In an analysis of vegan diets that included observational data it began collecting in 2017, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) found no widespread deficiencies in calcium, zinc, selenium or iron among those pursuing plant-based diets in a sample of about 60 Berlin residents.
While “vegan test subjects had lower values than the mixed-food group for the minerals zinc, selenium and calcium” the deficit was not considered to be substantial, similarly for iron.
(BfR noted that while the sample was small it did “provide initial indications as to which nutrients require action.”)
Iodine and B12 deficiencies
“Compared to a mixed-food diet, people who follow a purely plant-based diet do not have an ubiquitous deficiency when it comes to important vitamins and minerals,” the BfR wrote, with the exception of B12 and iodine, the latter being a ‘problem child’ for both vegans and even meat eaters.
One third of the vegans it polled had iodine levels of less than 20 micrograms per litre (μg/L) of iodine, an amount the World Health Organisation (WHO) has defined as ‘severe iodine deficiency’.
“Since iodised table salt is notably found in industrially produced meat and dairy products that are not on the vegan menu, the BfR recommends obtaining a medical assessment as to whether ingesting iodine as a food supplement might be a possible solution.”
Similarly for folic acid, which is “rarely contained in a plant-based diet”, the survey found almost all the vegans and a third of the meat eaters incorporated folate food supplements into their diets. Vegans often had higher folate levels than meat eaters due to supplementation.
“As long as those following a vegan diet keep this supplement in mind, vitamin B12 supply is guaranteed,” said report co-author Iris Trefflich.
Vegans also had lower LDL cholesterol levels as well as higher levels of Vitamins C, K and E and fibre.
Meat eaters typically had higher levels of riboflavin (B2), nicotinamide, niacin, and nicotinamide riboside (B3), vitamin D and zinc.
The report’s other co-author, Dr Cornelia Weikert, said one diet was not necessarily better than another, at least from a nutritional point of view.
“Following a vegan diet can yield health benefits. But ultimately, as with a mixed-food diet, it depends on the choice of foods consumed and a balanced supply of macronutrients as well as vitamins and trace elements,” Dr Weikert said.
Vegan motivations and perceptions
The report also analysed dietary choice motivations and how veganism is perceived in the public realm, including media and social media platforms.
Respondents cited livestock farming exposés and documentaries as the most common factor driving them to dump meat from their diets.
“These reports are shocking. The ethical decision is not based on direct, personal experience, but rather on animal suffering conveyed by the media,” the report stated.
Vegans typically formed positive associations with their dietary mode – for themselves and more broadly. Vegans typically perceived general wellness, performance, appearance and disease reduction benefits of veganism, as well as improving animal welfare and the environment.
Challenges included social pressure, limited availability of some foods and aforementioned concern about nutrient intakes which meant significantly more vegans consumed food supplements than mixed dieters.
Vegans and meat eaters were similar when it came to exercise and alcohol levels, although meat eaters tended to smoke more tobacco.
Vegans were much more likely to seek out nutrition information.
BfR scrutinised 1000 entries on social media, blogs and forums and found veganism represented extremely positively. 92% of references were positive with Twitter the most critical (42% positive; 30% negative).
That said, “Veganism is not hailed without question – even 40 % of neutral and positive entries show a recognisable risk awareness. Possible nutrient deficiencies and how to prevent them are topics that are discussed.”
Some vegans were concerned about health risks during pregnancy and for infants but most believed a vegan diet was not associated with any significant health risk.
“They consider regular medical examinations and taking food supplements to be effective preventive measures, but put this into practice with children only to a small extent.”