People who stay vegan after ‘Veganuary’ should take care not to become deficient in Vitamin B12, scientists have said, as they warned people not to believe online charlatans who claim the diet can provide all their nutrients.
Just like giving up alcohol for ‘Dry January’, many people now go-meat free in the New Year, and some will make it a permanent lifestyle choice.
But speaking at a briefing in London ahead of the campaign, experts from the Universities of Oxford, Leeds and King’s College said as many as one fifth of vegans may be dangerously short of Vitamin B12, which is crucial for healthy nerves, cells and DNA.
Tom Sanders, Professor emeritus of Nutrition and Dietetics at King’s, said he had been ‘really quite shocked’ by how many vegans were ‘seriously deficient’ in the micronutrient, and worried they believed ‘self-appointed experts online.’
“Many new people becoming vegan are unaware of the need to combine sources of plant proteins and they are not aware of the need to make sure they’ve got adequate levels of B12,” added Prof Sanders.
He warned that people were often confused by the fact that the great apes like gorillas have a predominantly vegan diet, when in fact, they get a lot vitamins because their hands are dirty.
Vitamin B12 is found largely in fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products rather than plant based food, and many herbivorous animals get their quote through eating their own faeces.
Prof Sanders also cautioned against replacing meat with options such as cauliflower or jackfruit which are not a good alternative in terms of protein.
Many plant-based milks are also low in protein and should contain three times more vitamin B12, he said.
It takes several years to become deficient in the key vitamin, which can lead to neuropathy, nerve damage, irreversible numbness, degeneration of the spinal cord and sometimes even death.
He cautioned replacing meat with options such as cauliflower or jackfruit was not a good alternative in terms of protein.
Prof Sanders also said that consumption of nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, among young people can cause vitamin B12 deficiency and “tip the balance to them getting serious neuropathy”.
Which vegan tribe are you?
- The vegangelist: The leather-shunning, honey-dodging bona fide vegan, who can occasionally be a tad evangelistic about their beliefs.
- The flegan: Like a flexitarian, a flegan is a flexible or part-time vegan who has vegan beliefs, mostly shuns animal produce, but gets waylaid by the occasional roast dinner.
- The seagan: Vegans who eat seafood (sea-gan, get it?) The term appeared in the Urban Dictionary back in 2007 but was largely unheard-of until recently, when several books on seaganism were published. Fans point out that, ethical issues aside, fish and seafood are full of iron, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
- The pegan: Peganism is the lovechild of veganism and the paleo diet. The latter involves grass-fed meat, nuts and seeds, seafood, eggs and fresh vegetables and fruit, while shunning grains and dairy. But while the meat-heavy paleo diet seems at odds with veganism, the term pegan was coined by Dr Mark Hyman, an American physician and best-selling author, who argues they overlap well. A pegan diet involves 75 per cent plants, with some meat and animal products (but no dairy), along with limited beans, legumes and gluten-free grains.Tim Key, Professor of Epidemiology and Deputy Director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, at the University of Oxford, said there was a concern that people tempted to go vegan for January without reading up on how to do so healthily.
He said: “You’re not going to get vitamin B12 deficiency in one month in Veganuary, but if people become vegan because of that and never actually bother to read up on what you need to eat as a vegan, I would be worried they don’t know about B12, and it’s clearly important – they just need a few sentences of education to say ‘you must have B12 and you should be a bit sensible about protein sources’.
“I’m worried that doesn’t always happen with people becoming vegan now, they just think vegan food is ok, I’ll eat it, and that’s it.”
The experts, also warned that vegans should be aware of the rise of vegan “fast food” which often had more fat, sugar and salt than non-vegan options.
They said there has been a “rapid large increase in processed foods that look like animal foods but are not really designed to be nutritionally equivalent or better”.
The experts said there was no difference in mortality rates between vegans and non-vegans, and said they may be at risk from bone fractures through a lack of calcium. However they said that vegans tended to be thinner and their risk of heart problems was lower.
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