As of 2020, the number of vegans in the United States alone reached 9.6 million. This shouldn’t be too surprising as the vegan diet has been known to be one of the healthiest diets in the world. It can be great for the environment, animals and your overall health, but there could be hidden risks to the diet. While it may be popularized across social media by celebrities, fitness instructors and influencers, let’s take a look at what may go on behind the scenes.
First, vegan diets consist mainly of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, grains and nuts. Most importantly, animal products are not allowed in the vegan diet. The first misconception that many people have when it comes to veganism is that they will automatically be healthier — and this may not be the case. Although the vegan diet has been associated with foods lower in cholesterol and salt, as well as preventing heart disease, if it is not done correctly, it can lead to detrimental effects on your body.
Before immediately jumping into the popular diet, it’s important to do some research on how best to include calories, rather than opting for meat and dairy substitutes. Diana Bedoya, a professor in the Kinesiology department at Simon Fraser University, explains this is more common than many think, and it can even have serious health consequences.
“Vegans and vegetarians are at a higher risk for certain nutritional deficiencies,” Bedoya says. “In particular, vegans might be deficient in iron, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 … the main thing I would say to someone who is considering veganism is you have to really make sure that it is nutritionally complete.”
When asked if veganism is healthy, Bedoya let out a small chuckle, “Technically if you eat fries with ketchup every day and potato chips and coca-cola you can still be vegan, so it depends,” she explains.“Veganism, in general, can be very healthy if it’s based on whole foods and a variety of foods, and you are not dealing with any kind of nutrient deficiencies.”
Nicole Stein, a student at Kenyon College, has had quite an interesting experience with veganism. Stein had been vegan for four years before deciding to go back to the omnivore diet.
Stein says that, in an attempt to lose weight in middle school, she started watching YouTube videos from vegan creators, mentioning that her favorite was “Freelee the Banana Girl,” whose diet consisted solely of fruit.
At the time, Stein says that her view on veganism was not very well informed.
“It wasn’t at a great point in my life to be doing the vegan diet,” Stein says. “I was dealing with body image issues and I really only did it to lose weight, not to be healthier.”
At first, her energy seemed to increase. She was cooking more with her family and eating less processed foods — and life seemed great. However, the tide turned within a matter of months.
Stein started having digestive problems, as well as acid reflux. At first, she passed it off as no big deal, but then it got out of control to the point where she felt uncomfortable. After speaking with her doctors and trying out supplements with no luck, she finally decided that the vegan diet wasn’t right for her and decided to transition into eating meat again, sans pork and red meat.
Stein explains that stepping away from the vegan diet was challenging mentally. She says she felt pressure from the community to stick with it but actually experienced the resurfacing of her body image issues.
Bedoya touched on this phenomenon.
“There does seem to be a slight association between individuals that become vegan and an increased risk of depressive symptoms. We don’t actually know why that is — we’re still trying to figure out why there is a relationship there.”
In Stein’s case, the link between mental health and veganism had to do with a prior condition, but it is important to note when considering the vegan diet.
Bedoya advises against going completely vegan for purposes of weight loss, as that can be an unhealthy mindset and lead to bad choices and potential consequences for the body. Bedoya adds that it is important to research the vegan diet and talk to a health expert about how to prevent health issues prior to beginning the diet.