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NMU – 183 Benefits of Vegan and Vegetarian Diets and Risk of Nutrient Deficiencies

Lifestyle Medicine Update No 183 (November 25, 2020)

with Dr. James Meschino

 

Topic: Benefits of Vegan and Vegetarian Diets and Risk of Nutrient Deficiencies

Source: German Science Journal: Aerzteblatte.de

 

A 2020 German study has brought to light the health benefits of a vegan and vegetarian diet but has also exposed the risk of developing certain nutrient deficiencies when subscribing to these increasingly popular dietary practices. To paraphrase their opening remarks, they comment that in recent years, the interest in a vegan diet, avoiding all foods of animal origin, has been growing steadily in Germany. Currently, approximately 6 million German citizens follow a vegetarian diet and almost 1 million a vegan diet (no foods of animal origin period, including dairy and eggs). (Germany’s population is 83 million, so almost 8.5% of the population are vegetarians or vegans). Data from the 7-day Adventist Health Study in the US have shown positive effects of these diets against the development of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular mortality in males. In addition, a recent meta-analysis showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a reduced risk of ischemic heart disease and cancer compared to meat-eaters, even after adjusting for key confounding factors, such as smoking and body mass index. They conclude a meat-free diet would be desirable regarding the health of the entire population. Furthermore, reduced consumption of foods of animal origin could contribute to ensuring food security in the future and combating climate change.

However, as healthy as a vegan or vegetarian diet might be it can also make it difficult to acquire desirable levels of all the vitamins and minerals required to maintain the health of all our organs and tissues.  As such German researchers investigated the dietary intake, basic laboratory parameters, vitamin status, and trace-mineral status of 36 vegans and 36 omnivorous (people who include meat in their diet). Each group consisted of 18 men and 18 women aged 30–60. The results showed that among vegans they had lower blood concentrations of vitamin B2, vitamin B3, vitamin E, vitamin A, selenium, and zinc as well as a reduced excretion of iodine and calcium in 24-hour urine samples compared to omnivores. Most vegans are aware that they are at risk for a vitamin B12 deficiency, and thus, most vegans take a vitamin B12 supplement to adjust for this fact. But they may not be aware of other nutrient deficiencies they are prone to, such as vitamin B2, vitamin B3, Vitamin E, vitamin A, selenium, zinc, and calcium, as this study demonstrated. Vegans also tend to have lower vitamin D levels unless they take a vitamin D supplement.  In this study, the higher level of parathyroid hormone found in the urine of vegans is also a sign of insufficient calcium intake, which increases the risk of osteoporosis. Vegans in Germany also show a high prevalence of iodine deficiency, where the use of iodized salt is voluntary.  In Canada iodized salt is mandatory to guard against iodine deficiency, so iodine deficiency in North America is not as common of a problem compared to Germany.

So, what can we conclude from all of this? Evidence is quite convincing that a more plant-based diet is helpful in preventing many degenerative diseases, including many types of cancer and heart disease. But, you have to prudent in how you approach it, by including daily consumption of a wide variety of vegetables, legumes, fruit, and nuts, and I would strongly suggest the inclusion of soy products (unless you are allergic or sensitive to them). But even then, taking a high potency multiple vitamin and mineral supplement makes sense to guard against vitamin, mineral, and trace mineral deficiencies that are common in vegans and to some degree among vegetarians. For those avoiding dairy products, ensuring adequate calcium intake from other calcium-fortified foods and/or supplements makes good sense to help prevent osteoporosis. And for anyone living above or below the 40th-degree latitude, it’s critical to know your blood vitamin D level, and it’s very likely that you will need at least 600-1,000 IU of vitamin D each day from supplementation to get your blood level into the desirable range – above 75 nmol/L. So, a more plant-based diet is certainly desirable, but this study, and others, show that you need to guard against certain nutrient deficiencies if you go down this path. A high potency multiple vitamin and mineral supplement is a strong consideration in this regard.

I have included the study reference in the text below.

Reference:

Cornelia Weikert, Iris Trefflich, Juliane Menzel, Rima Obeid, Alessa Longree, Jutta Dierkes, Klaus Meyer, Isabelle Herter-Aeberli, Knut Mai, Gabriele I. Stangl, Sandra M. Müller, Tanja Schwerdtle, Alfonso Lampen, Klaus Abraham. Vitamin and mineral status in a vegan dietDeutsches Aerzteblatt Online, 2020; https://www.aerzteblatt.de/int/archive/article/215079

 

Eat Smart, Live Well, Look Great,

 

Dr. Meschino

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