The growing number of people switching to a vegan diet could become a “major contributor to hidden hunger in the developed world”, a Queen’s University academic has warned.
Chris Elliott, professor of Molecular Biosciences, said the rising popularity of veganism could result in widespread malnutrition in the UK and other “wealthy countries” because of the absence of essential nutrients in some plant-based diets.
According to The Vegan Society, the number of vegans (people who consume no animal products) in the UK has quadrupled over the past 10 years to more than half a million.
But in an article published on website ‘The Conversation, Professor Elliott, an expert in food safety, warned that “poorly planned vegan diets that do not replace the critical nutrients found in meat, can lead to serious micronutrient deficiencies”.
The article, co-authored by Chen Situ, a lecturer at the QUB School of Biological Sciences, and Claire McEvoy, a lecturer at the university’s School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, claims that “bone health is a concern for long-term vegans”.
It adds that many vegans have lower intakes of nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D and lower levels of Omega 3, iodine and vitamin B12.
“The symptoms (of vitamin B12 deficiency) can be serious and include extreme tiredness and weakness, poor digestion and developmental delays in young children,” the article warns.
While recognising that vegans can prevent micronutrient deficiency by consuming fortified foods (food with added vitamins and minerals) and taking supplements, Professor Elliott suggests that addressing hidden hunger in ‘the West’ may require the implementation of “well-organised and large-scale bio-fortification programmes”.
Responding to the claims made in the article, a spokesperson for The Vegan Society said: “It’s possible to get all the nutrients your body needs from a vegan diet.
“The Vegan Society has formed an alliance with the British Dietetic Association, promoting the message that well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living in people of all ages.”
The spokesperson said information about balancing food groups and exploring the roles of fortified foods and supplementation is available online at vegansociety.com/nutrition, or from doctors and dietitians.