Making a change to become a vegan could bring benefits to your health, society, food security, the environment and more.
But while it may be the right choice, you should know of the possible health disadvantages too.
Veganism is more than just a type of diet, as those who practice it also believe in making lifestyle choices that steer away from animal cruelty.
Thus, not only do vegans not eat meat, dairy, eggs or any type of animal-derived products, they also do not use products of animal origin, such as leather goods and certain types of cosmetics and clothing.
Because many celebrities have taken up this ethical diet and lifestyle, veganism has received a lot of attention in recent years.
But its popularity could also be attributed to the health benefits touted by those who practice it.
Here are a few key things to know about the disadvantages and advantages of becoming vegan from a health perspective:
1. Disadvantage: Nutritional deficits
A plant-only diet may be restrictive in the sense that you’ll have to cut out entire food groups that are a straightforward and reliable source of certain nutrients.
These include iron, vitamin B12, iodine, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids – all of which are found in abundance in animal products like honey, meat, fish and eggs.
While there are non-animal sources for most of the above nutrients, we still have some way to go with our knowledge of how adequate those replacements can be.
For example, seaweed is a rich source of iodine, but may be an inconsistent one because of its variable levels in different types of seaweed.
If consumed in a suboptimal manner, i.e. too much or too little, it can lead to health problems like hypothyroidism.
Vegans can also suffer irreversible nerve damage from vitamin B12 deficiency.
Contrary to popular belief, plant-based alternatives for vitamin B12 aren’t always sufficient, and some studies indicate that most vegans are only getting a third of the required vitamin B12 needed by the body to function properly.
2. Disadvantage: Digestive problems
Our gut is an incredibly complex system that controls our digestion and influences our immune system.
That’s because our gut consists of nearly 500 species of good bacteria that work together with our body’s chemical pathways and cells to regulate bodily functions.
Collectively, this bacteria in our system is known as the gut microbiome, and it is unique depending on the person’s food habits throughout their life.
But when you undergo a change in diet, your nutrients and gut bacteria also change.
So, as a new vegan, it’s normal to experience side effects like increased gas, constipation, bloating and diarrhoea.
3. Disadvantage: Weight gain or loss
It is common for people to lose (or gain) weight as a negative side effect of going vegan.
Of course, for some, this is actually an advantage!
This change in weight is mainly due to your body adapting to a completely new diet.
Hence, there is a chance that some people may struggle to meet their calorie requirements as a result of switching.
Conversely, you might get too excited by all of the new vegan convenience foods available in speciality stores and indulge in too many calories as a result.
4. Disadvantage: Tiredness
It is common for someone to feel lethargic when switching to a vegan diet.
A nutritional deficiency or a drastically-reduced calorie intake can induce this negative side effect.
5. Disadvantage: Social support
For some who are just going vegan, social acceptance can often be the hardest part.
It is common to have no other choice than chips or a salad when dining out with non-vegan friends, and if those aren’t available, then vegans just have to go hungry.
Sometimes, this might even result in being left out of party invitations, which can be incredibly disheartening.
Although this doesn’t seem like a physical health disadvantage, it can become mentally tiring to always have to explain to people about what veganism is and why you choose to practice it.
You might even have to put up with oft-repeated criticism or jokes before you discover who your truly supportive friends are who won’t judge or mock your diet and lifestyle change.
6. Advantage: Increased happiness
As we’ve established, becoming vegan has a few benefits too.
There has been some evidence that plant-based diets are associated with improved mood.
According to one study, less consumption of meat, fish and poultry led to bettered emotions, while veganism also reduced stress and anxiety.
Furthermore, knowing that you are helping your body, the environment and other lives on this planet should be enough to make anyone feel happier.
7. Advantage: Improved digestive health
If you regularly deal with constipation and other digestive issues, getting your digestion and bowel movements back on track can be as simple as following a plant-based diet.
There is evidence to suggest that red meat can cause constipation and other gastrointestinal issues.
Vegans however, often report improvement in these areas, probably due to the high amounts of fibre they consume.
However, this probably takes some time to kick in, and as mentioned above, new vegans might initially experience some unpleasant digestive side effects when they first change diets.
8. Advantage: Lower blood pressure
Several organisations, such as the British Heart Foundation and Blood Pressure UK, recommend increasing vegetable, fruit, nut and wholegrain intake to help lower blood pressure.
Plant-based diets reduce blood pressure substantially, according to research.
The American Heart Association warns people with high blood pressure to avoid eating certain meats, which may worsen the condition.
9. Advantage: Lower cholesterol levels
An analysis of 49 studies concluded that vegans tend to have lower cholesterol levels than meat and dairy consumers.
In the United States, chicken is the leading source of dietary cholesterol.
Cholesterol levels are raised by butter, cheese, milk, yoghurt and meat, according to the cholesterol charity Heart UK.
In contrast, lentils, beans, vegetables, nuts and tofu help to naturally reduce cholesterol.
There is even cholesterol-free vegan ice-cream.
10. Advantage: Live longer
Approximately 70% of deaths are preventable, as lifestyle plays a major role in their cause.
Our diet is an integral part of our lifestyle, and hence, plays a key part in how long we live.
It has been found that animal products, even eggs, reduce life expectancy.
Green foods, on the other hand, are associated with longer lives.
In a study that followed more than 130,000 people for several decades, vegans had “significantly lower death rates”.
Thus, vegans may also live longer due to their reduced risk of disease.
Making a change to veganism has many advantages.
Depending on your existing health conditions and other factors, it may be a suitable change in your life.
Discuss the benefits and disadvantages in more detail with your doctor before making a decision.
Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and a functional medicine practitioner. For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only, and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.