How a plant-based lifestyle is NOT better for your health – and it certainly won’t save the planet


In recent years we’ve been lectured by Netflix documentaries, celebrities and charities that going vegan is the single best thing you can do for your health.

And the powerful message seems to have cut through — with up to eight million Americans and 1.5million Britons  following a plant-based diet representing an up to ten-fold uptick from a decade ago.

One of the biggest selling points of veganism was that it cut out red meat and mince, which have long been linked to cancer.

But a growing body of evidence suggests going vegan may also be detrimental to your health, especially without heavy supplementation.

Studies have shown vegans are more likely to face broken bones and anemia, because the restrictive diet leaves them missing out on key nutrients that only dairy and meat can provide in high enough quantities.

And while some research indicates that a plant-based diet may decrease your risk of a heart attack or type 2 diabetes, the deficiencies it triggers may raise the likelihood of suffering a stroke.

In recent years there has been a surge in highly-processed vegan foods — made to taste like the real thing — which experts say are just as bad, if not worse, for our health.

Entire supermarket aisles have been dedicated to plant-based products, from vegan cheeses to meat-free burgers and non-dairy ice cream.

To achieve the impossible task of making bland vegetables or tofu credible substitutes, food makers often have to cram them full of unhealthy oils, starch and other ingredients high in saturated fat, sugar and salt. 

In many cases, they are higher in calories and lower in vital nutrients than animal-based products.

DailyMail.com reveals how going vegan isn’t always a good health choice: 

Many people are sold veganism over benefits that it can help with weight loss and even reduce the risk of some types of cancer. But switching to the diet also carries a number of health risks because it can lead to someone becoming deficient in nutrients normally acquired from vitamins and animal products

Bone fractures

The 2018 Netflix documentary ‘The Game Changers’ was a smash hit for the streaming service, estimated to be its ‘most watched’ documentary ever at the time.

It claimed that eating meat could hinder an athletes performance, and wreak havoc on the heart, sexual function and lead to an early death.

Yet studies in the years since have shown vegans are much more likely to suffer from a calcium deficient diet than meat-eaters — putting them at greater risk of brittle bones and an energy deficit.

The human body needs about 1,300 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day to maintain healthy bones, which most get from yoghurts, cheese and milk. 

But vegans must rely on broccoli, spinach and rye bread — which they need to eat in unmanageable amounts — to get enough of the mineral.

WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?

  •  Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count;

  • Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain;

  • 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on;

  • Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options;

  • Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily);

  • Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts;

  • Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day;

  • Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day.

    Source: NHS Eatwell Guide

When there is a deficiency, the body starts to re-absorb calcium from bones and use it for other functions such as helping muscles contract or regulating heart rhythm.

Vegans are more than twice as likely to suffer a hip fracture, ankle injury or other bone damage on their leg, a study from 2020 warned.

They were consuming nearly half the amount of daily calcium as meat eaters, having about 611mg a day compared to 1,058mg among meat eaters.

Scientists behind the research believe a lack of calcium consumption was behind the higher risk of fractures among vegans.

They also pointed the finger at rapid weight loss — a cited benefit of veganism.

They said that losing weight would leave less ‘cushioning’ for bones when someone falls, raising the risk of a fracture. They also said being lighter means bones need to carry less weight, leading to them being weaker.

Another paper from 2022 warned vegetarian women had a higher risk of breaking their hips later in life compared to meat-eaters. 

It involved 26,000 middle-aged women and revealed those who did not eat meat had a 33 per cent higher risk of fractures. Although these women still consumed milk and eggs, the results also suggest vegans are more at risk.

Another paper from 2008 also warned that vegans are more likely to suffer bone fractures.

The study looked at 26,000 women and 8,000 men, including 1,100 vegans. It found that after five years vegans were on average 30 per cent more likely to suffer a fracture than meat-eaters.

But for vegans that consumed supplements of about 525milligrams (mg) a day, they were just as likely to suffer fractures as others.

Supporters of the vegan diet argue, however, that it is possible to avoid this effect by eating a planned diet with enough calcium. They also recommend supplements.

Anemia

Normally the body manufactures enough red blood cells to supply adequate oxygen to all cells, allowing them to carry out their daily functions.

But in anemics, there are too few red blood cells for this task — triggering symptoms including tiredness, pale skin, irregular heartbeats and shortness of breath.

Vegans are at a much higher risk of anemia than meat-eaters because their diets cut out animal products, key sources of the iron and vitamin B12 needed for making red blood cells.

Some 6.6 per cent of vegans suffer from anemia, a 2019 study suggested, double the 2.9 per cent of meat-eaters that had the condition. Among vegetarians the rate was 3.9 per cent.

This paper had a large sample size, involving more than 200,000 people in the UK, including 6,500 vegans.

Vegetarian women are a THIRD more likely to suffer hip fractures

Vegetarian women have a higher risk of breaking their hips in later life compared to meat-eaters, research suggested in August.

A study of more than 26,000 middle-aged women has revealed those who do not eat meat and fish have a 33 per cent higher risk of hip fractures.

This could be because they have a lower intake of nutrients that are linked with bone and muscle health, the researchers said.

And it reinforces advice that vegetarians should fortify their diets with key nutrients, they added.

A team from Leeds University investigated the risk of hip fracture in occasional meat-eaters, pescatarians – who eat fish but not meat – and vegetarians compared to regular meat-eaters.

Among 26,318 women, 822 hip fracture cases were observed over roughly 20 years – meaning around 3 per cent of women experienced them.

Analysis, published in the journal BMC Medicine, found that after adjusting for factors such as smoking and age, vegetarians were the only diet group with an elevated risk of hip fracture.

The team also discovered the average BMI among vegetarians was slightly lower than the average among the regular meat eaters.

Previous research has shown a link between low BMI and high risk of hip fracture, which could help explain the finding.

Lead author James Webster said vegetarian diets can vary, with some still being unhealthy.

‘Our study highlights potential concerns regarding risk of hip fracture in women who have a vegetarian diet,’ he said.

‘However, it is not warning people to abandon vegetarian diets. As with any diet, it is important to understand personal circumstances and what nutrients are needed for a balanced healthy lifestyle.

‘Vegetarian diets can vary widely from person to person and can be healthy or unhealthy, just like diets that include animal products.

‘However, it is concerning that vegetarian diets often have lower intakes of nutrients that are linked with bone and muscle health. These types of nutrients generally are more abundant in meat and other animal products than in plants, such as protein, calcium, and other micronutrients.

‘Low intake of these nutrients can lead to lower bone mineral density and muscle mass, which can make you more susceptible to hip fracture risk.’

Another paper from 2016 also warned that vegans needed to ensure a nutritional balance, after finding they were more likely to suffer from borderline anemia than meat-eaters.

Women need about 15mg of iron a day up to the age of 50 years, but after menopause this drops to 8.7mg. Men need about 8mg a day.

Red meats including beef, lamb and pork as well as liver, poultry and salmon are rich in iron and vitamin B12.

But vegans will need to eat lentils, chickpeas, tofu and fortified cereals to meet their daily recommended intakes — and consume more than if they were eating meat, which could lead to weight gain.

A fifth of vegans are already thought to be deficient in vitamin B12, according to a 2019 study, which doctors warn leaves them at risk of irreversible nerve damage leaving the hands and feet numb. 

They are also at higher risk because the iron in plants is not as easily absorbed by the body as the iron in meat, meaning they will need to consume more.

Again, supporters of the diet recommend vegans take iron and vitamin B12 supplements to avoid the deficiency — and the resulting anemia. 

Stroke/ B12 deficiency 

Some scientists suggest dining on a vegan diet may actually raise your risk of stroke.

It is well-established that avoiding eating red meat will help lower someone’s risk of suffering heart disease, and also cut their risk of type 2 diabetes.

But a British study involving 48,000 people — including 16,000 vegans — found there were three more cases of stroke per 100,000 people among vegans compared to meat eaters.

The scientists warned their results were observational, meaning they did not prove that the change in nutrients being taken on the diet was behind the higher risk.

But in the 2019 paper they did point out that a deficiency of vitamin B12 — more common in vegans — raises the risk of stroke. 

This was because its absence inhibits the clearance of proteins from the blood stream, leading to higher levels of inflammation — which in turn raise the risk that blood vessels could be damaged risking strokes.

This connection was not observed in other studies — including one from 2016 that involved 60,000 Britons and 2,200 vegans.

The jury is still out on whether a vegan diet raises someone’s risk of suffering stroke, with experts saying more studies are needed to shore-up the findings. 

Adults need about 2.4mg of vitamin B12 a day to function normally, US officials say.

Top sources for meat eaters include sardines, beef, tuna and animal liver. For vegans, top sources are marmite, fortified soy and some plant-based meats.

Hair loss

There are anecdotal reports that vegan’s are more likely to suffer hair loss than people who eat meat, although the hypothesis is yet to be backed up by any rigorous scientific studies.

Dr Anabel Kingsley – a scalp health expert – previously said, however, that as hair is not an ‘essential tissue’ when there is a deficiency of key nutrients the body may discard it.

‘If you’re not eating enough of the correct foods or your body is not absorbing enough of the nutrients, this can result in excessive shedding,’ she told the Insider. ‘Even if you’re only slightly deficient in a nutrient, the body withholds this from the hair first.’

Loss of hair linked to veganism is temporary scientists say, with the lost strands returning once the nutrient deficiency subsides. This differs from baldness, which is caused by changing testosterone levels.

Hair is made of keratin, which is made from several different proteins found in animal tissue.

A vitamin B12 or iron deficiency could also trigger hair loss, scientists argue, because the anemia it causes would lead to too little oxygen getting to areas like the scalp.

This may lead to hair follicles being unable to regrow hairs lost, leading to balding.

Several studies have previously linked nutrient deficiencies to hair loss, including a paper in 2019 and another from this year. 

Depression

Many believe swearing off meat and other animal products should leave people feeling good about themselves for protecting wildlife and the planet.

But a growing body of evidence suggests people who have turned vegan are more likely to be depressed than those who eat meat.

One study published this year which surveyed 14,000 Brazilians between 35 and 74 years old found those who followed a vegan diet were twice as likely to be depressed — even if they had similar nutrient intakes to carnivores.

A meta-analysis published in 2020 and including 160,000 meat-eaters and 8,500 meat-abstainers also found those who cut meat from their diet were significantly more likely to be depressed.

Many scientists argue this is not connected to the nutritional restrictions that come with veganism. 

Instead they say it is down to people who chose restrictive diets like veganism being more likely to have eating disorders such as anorexia.

They also suggest people who are already depressed may chose the diet plan because they find it easier to empathize with animals, or want to try a different diet to see whether it eases their depression.

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