Vegetarianism in any of its various forms, particularly veganism, has been increasing in popularity over the past few years, especially among the young population in the United States.
While several studies have shown that a vegan diet (VD) decreases the risk of cardiometabolic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, obesity, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, veganism has been associated with adverse health outcomes, namely, nervous, skeletal and immune system impairments, haematological disorders, as well as mental health problems due to the potential for micro and macro-nutrient deficits, according to research published by the National Library of Medicine examining, “The Impact of a Vegan Diet on Many Aspects of Health: The Overlooked Side of Veganism”.
A UK report has shown that half of young people in their 20s are at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, which may be due to the rising trend in plant-based diets and could have serious health consequences.
The UK Essential Health Check Report of 2022, conducted by YorkTest, used blood analysis from 4204 people and explored the impact of factors such as age, gender and vitamin levels.
Results showed that 55% of women and 40% of men in their 20s had low levels of vitamin B12, which may be due to the rising trend of vegan and plant-based diets.
At least 36% of vegans in the UK are between the ages of 25 and 34 years old, and research shows that up to 90% of vegans and vegetarians may be deficient in vitamin B12.
According to Dr Gill Hart, Scientific Director at YorkTest, the recent study challenges the prevailing belief that vitamin B12 deficiency is more common among older people due to reduced intake of this essential nutrient.
This finding adds an intriguing perspective to the importance of diet and vitamin B12 levels.
While a vegan diet offers health benefits such as reduced risks of heart disease and certain cancers, it can present challenges relating to nutrient deficiencies.
Essential nutrients like vitamin B12, iron, calcium, iodine, omega-3 fatty acids, and zinc, commonly found in animal-based foods, may be lacking. Careful planning is necessary to ensure proper intake.
This essential nutrient plays a crucial role in energy metabolism, nerve function, and DNA production. Deficiency can lead to fatigue, blurred vision, memory issues, depression, anaemia, nervous system damage, and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Unlike some nutrients, vitamin B12 cannot be naturally synthesised by the body, emphasising the need to acquire it through external sources like food or supplements.
In addition to the adverse effects of deficiency, research has yielded promising findings on the benefits of maintaining optimal vitamin B12 levels.
Research indicates that maintaining adequate vitamin B12 levels may contribute to reducing inflammation, safeguarding against cognitive decline, improving memory, and decreasing the risk of developing dementia.
Additionally, a separate study has pointed to the connection between low vitamin B12 levels and brain shrinkage resulting from the loss of vital brain cells.
Health expert Vanessa Ascencao said that around one-quarter of the population may be deficient in vitamin B12, which can have negative consequences, particularly for young people, as the brain is still developing.
Deficiency has been linked to conditions such as autism and schizophrenia and can even mirror symptoms of dementia.
“Ensure a healthy diet that includes good sources of meat, chicken and eggs, fresh fruits, green leafy vegetables and healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds and fatty fish.
“When following a plant-based diet, plan meals ahead, prioritise a variety of nutrient-rich foods such as spinach, beetroot and chickpeas, and avoid sugar, alcohol, caffeine and processed foods as these reduce vitamin B12.”
Additionally, do regular health checks and try high-quality supplements with proven absorption.