Are there any Vegetarian Diet Risks ?

This page might help with questions such as :

  • Are there any risks associated with vegetarian diets ?
  • What are the risks of a vegetarian diet ?
  • What are the risks of a vegan diet ?
  • List the risks of vegetarian diets.
  • What type of people might be at risk if following a vegetarian diet ?

Depending on the bias of the person or entity asking the question, some such questions may imply that there are risks associated with vegetarian diets.

There are many benefits to a vegetarian diet. It is a good idea to be aware of and pay attention to one's individual dietary needs and nutritional intake regardless of whether or not one is following any particular type of diet, such as vegetarian, vegan, kosher, raw food, gluten-free, low calorie, high-fibre, or any other specific diet.

In general it is possible to eat (or drink) too much of any type of food - although how much is 'too much' varies according to the type of food and the nutrients, antinutrients, chemicals and other substances contained within it.

The question about the possibility of there being "risks" associated with following a vegetarian diet arises partly due to the lack of familiarity of some western people (e.g. Europeans and North Americans) with lifestyles that include vegetarian or vegan diets. It is understandable that people who have been brought up on meat-based diets in families in which many generations before them consumed meat (including fish) as a substantial part of their food intake may feel concerned about the health of friends or family who decide, for whatever reason(s), not to consume animal products. However, vegetarian diets are extremely well established in some parts of the word - in some cases due to the low-availability of meat and fish products, and in some cases for cultural or religious reasons. In regions in which the overall availability of any food is low and the variety of foods is especially limited, undernutrition diseases do still occur. This demonstrates the importance of consuming a healthy balanced diet. Vegetarian diets can certainly be very healthy, as proved by large populations of vegetarians in parts of the world in which vegetarian diets are common and consist of a wide range of largely plant-based foods which, together, constitute a healthy nourishing diet.

There are risks of malnutrition associated with any (vegetarian or meat-inclusive) diet.

Such 'risks' are due to either nutritional deficiencies leading to undernutrition diseases, and / or overnutrition, i.e. intake of excessive amounts of one or more substances or types of substances within the diet leading to adverse consequences for heath.

It is, of course, possible to suffer from deficiency of some nutrients at the same time as excessive consumption of others e.g. some people who do not cook at home but eat mostly 'take-away' foods of low nutritional value may lack important vitamins that are present in fresh fruits and vegetables while at the same time suffer adverse health effects due to excessive consumption of saturated fats and energy (calories), e.g. from sugars and/or fats.

Humans have different dietary needs at different times throughout their lifecycle.
Diet and development concerns the changes in dietary requirements through the sequence of life stages.

The following categories of people would generally benefit from particular attention to their diets:

Vegetarians who are also ...

  • Children

Children are continually developing and changing. They need sufficient appropriate nutrition to support their growing bodies. That does not mean vegetarian diets are not suitable for children. Just as adults benefit from nutritious diets that include a wide range of foods - without excesses associated with risks to health (see for e.g. overnutrition effects), children thrive on an ideal combination of nutrients appropriate to their age and stage of development. People who are unfamiliar with vegetarian diets - as opposed to e.g. communities who have long been vegetarian e.g. for religious reasons - may need to pay particular attention to the nutritional requirements of vegetarian children.

For example:

  • Children's need for enough energy:
    One of the ways in which many children differ from some adults is in an unwillingness to eat (or sometimes even try) foods that they may initially find unappealing and/or to eat more or less (quantity) of food than they feel inclined to in the moment. Adults responsible for any children generally pay attention to the children's eating habits and, where possible, many adapt the foods offered in order to encourage children to consume appropriate nutrition. One consideration in the case of vegetarian children may be encouraging children to eat enough food given that the bulky fibrous nature of many plant-sources of food can lead to a sensation of "feeling full" and hence to a reduced appetite than some meat-based products of similar energy ("calorific") or nutritional value - e.g. due to more fats in meats than in vegetables.
    Similarly, because many strict vegetarian diets are naturally low in fat, children may benefit from standard ("full-fat") as opposed to "low fat" versions of dairy products such as milk, cream, cheeses etc..
  • Children need enough protein for growth
    so in addition to the food-combining considerations that also apply to adult vegetarians, it is particularly important that children receive enough protein - usually at least two portions per day.
  • Pregnant

The body's requirement for energy and certain nutrients, e.g. protein, calcium vitamin C and folic acid (vitamin B9), is increased during pregnancy. Expectant mothers tend to be particularly keen to meet their nutritional and other health needs and so avoid all possible risks to the success of their pregnancy. See also dietary needs for different life stages.

  • Vegan

There is wide consensus that vegetarian diets can be very healthy, see benefits of vegetarian diets. Most concern about the possible risks of vegetarian diets tends to be directed at vegan diets. Many happy healthy vegans argue that there need not be any risk associated with a well-managed vegan diet. However, some vegans supplement their dietary (food) intake with certain vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

Some people are concerned about the possible risks of nutritional deficiencies due to following a vegetarian diet.

In relatively rich countries where a wide range of foods is easily available, together with nutritional supplements if required, any 'risk' of nutritional deficiency when following a vegetarian diet is really the combined risks of ignorance and laziness because appropriate nutrition is available from non-animal sources.

Nutrient:

Notes:

  • Protein

Proteins are large molecules made-up of chains of amino acids. Different proteins e.g. from plant-sources vs animal-sources include different combinations of amino acids. The human body can (given sufficient supply of the necessary 'starting materials") make some amino acids itself but needs to receive certain "essential amino acids" via the diet i.e. food. In the case of vegetarian (and especially vegan) diets, all of the essential amino acids may not be available from the same food source, e.g. vegetable, grain, seed or bean. While some "animal proteins" include all of the "essential amino acids" required by the human body, many plant sources of protein individually include only some of those amino acids - so strict vegans eat appropriate combinations of sources of protein in order to ingest appropriate nutrition overall.

  • Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is present in many types of meat, fish, eggs and dairy products so lactovegetarians (who eat dairy products) and ovolactovegetarians (who eat eggs and dairy products) can easily meet their body's requirement for vitamin B12.

Only a limited range of vegan (pure plant-based) foods are known to include vitamin B12, e.g. wheatgerm and beer.

People who think that their dietary intake of vitamin B12 might be deficit sometimes take appropriate supplements. On the subject of taking tablets or similar as dietary supplements, it has been suggested that it is often safer to take supplements that include several vitamins and minerals e.g. multivitamin supplements, than to take supplements of individual vitamins or minerals unless with expert supervision.

  • Iron

Many of the most common sources of dietary iron are animal products (e.g. meats such as liver and fish e.g. sardines and tuna). However, vegetarians and vegans don't need to risk iron deficiency because iron is also present in many green leafy vegetables and other plant sources such as dried fruits, parsley and watercress.

  • Calcium

Vegetarians can easily receive their dietary requirement for calcium in dairy products such as milk, cheese, ice-cream, etc.. There may be concern about vegans receiving enough calcium from food, especially if the hulls of the grains and legumes have been removed e.g. by food processing.

  • Vitamin D

Vitamin D is common in milk and dairy products so consumed in adequate quantities by most vegetarians, although but not necessarily vegans. The human body produces vitamin D itself - provided that the skin is exposed to sufficient sunlight.

Some vegans might benefit from vitamin D supplements if they are unable to spend enough time in sunlight but as ingestion of excessive amounts of vitamin D can lead to toxic reactions so expert supervision of vitamin D supplementation is often recommended.


See also: What are the possible deficiencies in a vegetarian diet?

So, are there really risks associated with being vegetarian ? It could probably be argued that there are 'risks' associated with almost everything.

In terms of diet, nutrition and health, any concerns about vegetarian diets potentially lacking any important nutrients can easily be addressed by modest knowledge of nutrition and sensible choices to include a wide range of vegetarian foods in one's diet. Any question about vegetarian or vegan diets involving possible risk could also be answered in terms of the wider context of most diets including more of some nutrients than of others, and often some parts of the diet in excessive quantities, e.g. unhealthy fats in some types of animal-products, and / or some foods or drinks that include little if any nutritional benefit, and possibly some adverse effects (see also what are anti-nutrients).

Related pages include what is a vegetarian diet? the main types of foods in a vegetarian diet
and the benefits of vegetarian diets.

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This is not medical, First Aid or other advice and is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment. Consult an expert in person. Care has been taken when compiling this page but accuracy cannot be guaranteed. This material is copyright.

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