When people don’t listen to the experts
Dietician Jane Clarke accepts that cutting down on meat can be beneficial for health, but is concerned by veganism’s wholesale promotion by bloggers, rather than health experts.
“It’s great that there is now a much wider range of non-meat sources of protein, but the power of social media and supermarkets to influence our food choices needs to be combined with scientific evidence,” she warns, adding that the trend for highly processed vegan food with lots of sugar, fats and salt added to make them tasty shows “you can easily be unhealthy as a vegan”.
Clarke says the evidence still points to the health benefits of a balanced diet – including a limited amount of animal protein and dairy. Research recently published in the journal BMC Medicine found the lowest mortality rates in those eating up to 80g meat a day. “Calcium-rich foods including cow’s milk are proven to be beneficial to bone health and help produce anti-cancer substances such as butyrate. The fact is, meat is a great source of easily accessible protein.”
GP Noreen Nguru, founder of whatthedoctorrecommends.com, says deficiencies of nutrients and vitamins are “common among new and even established vegans, and include micronutrients deficiencies in vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc – all responsible for building strong immune systems and protecting against bone fractures, high blood pressure and fatigue.”
She adds: “Vegans are also at a much higher risk of developing a Vitamin-B12 deficiency which, if left untreated at a significant deficit for too long, can potentially cause irreversible neurological effects such as paresthesia (numbness or tingling in the hands and feet), co-ordination difficulties and even problems with memory.”
Such deficiencies can be prevented with careful supplementation – essential for healthy veganism – but some argue that nutrients and vitamins can be harder for the body to absorb this way. In one study by Oxford University published in 2010, half the vegans in the sample were B12 deficient.
“The implications of diving into a meat-free, egg-free and dairy-free diet without adequate preparation and research are likely to bring more harm than good,” says Nguru. And though she agrees that meat and dairy consumption have been linked to problems such as bowel cancer, “there are several less restrictive diets that offer heart-protective benefits and reduce the risk of cancer, such as low carb and Mediterranean diets rich in omega 3 and good fats.”
A return to meat
Life coach Bianca Reimer, 41, went vegan in 2011, having been largely vegetarian. Despite taking all the recommended supplements as a vegan, including omegas and B12, “I kept craving lamb and chicken,” she recalls. Though she initially felt better, “my energy was still very depleted and my acupuncturist suggested I should eat eggs and meat again. I added salmon, and then I got pregnant after two years of trying. I also started eating chicken and felt so much better for it.”
After returning to meat, she adds, “the impact on my mental and physical wellbeing was close to immediate. But I don’t think there’s a one-diet-fits-all approach. Each of us should eat whatever suits us at different stages of life.”
Currently, 87 per cent of the UK population still eats meat, while 7 per cent are vegetarian and 4 per cent are, like me, pescatarian; between 1 and 2 per cent are vegan. Many ex-vegans find vegetarianism a more successful refuge. Sophia Husbands had a failed attempt at veganism in 2018.
“I did Veganuary for my health,” says Husbands, 41, founder of wellbeing site LoveHappyBody, “but I started to get run down, and developed mouth ulcers in just a month. I felt dizzy and it turned out my iron levels were very low.”
Last year she went vegetarian, and says she’s found the diet much more sustainable. “I’ve lost weight and my skin has improved. But I try to keep a balance now, and I’m wary of totally eliminating anything, as I think that can spark intolerances. If I craved meat or fish, I would return to it.”