Plant-based products-saving the planet but at what cost to our health?

Vegan and vegan dairy and protein substitutes are often advertised as being direct parallels to their animal and fish replacements in nutritional content. Fish and meat contain no carbohydrates, and are pure protein and they also can contain varying amounts of vital amino acids, fatty acids, B vitamins, Iron and Iodine. Dairy animal products contain vitamins B2, 9, 12, and D and the minerals iodine and calcium. Vegetarian and Vegan protein contains carbohydrates and often lacks B12 and iron and plant-based milks contain less B12 and Iodine. With Iron, B12 and Iodine playing vital roles in metabolism, are our attempts to save the planet and animals, coming at a cost to our health?

Humans need B vitamins, such as B1, B2, B6 and B9 and B12, to help absorb and use the energy from our food. The more B12 we have, the more energy we get from fats and carbohydrates and the more vitality we have from less food. We need less food to be active and feel cheerful and happy. B12 and B vitamin deficiency, therefore, causes fatigue, mental fog and an increased desire for high-energy foods (such as simple carbohydrates which provide us with quick, short-lasting energy supplies). It increases our appetite and slows our metabolism. Whilst these vitamins are in some plants, such as peas, and often are fortified in some plant-based milk and meat substitutes, they are in the richest supply in meat, dairy and fish.

Iron is needed in humans in red blood cells. Iron is part of the haemoglobin molecule that carries oxygen in our red blood cells. The more oxygen-carrying capacity our red blood cells have, the more respiration we can do. Respiration is the process by which humans combine glucose from our diet with oxygen to make energy. Therefore the less iron you have, the less energy you have. Most iron is found in blood, so in beef and fish. It is also high in plants like spinach, Brussel sprouts, nuts and chickpeas, but has lower bioavailability (our ability for absorption) from plants than animals. Therefore less iron means more fatigue and less vitality, especially in menstruating women (who lose monthly blood and are at increased risk of becoming anaemic or iron deficient).

Iodine is a vital mineral which is used by the human thyroid gland for metabolism. It is mainly found in dairy products such as cheese and milk, and fish and eggs. Deficiency in iodine causes hypothyroid symptoms, slowing metabolism and increasing weight and decreasing mood. Some plant-based milk products are fortified with Iodine, but many are not (and often the ones that are are more expensive, restricting access to those without the financial means), resulting in a widespread Iodine deficiency, specifically in young adults.

Vitamin D is needed to help us absorb calcium from our diet. Those restricting dairy products from their diet are often receiving less calcium already, but restricting fish and meat and eggs also reduces vitamin D from the diet, increasing calcium deficiency. Not only does calcium contribute to bone formation, but it also helps muscle contraction and formation and cellular metabolism, and so reduced calcium can contribute to reduced metabolism.

Whilst more plant-based diets are essential for the environment and I am fanatical about the benefits of fibre (complex carbs provide more long-lasting energy and fibre boosts the gut microbiota), I have huge concerns about black-and-white vegetarian and vegan diets which restrict meat, dairy, fish and eggs from the diet completely. Vegan and vegetarian substitute foods are often also more processed, and therefore have a higher glycaemic index, causing huge spikes in blood glucose levels, huge insulin spikes and massive troughs in blood glucose. The glucose highs and lows, spikes and hikes, rollercoaster-ride of high glycaemic index foods. This increaseses appetite and waist lines, contributing to the obesity epidemic. Low blood sugar also decreases vitality and mood, meaning that high glycaemic index foods give us quick but short-lasting energy so overall we feel more tired and hungry.

Those with nutritional education (often more well-off) will have the knowledge and means to buy fortified products containing Iron, Iodine, B12, B1, B9, Vitamin D and Cacium. However, the average vegan or vegetarian will simply not have the know-how or financial availability to access these fortified products. This, I worry, is contributing to the widespread worldwide increase in obesity, concentration and mental health problems, with people missing the essential means to make the energy they need to get active, think clearly and be healthy and happy. I think plant-based is the future and I want to jump on board, but I will remain flexitarian with my diet until the food science industry catches up and changes our plant-based protein and dairy substitute products to make them more vitamin and mineral rich and less processed.

Copyright Laura Campbell 27/07/2022

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Laurentia (Laura)Campbell

Laurentia (Laura)Campbell

Neuroscience, mental health and nutrition academic and writer. Life-experimenter, trying to add value with an insatiable appetite for actioning positive change.