Does it make sense to become vegan?

It seems to be the trend of the moment or just an epidemic that is spreading so rapidly, that today Italy is the second country with the highest number of vegetarians and vegans, after India (famously vegan for religious reasons). But why an increasing number of people eliminate meat or even any animal-derived product from their diet? And above all, does it make any sense to do it?

There are quite many different reasons, mainly ethical and health-related. Indeed, it is widely believed that a plant-based diet is healthier than omnivorous diet. But is it really true? What does science say about it?

According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), vegetarian and vegan diets may work if correctly planned and, in some cases, taking supplements or fortified foods is necessary. The major concern of these diet plans is nutrient deficiency: important nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, selenium, calcium, and vitamins D and B12, are often not bioavailable or in short supply in foods of plant origin.

This is often worsened by the high amount of fibers, which have a true “scavenger effect” within the intestine, and that, in addition to clean the intestine from fat, cholesterol and toxic substances, on the flip side prevent the absorption of important nutrients.

Several studies describe the diseases that can affect vegetarians and more often vegans, caused by insufficient intake of these nutrients. For example the lack of vitamin B12, which is found in significant amounts only in animal-derived foods, causes dangerous anemia, ataxia, severe depression and neuropsychiatric disorders, as well as permanent damage to the nervous system and cardiovascular diseases.

Also, insufficient intake of the other above-mentioned nutrients lead to possible bone deficit and fractures, lack of ovulation, poor sperm quality and fertility problems, weakened immune system and poor physical performance.

Even iodine deficiency is common in vegan diets, since it is mostly found in meat and fish, not in plants. Iodine deficiency impairs mental development in children, who will be consequently less intelligent than others. Moreover, it was shown that vegetarians and vegans do not live much longer on average than meat-eaters, but they get sick and die of the same diseases that also affect omnivores, without any benefit in giving up meat and animal proteins.

The World Health Organization (WHO)’s classification of processed meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” has raised many concerns, causing the spread of false information and misunderstandings, which totally ban meat consumption. Actually, the onset of tumors derives from multiple individual, behavioural and environmental factors, among which are to be considered also the eating habits. The carcinogenic effect of the meat is affected by the quantities consumed and cooking habits. The habits surveyed by WHO study appear very far from the amount and methods of Italian cooking.

With regard to processed meat, instead, the danger seems to be related to the treatments meat undergoes and to the added preservatives, such as nitrites and nitrates, known to develop carcinogenic nitrosamines. But also in this regard doubts have been raised, since the considered studies analyze foreign meats that are processed using additives not used in Italy. The examined “sausages” are meat emulsions treated with preservatives, which have nothing to do with our own salami, most genuine, leaner and for which only salt is used as preservative. But if we buy a product containing nitrites and nitrates, it is more than enough to consume food rich in vitamin C in order to neutralize their effects.

Then, talking about probability, it is funny if we think that it is more likely to be bitten by a snake instead of dying from cancer because of a salami sandwich. There are in fact approximately 34.000 cancer deaths per year worldwide, compared with 1 million deaths caused by smoking, 600.000 caused by alcohol, 200.000 caused by pollution, and 50.000 caused by the bite of poisonous snakes.

Therefore, the health benefits of a vegan diet have to be considered cautiously, because currently there are no studies showing a strong association between risk of disease and moderate consumption of animal proteins, and also because a strict vegan diet can cause serious problems when not properly planned and integrated.

In addition, there is no scientific evidence of the health dangers of eating red meat: no disease is caused only by its consumption, which indeed it is recommended under 500 grams a week, following a Mediterranean diet, as it provides valuable nutrients, essential for human well-being.

So, before dramatic lifestyle changes, all the pros and cons should be taken into account, carefully evaluating how they can impact both physical and psychological health. It seems that too often people suddenly decide to become vegan, mindlessly following a trend.

Susanna Bramante

Susanna Bramante is an agronomist and scientific writer, author and co-author of 11 scientific publications and numerous articles on human nutrition and its impact on health and environment. In 2010 she received the title of Doctor Europaeus and PhD in Animal Production, Health and Food Hygiene in countries with a Mediterranean climate.

The "Sustainable Meats" Project aims to identify the key topics, the state of knowledge and the most recent technical scientific trends, with the aim of showing that meat production and consumption can be sustainable, both for health and for the environment.