Nutrition: Is vegan food good for your health?
Does vegan nutrition really promote health? More and more people believe that, in Germany even a vegan kindergarten opened now. Studies support the great expectations only to a limited extent – and warn against serious deficiency symptoms.
In her hometown Vienna, Sarah knows a large part of the public toilets – in case of emergency her last rescue. She also has an overview of all accessible sanitary facilities on the Danube Island, where she would like to visit the vegan open-air festival “Veganmania” on the last weekend of August. For seven years the 31-year-old has been suffering from frequent diarrhoea, abdominal pain and flatulence. The diagnosis: Crohn’s disease, a chronic intestinal inflammation for which there is no cure yet.
Nevertheless, she does not let the anticipation of the numerous food stalls with vegan delicacies take her away. In the meantime, Sarah has learned to live with her illness. Even in her workplace, an alternative educational kindergarten, everyone apparently understands when the educator has to go to the toilet more often. In order to spare her digestion, she pays special attention to what she eats.
In the first time after the diagnosis she informed herself extensively about healthy nutrition. On the Internet, she read about the health benefits of a vegan, i.e. purely plant-based diet. Since she had been living vegetarian since she was 16 years old, the change was not difficult for her. At first she deleted dairy products from her diet, later also eggs.
“Much less flatulence”.
Sarah is sure that the complete renunciation of animal food is good for her health: “I soon noticed that I have much less flatulence as a result,” she remembers and nods as if to self-affirmation. The health aspect of the vegan diet was her first priority. Only later did it become important to her to spare dairy cows and laying hens suffering.
Sarah is not the only one convinced that the healthiest form of nutrition is vegan. Four out of ten people associate vegan products with the topic of health, according to a survey of German organic consumers conducted by the opinion research institute Biopinio in 2016. Even more frequently, respondents cite only the topic of animal welfare.
The association ProVeg Germany lists on its website over 20 health problems and civilisation diseases that can allegedly be improved by a vegan diet. The span reaches from A such as Arthritis to Z such as Zliakie. In a television documentation of the Bavarian broadcast Bavarian sports scientist Katharina Wirnitzer claims even that a vegane nutrition increases the sporty achievement of our body. Germany’s first vegan kindergarten opened in Frankfurt at the beginning of August. Among other things, its operators want to encourage children to eat healthy and sustainable foods.
The apparently numerous health advantages fire the popularity of the vegetable nourishing way – supported by prominent ones such as cook book author and noble snack owner Attila Hildmann. In its book Vegan for Youth it maintains that by vegane food innumerable nourish-conditioned chronic disease pictures in only 30 days heal off . The self-proclaimed “vegan king” is not alone in elevating veganism to a hip lifestyle with a health bonus. On the social media platform Instagram, over 170,000 articles on #veganhealth alone compete for the attention of health-conscious followers.
Vegetarians as healthy as vegans
But what is the point of these assertions? The Italian scientist Monica Dinu from the University of Florence wanted to know exactly. Together with her research team, she analyzed all the significant studies published to date on this question and summarized their results. Her work, published in 2017, seems to confirm the health benefit at first glance. On average, vegans are less susceptible to cancer than people who eat meat. However, the summarised study data also show that this is also the case for vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products.
The vegetarian participants in the studies are significantly healthier than those who eat meat. For example, they are less likely to have a heart attack. However, the data do not show that the absence of eggs and milk is another health benefit. There are no results that attribute the vegan diet a health superiority. Thus also the Ernhrungswissenschafterin Petra Rust of the University of Vienna sees that: Veganer have mostly a lower body weight, a lower blood pressure, lower blood fat values and a smaller diabetes risk. However, vegetarians also have these advantages.”
That actually the renouncement of meat is the cause for it is not completely secured however even here. The average vegetarian is a non-smoker, drinks less alcohol and does more exercise than people who eat meat. “All this also has a positive effect on health, but is difficult to separate from the effect of nutrition,” explains Antje Gahl of the German Nutrition Society. Only when large quantities of red meat and meat products are regularly on the menu does the risk of illness seem to increase. This is shown, among other things, by a summary study analysis conducted by the World Health Organization in 2015.
While vegan lifestyle websites and cookbooks exuberantly point out the unproven health benefits, they hardly mention the possible disadvantages. Five years ago, Marie experienced on her own body what these can be. At that time her need for sleep was so immense that she slept up to 14 hours every night. Nevertheless, the then student often felt exhausted during the day and barely able to concentrate on writing her master’s thesis. “I also had severe hair loss and dark circles around my eyes that looked like I had been beaten,” she remembers. For several months they were tormented by these conditions until a doctor discovered the cause: iron deficiency. Only several infusions with iron preparations improved her symptoms.
Style websites and cookbooks exuberantly point out the unproven health benefits, they hardly mention the possible disadvantages. Five years ago, Marie experienced on her own body what these can be. At that time her need for sleep was so immense that she slept up to 14 hours every night. Nevertheless, the then student often felt exhausted during the day and barely able to concentrate on writing her master’s thesis. “I also had severe hair loss and dark circles around my eyes that looked like I had been beaten,” she remembers. For several months they were tormented by these conditions until a doctor discovered the cause: iron deficiency. Only several infusions with iron preparations improved her symptoms.
Low iron values due to meat renunciation
Marie had been vegan for about two years at that time, before she had been vegetarian for several years. Because she didn’t eat meat or fish, she didn’t need an important source of iron. This nutrient is a component of the red blood pigment and indispensable for oxygen transport in the blood. It is also found in plant foods in theoretically sufficient quantities, but it is more difficult for the body to use than iron from animal sources.
For this reason, the body’s own iron reserves are lower in many vegan and vegetarian people than in mixed foods. This is shown by an analysis of previous studies published in 2016 at the University of Vienna. For some people, this can lead to an increased risk of anaemia due to iron deficiency. Women are affected more often than men because they lose a lot of iron during menstruation. According to expert Rust, this could be avoided by taking vitamin C together with iron-containing foods. The body can thus make better use of iron from plant sources.
A lack of vitamin B12 has an even more serious effect. This vitamin occurs in significant amounts exclusively in animal foods, so vegans must take it regularly in the form of capsules or pills. Failure to do so can result in anaemia and even nerve damage over the years. If pregnant or nursing mothers eat vegan food and do not consume enough vitamin B12, this can have particularly dramatic consequences. Cases are documented in which infants suffered permanent brain damage due to vitamin deficiency. This is one of the reasons why the German Society for Nutrition during pregnancy, childhood and adolescence advises against a vegan diet.
When vegans remove milk and eggs from their diet, they also do without essential nutrients. Milk, for example, is a good source of calcium and, like eggs, contains full-fledged proteins. These offer a balanced mixture of all those amino acids – the components of proteins – that the body cannot produce itself. Other nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, zinc, selenium and vitamin B2 can also be neglected in a purely vegetable diet.