There is no doubt that there are some pros and cons of veganism. How is a person to decide what is best?
When choosing foods, we are all trying to do right by our bodies and the world we live in.
In this post, you will find out how to make the best decision for you and the environment. Click here for a free PDF of this blog.
Background of Vegan Diets
A vegan diet contains only plant-based foods. In contrast, vegetarian diets typically include milk, eggs, and sometimes fish.
When research talks about vegan and vegetarian diets and risks of diseases, they are primarily looking at data from the 1970’s and before.
As you might imagine, our food supply has changed dramatically since then [R].
Still, we can probably glean some health benefits by adopting some of the practices of veganism.
Consider this: the advent of factory farms, both on the vegetarian and non-vegetarian side, has changed just about everything we eat today.
No studies have yet examined the current situation, where the soy, meats, and plant-based foods of today are drastically different than they were in the 70’s.
Modern agriculture is far removed from nature. Your food-vegan or not- reflects this if not chosen carefully.
Pros and Cons of a Vegan Diet at a Glance
When going vegan, there are a lot of factors to consider. The healthy way requires balance, thoughtful choices, and careful consideration if it is right for you.
Veganism is not something to do in a nonchalant fashion, but it can be done well if very carefully planned for some people.
Here are the main pros and cons at a glance.
Pros of a Vegan Diet Cons of a Vegan Diet
- Ideally people eat more vegetables
- May reduce some diseases
- Less harm to animals (but sometimes more)
- Fiber intake may be higher
- Increased antioxidants
- More carotenoids
- Plenty of iron, but there are caveats
- Plenty of zinc, but absorption is an issue
- Vegan B12 exists
- Omega 3 from plants exist, but they aren’t activated
- You can get plenty of protein
- Some genes favor plant-based diets
- Some plants support healthy ecosystem
- Hard to sustain
- Data is slim, biased, and incomplete
- Biodiversity can suffer
- Can be harmful to the digestive tract
- Reduces intake of some antioxidants
- Less carnitine, CLA, and choline
- Iron isn’t very absorbable
- The zinc also doesn’t absorb as well
- Vegan B12 doesn’t metabolize well
- Minimal active Omega-3 fatty acids
- The protein sources fall short in amino acids
- Some gene patterns make it less healthy
- Most vegan crops like soy and legumes are grown in a very non-green way.
1. Vegans tend to eat more vegetables, but the diet is hard to sustain
Probably the biggest advantage of a vegan diet is vegetables. The American diet is often very poor because people eat way less vegetables, herbs, and spices than they should.
Eating vegetables reduces risk of heart disease, cancer, and hypertension [R].
Vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, leafy greens, peppers, and more should be a big part of anyone’s diet, vegan or not.
However, my personal experience as a dietitian is that people who become vegetarian or vegan often aren’t following through on this and are eating highly processed vegan foods instead.
This includes lots of pastas, sugary foods, frozen meals, mock meats, and minimal high-quality plant foods. It is hard to sustain a healthy vegan diet.
2. May reduce some diseases, but data is incomplete and biased
When considering the pros and cons of veganism, we must consider the quality of the research that exists.
Vegan diets were very rare until the last few years. It is very challenging to conduct any sound research on such a small segment of the population [R].
No long-term clinical studies of a vegan diet have ever been done.
Research data does exist about the health benefits of vegetarian diets, such as vegans tend to weigh less.
I’ve seen people lose weight on a vegan diet. I’ve also seen people gain weight on it too because you can still eat a lot of processed foods and sugar.
There are no rigorous research studies about a vegan diet and long-term benefits.
New findings also are bringing to light that the money behind plant-based diets is also not always clean.
True Health Initiative, a supposed non-profit company is coming under fire due to its questionable funding, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association [R].
The researchers like Dr. David Katz who spearheaded plant-based movements are in a nutshell getting money from plant-based companies.
3. Less harm to animals, but may reduce biodiversity
For a person to become vegetarian or vegan, the dislike of eating another living creature is real.
To treat all animals humanely is noble.
I often struggle with the idea of eating meat too because I do love all animals.
The downside of this concern is that vegan diets can inadvertently reduce animal biodiversity.
Use of heavy chemicals are rampant in mass-produced vegan crops like soy and legume crops.
This mono-culture type of agriculture harms the environment, reduces the health of the soil, and ultimately, makes the planet unhealthy [R].
According to Dr. Allen Williams, PhD, an expert on regenerative agriculture, fungicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and heavy tillage go into the production of vegan crops like these.
In fact, 95% of crops today undergo very artificial growing conditions.
Restoring soil to a natural condition requires turning dirt to soil and restoring our farmlands. The vegan movement takes an overly simplistic look at ecosystems.
Animal presence on soils helps sequester carbon. The circle of life includes natural fertilizer as compost and manure from animals. This is natural and supports a healthy ecosystem in the soil, mycorrhizae, and enhanced nutrient availability [R].
4. Fiber intake can be higher on a vegan diet, but choose carefully
Vegan foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds contain healthy amounts of fibers. Most of us need more fiber, undoubtedly.
Fiber helps improve beneficial bacteria in the gut and supports healthy cholesterol levels as well as immune function.
Yet, soy foods and grains, the mainstays of protein in a vegan diet can be very challenging and limiting for many people, especially those people with autoimmune diseases [R].
Grains, soy, legumes, and other plant foods also contain:
These compounds are known as anti-nutrients.
High intake of grains like wheat also can worsen autoimmune disease symptoms in many people [R]. When soaked or fermented, this can reduce the anti-nutrients of vegan foods. In my experience, most people aren’t taking the time to do these steps.
Not to mention, if grains and legumes aren’t organic, they may defeat the purpose of fiber by possible chemical-induced gut microbiome changes [R].
Translation: Plant compounds can be hard to digest and make it so you absorb less nutrients from what you eat. Serving up chemicals at the table from processed vegan foods is likely hard on your immune system.
5. Increased intake of antioxidants as well as reduced intake of antioxidants
Seem confusing? That’s because foods are complex. Plant foods provide thousands of antioxidants, which are great. However, they tend to lack some key antioxidants too.
Plant antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, carotene, lycopene, polyphenols, and so many more.
However, plants often don’t have as many antioxidant nutrients such as zinc, selenium, glutathione.
Many people don’t realize that zinc is an antioxidant, but it is. It also plays a key role in immune function too.
Grass-fed beef is distinctly better than corn fed beef or feedlot beef too in terms of antioxidants.
6. More carotenoids but no carnitine, choline, or CLA
A plant-based diet is a great source of cancer-fighting carotenoids like beta carotene, lycopene, as well as lutein, and zeaxanthin.
Vegans can enjoy the benefits of large amounts of these compounds that may even support a reduction in blood pressure.
What is missing from plants, however?
Carnitine is essential for fat metabolism in the body. Much carnitine is made inside the body, but as we age or eat a restrictive diet, our ability to make carnitine becomes impaired.
Other functions of carnitine may include improving nerve conduction, reducing neuropathic pain, and increasing immune function in diabetes patients.
Carnitine may also be useful in helping to treat Alzheimer’s disease and diseases like hepatic encephalopathy [R].
Choline is essential for brain development and proper neuron function. Most Americans today, a staggering 90%, are not getting enough choline in their diets [R].
Vegans and vegetarians are at particularly high risk for choline deficiency because food sources are primarily animal-based.
Vegan choline is available as a supplement, luckily.
Good sources of choline is grass-fed beef liver, eggs, and free-range chickens.
CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, is a type of fat that is used in weight loss supplements. It is found in the highest amounts in grass-fed beef. It is not present in plant foods and is in much lower quantities in low-quality meats.
Unlike other types of omega 6 fats, CLA is a healthy type of fat that helps people lose body weight and body fat [R].
Supplemental forms of CLA are not recommended because they are synthetic.
Bottom line: pros and cons of veganism are that you gain some antioxidants while losing other healthy nutrients.
7. Plenty of iron in plants, but it isn’t as well absorbed
Most plant-based meats boast iron content. However, the public isn’t aware that it tends to be poorly absorbed [R].
Absorption of iron from foods is highly dependent on your genes too, the foods you mix them with, and the inflammation levels in your digestive tract.
The best sources of iron in foods are organic chicken liver and grass-fed beef liver- most omnivores aren’t eating these either!
What is a vegan to do for iron, then? Make sure to regularly test your blood ferritin levels as a marker of iron status. You may need a supplement.
8. Plenty of zinc, but the issue of absorption gets in the way
Vegan zinc sources seem appealing at first glance, but here’s the catch: zinc in plant foods like beans doesn’t absorb as well. Pros and cons of veganism include absorption factors.
Strict vegans are at risk for zinc deficiency, especially if they rely a lot on eating phytate-rich foods like whole grains [R].
Zinc is challenging to measure in the blood, so you may not know if you are low as well.
Bottom line: Vegans and non-vegans alike should make sure they are getting adequate zinc by either supplementing moderate doses or eating zinc-rich foods like oysters, wild-caught salmon, or grass-fed beef.
9. Vegan B12 exists, but it’s not metabolized the same.
According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vegan diets are predisposed to deficiencies of nutrients, especially vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and omega 3 fatty acids [R].
While vegan B12 sources are available, vitamin B12 experts have noticed that vegan vitamin B12 is not well absorbed at all, as in the example of algal vitamin B12.
Plants contain an inactive form of B12 primarily [R].
This is why it is essential to supplement with a type of vitamin B12 like B12 Tri-Blend. Good vegan B12 supplements will contain methylcobalamin.
Omnivores who eat meat typically absorb a lot more vitamin B12, but they aren’t always adequate in this nutrient either. With common stomach problems and common medications today, vitamin B12 deficiency is increasingly common.
10. Omega 3 fatty acids are plentiful in vegan diets, but they are inactive.
Vegan Omega 3 fatty acids are plentiful in foods like nuts, seeds, and leafy greens.
The form of omega 3 in plants is called alpha-linolenic acid.
Humans, on average, convert between 0 to 8% of plant omega-3 fats into active omega-3 fats called DHA and EPA [R].
The best sources of vegan omega 3 fats are chia seeds, hemp, and algae oil. If you eat these daily, you may be able to convert enough active omega 3’s in your body.
11. You can get plenty of protein, but you can fall short in amino acids.
The building blocks of protein are called amino acids. Not all proteins contain a complete deck of amino acids.
Methionine: Methionine is an important sulfur amino acid that helps make the antioxidant called glutathione in the body. Vegan diets are much lower in methionine than the average diet [R].
Some people are more susceptible to low methionine levels than others, such as the elderly or those with autoimmune disorders.
The best known vegan methionine source is called water lentils. Water lentils are also autoimmune friendly.
Taurine: Taurine is considered a conditionally essential amino acid and is another sulfur-based amino acid only found in animal foods.
Taurine’s function is to increase energy and performance in the body. It also may support heart health and immune function.
While our bodies can make taurine, vegans’ blood levels are lower than omnivores.
Lysine: Lysine is an essential amino acid that plays a role in making muscles and all tissues in the body. This amino acid is also crucial for immunity.
Vegan diets contain lysine, but in lower amounts than meat-eaters.
The best source of vegan lysine is soy, legumes, and soy products like tempeh and tofu. Many vegetarians and vegans don’t eat enough lysine-rich foods. These foods also fall into the heavy chemical use crops unless organic.
12. Some genes favor plant-based diets. Other gene patterns favor omnivore diets.
A gene known as FADS dictates your body’s ability to efficiently make omega 3 fats from plants in the body.
FADS gene effects
This gene makes it more likely that a vegan diet is friendly to your body and may even reduce diabetes risk [R].
People having gene variants in FADS have adapted to meat or fish diets over time, such as the Inuit. Other genetic variants that are common in the FADS gene make it so that people convert omega-6 fats, common in soy and corn, into inflammatory compounds [R].
Vitamin A genes
Consider this: you eat carrots and think you get plenty of vitamin A. While this is a common understanding of vitamin A, recent research shows that your genes dictate how well your body is able to make vitamin A from plants [R].
Gene testing today from 23 and Me gives you some of this information, such as the gene called BCM01. This is really nice to know, especially if you suffer from chronic illness and don’t heal well.
Vegans can get active vitamin A from retinyl palmitate that is derived from soy oil. Buyer beware: soy has plenty of environmental concerns as you will soon see.
Other genes to be aware of are those that allow you to make choline in your body; you either convert well or you don’t.
We know of 4 of those choline genes:
- PEMT gene
- CHKA gene
- BHMT Gene
- FMO3 – Flavin-containing monooxygenase
- MTHFD1 gene
Bottom line: these genes may also inform your decision of whether a vegan diet is right for you or not.
13. Supports a healthy environment and ecosystem-or does it?
The vast majority of all foods, including plant-based foods, are raised in a way that is very costly to the environment.
Monoculture of soy or any crop is just that: costly to our ecosystem and animal diversity.
Some plants support a healthy ecosystem. However, most vegan crops like soy and legumes are grown in a very non-green way.
Single crops create imbalances in the environment, cause runoff, require tons of chemicals, and cause erosion of soil, according to Dr. Allen Williams, an expert in soil health and regenerative agriculture.
These chemicals include:
- Chemical fertilizers
This is not sustainable agriculture and it’s not sustainable for your health either.
Other Monocrop Issues
Another expert in soil health is Kasey Hutchinson, RD of Vibrant Nutrition. Here is some information from her: “We often hear that a vegan diet is better for the environment, because theoretically producing plant-based foods uses less resources and emits fewer greenhouse gases. However, when we look at the details, that isn’t always true.
For example, imitation vegan meats are often produced with bioengineered/genetically modified ingredients, such as corn and soy. These foods are the product of monocrop agriculture, which is destroying topsoil at an alarming rate and keeping farmers hooked on synthetic inputs.
Eating out-of-season produce that is flown in from across the world is more dangerous to the environment than eating chicken and US grown avocados are depleting aquafors in California.
So, we really need to look at the details before pushing the vegan movement. Perhaps a better alternative is choosing smaller portions of meat that come from regenerative farming practices rather than opting for exotic and/or out of season plant foods.”
What about eating meat and feedlots for cows?
Typical feedlot animal production is devastating too because feedlots create horrible living conditions, infections, heavy water usage, and runoff.
Dairy products risk the same issues because dairy cows don’t have it much better.
They use excessive amounts of water too. However, the cattle finished in feedlots are what is being referred to in the news, not regenerative agricultural systems.
The difference that grasslands and grass animals make
How do properly grazed cows (and other animal species) contribute to a better water cycle and regenerative agriculture? According to Allen Williams, from Understanding Ag:
- They stimulate soil biology that in turn produces biotic glues.
- The biotic glues create soil aggregates that allow for far better water infiltration and retention.
- The soil aggregates also allow for greater air infiltration, or oxygenation, of the soil.
- This significantly reduces soil erosion and harmful runoff [R].
- This leads to the restoration of natural springs, the replenishing of underground aquifers, and cleaner streams, rivers, lakes, and bays.
- The animals also stimulate the latent seed bank in the soil and create a far greater array of plant species that in turn attract a greater array of pollinator insects, birds, and other wildlife.
A soil restorative agriculture creates healthier lands. On the flip side, GMO soy or legume crops aren’t healthy for animals to roam on-why would you want to eat them?
Bottom line: whether or not you eat animals, having them roam freely on grass supports a balanced ecosystem. Permaculture is your friend, vegan or not.
When you want to get the best foods for you and for the planet, know your farmer. Find farmers that support permaculture. It supports the growth of communities and the growth of farmers trying to do the right thing for the world.
What is permaculture?
Permaculture supports and simulates a natural ecosystem. Unlike typical soy and vegan foods, permaculture keeps the soil intact without a bunch of tilling.
Even organic farming that requires a lot of tilling releases carbon into the atmosphere, creates soil erosion, and devastation to the earth.
Permaculture is teeming with the balance of all life forms-not singular crops that wipe out species. Learn more here.
There are many pros and cons of veganism. Carefully plan out your food intake, supplements, and know where your food comes from if you choose this route. Also, make sure to have regular check-ups with your doctor, preferably a functional medicine doctor.
Carbon footprint at first glance seems better, but data is skewed: Plant-based crops, if grown with modern agriculture practices, are more carbon intensive and damaging to the planet than people think.
Going vegan is certainly easier today than it was 10 years ago. In fact, the market has exploded with various vegan products and vegan protein sources recently.
Most processed vegan foods are fraught with the same issues as all ultra-processed foods: low nutrition and questionable ecological practices.
This post is meant for educational purposes only and is not medical advice. Always speak with your healthcare provider before making any changes in your health regimen. All rights reserved.