10 Potential Risks of a Vegan Diet
Have you ever wondered if a vegan or plant-based diet would help you manage your weight and resolve any nagging health problems? That’s the promise that is often made around this trend.
But, you hear less about the health problems that can occur from a strict plant-based diet that excludes all animal products. This article includes ten reasons that may dispel the myth that veganism is the healthiest diet and works for everyone.
I’ve also included some suggestions for how to counter these potential health risks of a vegan diet.
What Is a Vegan Diet?
What is a vegan diet? Simple put, a vegan diet is one that excludes any food that comes from an animal. This includes eggs, dairy, meat, fish, poultry, and even honey.
Some people take a vegan diet even further and embrace it as a lifestyle, and will not purchase or use any clothing or personal care products that include animal-based ingredients.
A “whole foods, plant-based diet” is more often the term used for an approach that includes fewer processed foods, and a greater emphasis on fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds.
However, even that term can get confusing as paleo diets are considered to be a plant-based approach, but they do include animal products.
What Vegans Eat
If a vegan or plant-based diet does not include any animal products, then what does it include?
Vegans can eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, soy, legumes (beans), nuts, and seeds.
A vegan diet doesn’t necessarily means it’s healthy, though, since it by definition does not exclude a lot of processed foods, sugar, or gluten.
Just look at the popularity of fake meats which are incredibly processed and not necessarily healthy by any stretch of the imagination. See this website https://thevegangarden.com/‘s related article on the potential dangers of plant-based meats.
The healthiest vegan diet is likely a plant-based diet that also is one of the best diets for climate change.
Although some people may thrive on a vegan or plant-based diet, it should be noted that it is considered an extreme diet because of how many foods it excludes, as well as the potential for nutritional deficiencies.
This article includes ten real problems with a plant-based diet, including my experience as a woman whose health declined as a result of being on a strict vegan diet.
If you are 100% committed to eating a vegan diet but you are always feeling tired, you might also want to read my article with tips for how to reverse fatigue on a vegan diet.
This article includes links to scientific studies whenever possible.
However, some of these potential diet dangers are anecdotal and not based on human studies. So, as always, it’s important that you consult your healthcare provider to help determine what type of diet is best for you.
Ten Potential Vegan Diet Dangers
Please note, my intent with this article is not to discredit any of the benefits that can result from eating more plant foods, but to provide cautionary evidence of what can happen if a vegan diet is taken too far and warning signs are ignored.
1. Risk of anemia due to a lack of heme iron
Iron-deficient anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, and both vegans and vegetarians are at higher risk of this condition.
While plant foods contain a form of iron, it is called non-heme iron and it is much less absorbable by the body.
Iron-deficient anemia can lead to serious symptoms including fatigue, and women of child-bearing age should be aware of how a vegan or vegetarian diet can quickly lead to anemia.
While iron supplements can be taken to help reverse or prevent anemia, most women dislike taking iron supplements because potential negative side effects including constipation. It can also be difficult to take enough iron supplements to overcome anemia, especially without eating animal sources of iron.
See my list of the best vitamins for women over 30 or the best vitamins for a teenage girl which include iron to help boost ferritin levels.
You may also want to consider adding cricket protein to your diet. While eating insects is not normally accepted in a vegan diet, it may be a lower-impact way of adding animal protein back into your diet without eating animals like cows, fish, or chicken.
Having your ferritin levels checked regularly if you are a woman of child-bearing age is essential to ensure you don’t become anemic on a plant-based diet. See my article on how to order lab tests without a doctor.
You may also want to consider cooking with a cast iron pan (see my list of the safest cookware).
If you cannot raise your iron levels on a plant-based diet and you are at your wits end, you may consider something called eating “therapeutic meat.” The idea is that you eat just enough meat to raise your iron levels and then go back to a non-meat lifestyle.
This is a practice that is becoming more popular and may be something to consider. It is similar to getting a religious exception to eat certain foods not usually allowed in that religion unless you are sick or elderly.
2. Increased risk of depression with low omega-3 fatty acid intake
Without a food source of omega-3 fatty acids from fish or fish oils and an increased consumption of omega-6 fatty acid from foods like nuts, vegans might be at higher risk from depression.
Algae-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids are an option, but they can be expensive and hard to find. And, since many vegan diets may include a higher than average intake of nuts, the balance of fatty acids in the body can still get off-balance.
There are issues associated with low omega-3 levels and some are quite serious. Pregnant women also need to be extremely aware of their omega-3 intake as the fatty acids help nourish the fetal brain development.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be tested through a blood test, and should be monitored if you start experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety. Please do contact a healthcare professional as soon as you think you might be depressed, as you don’t want the symptoms to get worse.
Once you have your levels tested, you can use algae-based omega-3 supplements to help increase your levels. In the worst case scenarios, you can consider taking a fish oil supplement to get your levels stabilized.
You may also want to consider the best magnesium supplements to help with anxiety.
3. Risk of Vitamin B12 deficiency
Since vitamin B12 is only available in animal foods, vegans are at a much higher risk of developing a deficiency in this vital nutrient.
In fact, most nutrition professionals agree that those on a vegan or vegetarian diet must supplement with a high-quality vitamin B12 supplement to avoid irreversible health conditions that can result from deficiency.
It should also be noted that many people have a genetic variation known as MTHFR that can impact how B vitamins are absorbed. In this case, even certain B vitamin supplementation might not be enough to prevent a deficiency.
If you are at all concerned that you aren’t getting enough vitamin B12 in your diet, then ask your doctor for a vitamin B12 test.
If it turns out you are low in vitamin B12, then you may need to get an injection or use sublingual supplements, plus have your levels monitored regularly.
You may also need to monitor your intake of vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and vitamin B3 (niacin), as these can also be lower on a vegan diet.
4. Inhibition of zinc absorption on vegan and vegetarian diets
Similarly to deficiencies that can occur with vitamin B12, vegan and vegetarian diets can result in low zinc status.
It is theorized that the problem in this case is that higher consumption of plant foods containing phytic acid may inhibit the ability of the body to absorb zinc.
Because of this potential issue with zinc absorption, it is often recommended by nutrition professionals that vegans and vegetarians should increase their intake of zinc up to 50% of the recommended daily allowance to ensure adequate levels.
Good zinc levels are really important for boosting the immune system so it’s important to make sure you’re eating enough food sources of zinc or that you take a zinc supplement.
Plant-based sources of zinc are not as bioavailable as animal sources, so make sure you are getting enough from food sources or from supplements. Be careful with zinc, though, as you don’t want to take too much.
5. Low intake of iodine
Without quality sources of seafood, there is a real risk of not getting enough iodine in both vegan and vegetarian diets.
Iodine deficiency is problematic and can lead to hypothyroidism and other complications.
Vegans and vegetarians can supplement with iodine by using iodized salt or eating seaweed products. But, deficiencies still persist.
6. Not consuming enough calcium
Another nutrient deficiency that can occur with dairy-free, vegan, and plant-based diets is calcium deficiency.
While you can get calcium from plant-based foods, there is generally less calcium than in dairy products. And, plant foods often contain phytates and oxalates than inhibit the absorption of calcium.
A long-term risk of inadequate calcium intake is an increased risk of bone fractures.
If you cannot or do not want to consume dairy products, be sure you are taking a calcium supplement or consuming fortified plant-based milks.
7. Risk of consuming too much carbohydrate
Vegan diets are generally lower in protein and can cause blood sugar swings in certain individuals. There is also the risk of over-consuming carbohydrates on a vegan diet, especially since legumes are often consumed as a protein source, but are very high in carbohydrates.
Vegans may also replace the calories from protein sources with refined carbohydrates including bread, crackers, and cookies.
Over-consuming carbohydrates can lead to non-alchoholic fatty liver disease, blood sugar disregulation, and other troublesome symptoms. See my articles on how to follow a sugar-free diet and how to do a sugar detox.
You may also need to consider eating more complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes as opposed to eating simple carbohydrates like crackers or bread.
You may also want to check out this article on the best gluten-free carbohydrates if you are unsure about which ones you should be eating.
8. Not eating enough high-quality protein
Eating a diet that includes moderate to higher levels of protein has been shown to have a positive effect on satiety and weight management. It can be harder to find quality sources of protein on a vegan diet that aren’t also carbohydrate sources (like beans) or are soy-based.
Without a quality source of lean protein in the diet, vegans may experience fatigue or low exercise tolerance. If that is the case, you may need to consider adding protein powder to your diet.
One risk of not eating enough protein is sarcopenia, or muscle wasting. This may be particularly true for older adults who are on vegan diets.
9. Risk of disordered eating
Orthorexia is a type of eating disorder that is defined by an over-fixation on healthy eating patterns. It can result in over-restriction, obsession, and other serious eating disorders.
At least one study found that vegans and vegetarians tended to display more orthorexic eating patterns, and most eating disorder specialists do not recommend restrictive diets such as veganism or vegetarianism for people trying to recover from an eating disorder such as orthorexia.
If you find that your eating disorder is getting worse on a vegan or plant-based diet, then you should consider working with a qualified therapist to help work on increasing your body weight.
In the worst case scenario, your therapist may advise you to consider moving away from a vegan diet while you repair your relationship with food.
You may also need to consider eating more calorie-dense foods if you are recovering from an eating disorder. See my 1,000 Calorie Weight Gain Smoothie or my list of the best Weight Gain Smoothies for recipe inspiration.
10. Processed soy issues
Again, as a result of excluding all forms of animal protein, many vegans turn to soy as a protein source.
While unprocessed forms of soy may be okay for some people, processed forms of soy are commonly found in a vegan diet, including tofu, soy milk, and soy-based processed foods sold as meat substitutes.
Processed soy foods are no better for human health than any other highly-processed foods, but with the added risk of hormone interference due to phytoestrogens found in all forms of soy.
Soy has also been found to be a contributor to the intake of the toxic metal cadmium in vegans and vegetarians.
To help counteract or avoid any negative results from eating too much soy, you may consider eating fermented soy sources such as tempeh, or limiting your soy consumption to several times a week. You may also wish to avoid non-organic forms of soy which can be a source of GMOs in the diet.
If you do choose to consume soy, try making healthy recipe as opposed to buying processed versions. I recommend my Air Fryer Tofu as a great option.
Additional Health Risks of Veganism
While some of the health risks of a vegan diet are outlined above, this list is not complete.
There are other risks of a plant-based diet including becoming isolated from friends and family due to an extremely restricted diet, the risk of eating too many high histamine foods and developing histamine intolerance, the risk of triggering a gluten intolerance when consuming too many gluten-containing foods, and other risks including inadequate intake of vitamin D.
The bottom line is that a vegan diet is not natural for humans and most cannot stick with it (up to 84% of vegans and vegetarians end up eating meat again).
While it can be used on a short-term basis for weight loss or for other health reasons, it may result in significant nutritional deficiencies over the long term as well as other risks including eating disorders and isolation.
This is especially true if a vegan is not taking supplements and is not being closely monitored by a healthcare professional with regular blood work.