uber-veggie” for the uninitiated, is a dietary system that requires an abstinence-only policy on all animal products, large and small. From bee’s wax to beefsteak, from devilled eggs to dairy, vegans have a no-tolerance policy on all animal products.
The trade-off for all that sacrifice is that vegan living is healthy living: vegan diets are often higher in protein, generally more nutritious, and lower in unhealthy fats and pollutants. And with the dangers of bovine growth hormone, mad cow disease and factory farming circulating on all the news feeds, many people are taking a closer look at vegan diets.
But like every other diet, those who jump right in without checking their facts may be biting off more than they can chew, as it were. Here are a few of the more serious issues that prospective veggies might want to consider before jumping on the vegan train.
Of the B vitamins, the most important is B12, which is necessary for proper functioning of the human nervous system, for the production of red blood cells, and for proper cognitive function. Unfortunately for vegans, the only significant natural source of B12 is meat, dairy products and eggs, although the vitamin is also produced in very small amounts by bacteria often found in decaying organic matter (read: earth and compost).
Humans require only tiny amounts of B12 in their diets – an average adult requires only 1.5/1000th of a milligram per day, but the adverse effects of B12 deficiency can be extremely serious. People suffering from a lack of the vitamin can experience symptoms similar to anemia, making them feel lethargic and tired. In extreme cases, B12 deficiency can lead to loss of short-term memory, confusion and dizziness.
But don’t fret, even if both meat and dirt are off the menu, it’s still possible to purchase a bevy of B12-rich foods including yeast extracts (Vegemite or derivative products) and B-12 fortified soy drinks.
As an alternative to Vegemite sandwiches, vegans who don’t mind pills can and should avail themselves of the wealth of available supplements – most obviously a B-complex vitamin.
A B-complex is good, because along with B12, vegans also have to watch their consumption of B2. This vitamin, otherwise known as riboflavin, is key to the reparation of damaged tissue, and is necessary to convert fats and starches into energy. Although B2 can be found in green leafy vegetables and whole grains, it is primarily available in meat, egg and dairy products. Severe deficiency in riboflavin can lead to problems with the eyes (including sensitivity to light), as well as skin conditions and problems regulating the body’s adrenal glands.
Iron deficiency is among the most common nutritional deficiencies in developed countries, and is particularly a problem for vegetarians and vegans. Iron deficiency can lead to severe anemia, causing lethargy and a variety of other adverse haemoglobin-related conditions.
The daily requirement for a healthy adult is just below nine mg of iron per day, which is the equivalent of approximately 150 grams of chickpeas combined with 100 grams of boiled spinach. Other iron-rich vegan foods include fibrous fruits (figs, etc.), beans and lentils, and fibres (e.g. bran).
The trouble for vegans and vegetarians arises because the body’s iron intake is strongly impacted by other foods eaten at the same time. Thus, while vitamin C significantly increases the amount of iron digested from plant material, strong fibres and numerous other vegetables (particularly those heavy in phosphates) can severely inhibit the absorption of iron.
At the same time, many of the animal-based foods vegetarians still eat contain relatively weak levels of iron – 150 grams of yogurt contains less than 15 per cent of the iron in the same amount of avocado, with the same broadly applicable to milks, cheeses and eggs (although eggs are somewhat better, with 1.2 mg of iron each).
Less of a problem, but still worth considering seriously, is calcium deficiency.
Calcium is key to the building of strong bones and teeth, and is generally tied into all the breakable body parts. It’s important for hair growth, as calcium deficiency can lead to osteoporosis and reductions in muscle-mass.
In typical diets, calcium can be absorbed from dairy foods – particularly milk, which can provide for a day’s requirement of calcium on its own from just three to five glasses. For vegans, the best source of calcium is likely tofu, which provides 300 mg of calcium for every 60 grams of the tasty bean curd. Since an average person of university-age requires approximately 800 mg of calcium every day, give or take, this means vegans can get nearly a day’s supply of calcium from 180 grams of tofu (that’s a whole bunch, granted). Other calcium-rich, vegan-friendly foods include broccoli, chickpeas, spinach, and fibrous fruits like figs or apricots.
NOTE: This article should not be used as the sole basis for setting up a diet – any diet. Before considering a significant change in what you eat, the best thing to do is consult your doctor, and/or a trained nutritionist.