A New Year’s resolution to go vegan comes with a higher risk of broken bones, mental illness and miscarriages within months, a top doctor has warned.
Some 600,000 people in the UK already follow the diet, which excludes meat, dairy, eggs, and all other animal products. And figures suggest that one in eight Britons aged 18 to 24 plans to take up the diet for January – the so-called veganuary trend.
But according to Dr Julian Owen, consultant trauma and orthopaedic surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, veganism can lead to a potentially dangerous vitamin deficiency within months.
This is because animal products contain Vitamin B12, a nutrient that is crucial to healthy bodily function, but plant-based foods contain little-to-none of it.
Dr Owen, who chairs a worldwide group of experts who research the benefits of Vitamin B12, says that anyone planning to go vegan should be prepared to take a daily supplement.
He added that “This is a vitamin that is fundamental to the function of the human body, and it is almost entirely absent from a vegan diet. That is incredibly worrying.
“If supplements are not taken, after six months of going vegan, people can start to experience neurological symptoms such as anxiety, depression and even psychosis – symptoms of Vitamin B12 deficiency.”
Research shows Vitamin B12 is essential for the proper function of blood vessels and brain tissue. A deficiency can also trigger anaemia, a condition where there are abnormally low levels of red blood cells in the body, leading to symptoms such as extreme tiredness and vision problems.
“There’s lots of enthusiasm for veganism, but also a huge lack of education about the need for Vitamin B12,” says Dr Owen.
Veganism is rapidly increasing in popularity in the UK, mainly driven by concerns about the environment and animal welfare. Research shows that between 2007 and 2018 the number rose by 260 per cent, from 150,000 people to 542,000.
The trend has been promoted by celebrities such as Madonna – who revealed she was raising her children vegan – but a number of studies have suggested that the diet can have negative health impacts, particularly in young people.
In 2018, a University College London study warned that a lack of nutrients in a vegan diet, such as calcium, zinc and high-quality protein, could leave children malnourished and with ‘irreversible’ nerve damage.
Last year experts raised the alarm over the increasing popularity of dairy alternatives such as oat and almond milk – which are now drunk by a third of Britons – after Government figures revealed that nearly half of all girls aged 11 to 18 had an iron deficiency.
Dairy milk is an important source of iron, needed to make red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. Countries such as Spain and Germany already actively warn parents against putting their children on a vegan diet.
In a paper published last month in the European Journal of Nutrition, Dr Owen and his colleagues also warned that vegan diets are particularly dangerous for pregnant women, who are more likely to have low B12 levels in the first place.
Studies show that Vitamin B12 deficiency is associated with pregnancy complications, low birth weight, pre-eclampsia and miscarriages.
The paper suggests that vegans undergo regular blood tests to monitor B12 levels, alongside taking supplements. It also advises anyone who is planning on becoming pregnant or is older than 60 to consult a doctor before going vegan.
However, experts point out that a vegan diet, when combined with supplements, has a number of health benefits. Studies show that vegans are less likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes and cancer than meat eaters.
“A responsible vegan diet can be healthy,’ says Dr Owen. ‘But right now, charities promoting the trend are not informing people about the essential need for B12. That needs to change.”