Vegetarians and vegans are often warned that their diet can cause deficiency symptoms. Children, pregnant and lactating women are particularly at risk. What are the advantages of this form of nutrition for animal welfare and your own health.
People who don’t eat meat often hear from their peers that they should pay special attention to deficiency symptoms. Children, pregnant and lactating women in particular are considered at risk. On the other hand, most vegetarians and vegans are convinced that a meat-free diet protects health and animals and that a diet rich in plants can increase life expectancy. Therefore, the ZAVA medical team reflected on the advantages and disadvantages of a vegetarian and vegan life.
Why are people vegetarian or vegan?
Currently it can be assumed that around one in 10 Germans over the age of 18 lives as a vegetarian. Women are more vegetarian than men. Thus, the typical vegetarian is young, female, and comparatively highly educated. About one in 10 vegetarians even eat vegan.
Common reasons given for vegetarianism include:
• health factors (high cholesterol levels),
• moral concerns,
• an aversion to meat and meat products as well
• Motivation for vegetarian nutrition through various meat scandals.
Are vegetarians healthier than meat eaters?
In 2013, doctors from the University of Oxford published the acclaimed EPIC study on the health of vegetarians. More than 40,000 people participated in the study, one in three of whom was a vegetarian. Doctors found that vegetarians actually had some health benefits over carnivores:
• fewer heart attacks
• reduce fats and cholesterol in the blood
• low blood pressure
• a lower BMI
For people with high levels of fat and cholesterol in their blood, it may make sense to avoid eating meat in addition to a generally low-cholesterol diet. In addition, the proven cholesterol reduction with statins should be considered.
With what nutrients are vegetarians better supplied than carnivores?
A good quality vegetarian diet leads to a good supply of
• the minerals magnesium and potassium,
• the vitamins folic acid, vitamins C and E,
• Secondary plant substances such as (poly)phenols, flavonoids, phytosterols and carotenoids.
At the same time, however, the following also applies: A balanced and varied, non-vegetarian diet also leads to an adequate supply of these nutrients.
Effect of diet on cancer.
Large meta-analyses suggest that vegetarians may be less likely to develop cancer than non-vegetarians. However, the deciding factor here is the type of meat-based diet that studies compare vegetarianism to.
Large amounts of red meat in particular are associated with an increased risk of cancer. For example, in June 2014, researchers reported in the renowned British Medical Journal (BMJ) that consuming large amounts of red meat increased the risk of breast cancer. Researchers evaluated data from more than 80,000 young women in the US A few years ago, researchers at Harvard Medical School found in two large studies that higher consumption of red meat is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer prostate and colon.
Are vegetarians more likely to suffer from protein deficiency?
Proteins are found in both animal and plant foods. With a varied vegetarian diet in which vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and grains are consumed every day, there is usually no need to worry about a protein deficiency.
Are vegetarians more likely to suffer from iron deficiency?
Yes, vegetarians and vegans have lower body iron stores than carnivores. This is due to the fact that plants contain less iron. In addition, the human body can better use animal iron. To facilitate the absorption of iron, it is recommended to combine plant foods rich in iron such as legumes, nuts, tofu, millet, turnip greens and parsley with foods rich in vitamin C. Iron is then better absorbed by the body.
Examples of this combination would be a stew of peas or broad beans with peppers or the oriental hummus of chickpeas and sesame with parsley and lemon juice. Iron supplements should only be taken in consultation with a doctor. The doctor can determine a possible iron deficiency through a laboratory test. Especially women who follow a strict vegetarian diet should have their iron levels checked regularly due to blood loss during their period.
What happens with iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency is a common deficiency symptom in Europe and the most common cause of anemia. The body needs iron for blood formation. The trace element is incorporated into red blood cells. Red blood cells (erythrocytes) carry the oxygen that is inhaled with the lungs to all the organs of the body. If there is a lack of iron, an important component for the pigment of red blood cells, the so-called hemoglobin, is missing. Without the dye, red blood cells cannot carry oxygen.
In this context, doctors speak of hypochromic anemia, microcytic anemia, or iron deficiency anemia for short. With an iron deficiency, red blood cells are smaller and contain less red pigment. Also, fewer red blood cells are formed. In addition to blood formation, our body needs iron for many other processes. Iron deficiency has a negative effect.
• detoxification of harmful substances,
• power generation,
• tissue regeneration and repair.
What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
The body is greatly weakened by iron deficiency. This is expressed, among other things, by
• pale skin,
• Hair loss,
• brittle nails,
• broken corners of the mouth,
• Headaches and
• Difficult to focus.
Is vitamin B12 deficiency a problem with a meatless diet?
Although the body can store vitamin B12 (cobalamin) in the liver for several years, long-term vegetarians and vegans suffer from a vitamin B12 deficiency much more often. Researchers from Sydney and Hong Kong have found that deficiency is very common among vegetarians and especially vegans. In the Oxford EPIC study, English doctors also found that 52 percent of vegans tested had too low a level of vitamin B12 in their blood.
Liver, milk and eggs are especially rich in vitamin B12. The body needs vitamin B12, for example, for cell division, since it indirectly participates in the production of DNA, the carrier of genetic information. Because blood cells divide particularly quickly, a B12 deficiency also causes anemia. However, unlike iron deficiency, the red and white blood cells here are larger than normal, which doctors call megaloblastic anemia. A deficiency of B12 also causes damage to the digestive tract and the nervous system.
Vegetarians and vegans can have their vitamin B12 supply checked regularly by their doctor. If necessary, B12-enriched drops, tablets or capsules offer a good opportunity to compensate for reduced intake.
Does vegan food contain healthier unsaturated fatty acids?
There are saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Unsaturated fatty acids have a more favorable effect on blood lipids and thus on maintaining the health of blood vessels. However, vegan products are not automatically better than animal products here, because with each type of diet it depends on the selection of products. Finished foods and highly processed foods contain more saturated fat, salt, and simple sugars than unprocessed foods. It doesn’t matter if the food is vegan, vegetarian or of animal origin.
For which nutrients is the risk of deficiency still high?
In addition to vitamin B12 and iron, vegetarians and especially vegans also take less
• Vitamin D,
• Zinc and
• Omega-3 fatty acids.
However, there is also a lack of the mentioned nutrients in people who do not follow any special diet. Ultimately, it is important to eat as varied a diet as possible and to have a rough overview of whether all important nutrients are being supplied in sufficient quantities.
Do pregnant and lactating vegans need vitamin supplements?
During pregnancy, an adequate supply of folic acid, iron, vitamin B12 and iodine is especially important. These nutrients must be supplied in sufficient quantities in advance and supplemented if necessary. Not only vegetarians and vegans, but also women who eat a diet that includes animal products should seek advice on good nutrition before a planned pregnancy.
Vegan diet for children and the elderly?
Since the nutritional requirements of children are extremely high during growth, the Federal Center for Nutrition does not recommend a strictly vegan lifestyle for children. The rule here is: the smaller the child, the more dangerous the vegan diet can be. Otherwise, deficiency symptoms can lead to developmental disorders in the little ones. Before feeding children a vegan diet, parents should definitely discuss plans with a pediatrician and nutritional advice. Older people, for whom the risk of malnutrition is particularly high, should also pay attention to the composition of their diet.
A vegetarian diet with eggs and dairy products, on the other hand, is also not problematic for children. The only thing you need to pay attention to is adequate iron intake. The study on the health of children and young people in Germany (KiGGS) of the Robert Koch Institute has shown that around three percent of those under the age of 18 follow a meatless diet. For girls aged 14 to 17, the proportion is even double six percent. The proportion of vegetarians is also higher in large cities and among children and youth with a migrant background. There are currently no reliable figures on the number of vegan children.
Pickaxe Ace AG / ZAVA / RNRed