Vegan nutrition – how it can be healthy – encyclopedia for medicine & health

Vegan nutrition – how it can be healthy

The purely plant-based diet is rapidly approaching mainstream society. More and more people take part in the annual “Veganuary” and switch to plant-based food partially or even permanently. What this means for their health is a matter of controversy. It’s hard to keep track of things in this mess. A professional perspective helps.

What distinguishes a vegan diet?

A vegan diet does not consume any food of animal origin. This excludes not only meat, dairy products and eggs from the menu, but also gummy bears with gelatine, various flavors, animal additives such as carmine and juices and wines that have been clarified with egg white or gelatine.

At first glance, this form of nutrition seems very restrictive, which is why many people express concerns about its practicality. According to a meta-analysis , however, the positive side effects on health associated with a vegan diet include , for example, reduced risks for

  • overweight,
  • Diabetes,
  • individual cancers
  • and cardiovascular diseases

counting. However, it should be said that this only applies if the vegan diet is healthy and balanced. With the growing popularity of plant-based products, so has the supply of highly processed foods, which can be bad for your health, regardless of diet.

What are the possible risks of a vegan diet?

A frequently cited argument against vegan nutrition is the position of the German Society for Nutrition (DGE), which considers various nutrients to be critical and potentially critical. It should be noted: the only really critical nutrient is vitamin B12. Then there are the potentially critical nutrients

  • Protein or essential amino acids
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin B2
  • Calcium
  • Eisen
  • Iodine
  • Zink
  • Selenium
  • and omega-3 fatty acids.

By potentially critical is meant that these nutrients may not be present in sufficient quantities in a vegan diet. The DGE is absolutely right about this, which is why its position in this regard should be taken seriously. However, this does not mean that a vegan diet is impossible.

One of the world’s largest nutritional societies, the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, describes a well-planned vegan diet as appropriate for all phases of life, from pregnancy and breastfeeding to childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. The addition “well planned” is important here, because without nutritional knowledge it can actually be difficult to eat a purely plant-based diet to cover your needs.

Excursus: The National Consumption Study II – Nutrient undersupply also in omnivores

The vegan diet often appears to be particularly risky, since, according to the DGE, people find it difficult to cover their nutritional needs with it. Here, however, it is important to look at the situation in a more differentiated way, with the help of the National Consumption Study II (NVS II) [3]. It was carried out a few years ago to find out what the nutrient supply of the German population was like.

Mainly people with a mixed diet took part in the NVSII. The scientists found out that an undersupply of nutrients is not uncommon in these groups of people either. A need that was often not met arose from:

  • Vitamin D: 91 percent of women and 82 percent of men
  • Vitamin B2: 20 percent of women and 26 percent of men
  • Vitamin B12: 26 percent of women and 8 percent of men
  • Calcium: 55 percent of women and 46 percent of men
  • Iron: 58 percent of women and 14 percent of men
  • Iodine (without iodized salt): 97 percent of women and 96 percent of men
  • Zinc: 21 percent of women and 32 percent of men

It may therefore be true that there is a risk of nutrient deficiencies in the context of a vegan diet and that this requires a well-considered meal plan. However, this does not mean that people who eat mixed diets are per se free from the risk of deficiency. They also benefit from a well-planned diet.

Eating a wholesome diet is essential for vegans

A well thought-out vegan diet includes the regular use of all relevant food groups. These include:

  • Fruit: Provides valuable vitamins, fiber and, depending on the variety, minerals.
  • Vegetables: Depending on the variety, they are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and secondary plant substances.
  • Whole grain cereals: Contains significant amounts of protein, fiber, B vitamins and valuable minerals such as zinc and iron.
  • Calcium-enriched plant milk: With 120mg of calcium per liter, it helps to cover your daily needs.
  • Legumes: Are rich in protein, fiber, phytochemicals, B vitamins and valuable minerals.
  • Soy products: are excellent suppliers of essential amino acids and therefore contribute to a vegan diet that covers all needs. Myths about the harmfulness of soy due to the phytoestrogens it contains have now been disproved.
  • Nuts, kernels and seeds: Are good suppliers of B vitamins and, depending on the variety, also of high-quality fatty acids, fiber and minerals.

Since the bioavailability of various nutrients such as iron, protein, zinc and vitamin B2 from plant sources is not always as good as that from animal sources, it is necessary to adjust the diet accordingly.

For example, the bioavailability of plant-based non-heme iron can be increased by serving a source of vitamin C with food and only consuming coffee about an hour and a half apart from a meal. It also makes sense to break down phytic acid in whole grains by soaking, sprouting or roasting, as this can otherwise inhibit the absorption of minerals such as iron and zinc.

Blood levels for vegans

In order to find out whether their own supply of nutrients is guaranteed, vegans should have a blood test carried out regularly . A small blood count is not sufficient here, because this does not include any micronutrient values. Values ​​that should be checked once a year for vegan adults and twice a year for plant-based children are:

  • Holo-Transcobalamin: Is a meaningful marker for vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Ferritin: Describes the status of iron stores
  • 25-OH vitamin D3: Provides information about a possible vitamin D deficiency
  • zinc in the serum
  • selenium in serum
  • EGRAC: reveals whether sufficient vitamin B2 is being absorbed

If you want to have your iodine supply checked, you should not choose the blood value, but an excretion test via the urine .

Supplements in the vegan diet

  • Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 supplementation is essential in a vegan diet. Cyanocobalamin is the most researched and stable variant, but should not be taken by smokers and people with kidney disease. Instead, you should choose methylcobalamin or a so-called MHA formula, which consists of the three forms methyl-, hydroxo- and adenosylcobalamin.
As for the dosage of vitamin B12, vegans need to know that the amount consumed once does not correspond to the dose contained in the supplement. The so-called intrinsic factor, which is formed in the gastric mucosa, limits the intake of vitamin B12 to around 1.5 µg per meal. However, the daily requirement of an adult is around 4 µg, for example, which is why passive absorption via the oral and intestinal mucosa is also necessary. This amounts to about one percent of the total dose.
Consequently, the recommended daily dose for a healthy adult with no absorption disorders would be 250 µg. Here 1.5 µg comes from the intrinsic factor and 2.5 µg from passive absorption. This only applies to cyanocobalamin, other forms may require higher dosages.
  • Iodine
Covering the iodine requirement with iodized salt alone is difficult given the content of just under 20 µg per gram. After all, an adult person needs around 200 µg of iodine daily. For this reason, vegan people can either use a supplement or suitable algae such as nori.
Algae should definitely have analysis values ​​and not be too rich in iodine. It is best for patients with thyroid disorders to discuss iodine intake with their endocrinologist beforehand .
  • Selenium
The soils in Germany are low in selenium, which is why plant foods hardly contain this nutrient. It is often said that the demand can be met with Brazil nuts. However, the fluctuation ranges are often very large, so that it is not certain how much selenium is actually in a nut.
If you want to be on the safe side, you can take a supplement with selenomethionine or sodium selenite in the right (!) dosage for your personal needs.
  • Vitamin D
The human body can synthesize vitamin D through the skin. However, this does not apply to people who spend most of their time indoors in summer and also not during the months of October to April. For this reason, a deficiency is very common and can cause symptoms such as depressive moods or susceptibility to infections.
The correct dose can only be calculated when a blood value is available. Again, a doctor should be consulted.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
The essential fatty acids omega 3 (alpha-linolenic acid, ALA for short) and omega 6 (linoleic acid, LA for short) are ingested through food. The body then uses omega 3 to form the fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). However, it can only do this if sufficient ALA is available and not too much LA is consumed.
This is because ALA and LA use the same system within metabolism. The more LA there is, the more difficult it is for the body to form DHA and EPA, because the alpha-linolenic acid can hardly be used. For this reason, it may make sense to supplement DHA and EPA via enriched microalgae oil.
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.