Can a vegan be really healthy?

November 1 is World Vegan Day, a celebration of people who don't eat meat. However, many people believe that veganism is a bit extreme and that even the most informed health-conscious vegans run the risk of malnutrition. Dietician Kim Hoffmann has a closer look.

November 1 is World Vegan Day, a celebration of people who don't eat meat. Or eggs. Or cheese. Or mayonnaise. Or honey. Or whey. Or gelatine. Or anything that comes from or includes an animal. Nor do they use any clothing, accessory or object made from an animal. No leather, no wool, no pearls, no ivory-keyed pianos. The animal-free holiday began in 1994, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Vegan Society.

Veganism was founded in 1944 by a group of vegetarians who advocated for a new ‘way of living’ through the elimination of all animal products from their diets and lives, and a growing number of people are taking vegetarianism to the next level, namely veganism. 

Many people believe that veganism is a bit extreme. Some think that it is too extreme to be healthy. They believe that although vegan diets are beneficial in certain respects, they are detrimental in others, causing minor to serious health problems that often go unnoticed. Critics maintain that even the most informed health-conscious vegans run the risk of malnutrition. There are a several nutrients that are found in abundance in animal products, but exist in only a handful of vegan foods. Therefore to get all of the essential nutrients on a vegan diet can be challenging. Another popular argument against veganism is that heavy reliance upon artificial nutrient sources (vitamin pills, fortified foods, etc.) is an unhealthy practice. They believe that nutrients should be delivered to the body in their natural packaging, which just isn’t feasible on a strict vegan diet.

Supporters of veganism on the other hand believe that they live a healthier (and more ethical) lifestyle. Non-animal based diets tend to be high in fibre, nutrient-rich, cholesterol-free and low-fat. They argue that the consumption of animal fats and proteins has been linked to a number of health problems such as obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis and several kinds of cancer.  According to the research, vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with reduced risks for all of these conditions.

Important Nutrients that are often believed (by critics) to be at a sub-optimum level in vegetarians and vegans include:

Vitamin B12

Deficiency of Vitamin B12 can lead to severe and irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system.  Because this vitamin is mainly found in meat, dairy products and eggs, vegans must get it from other sources such as supplements and fortified foods (e.g. all bran flakes, corn flakes, soy milk, soya products and marmite).

Vitamin D

Our skins make vitamin D when we are out in the open and exposed to the sun's ultraviolet rays. But with desk-bound jobs, unpredictable weather, and our need to "cover up" it is not always possible to get enough. Vitamin D is necessary for bone growth in children, and a deficiency can result in rickets (a disease characterized by slowed growth and deformity of the long bones). In adults deficiency is seen as osteomalacia, a bone-thinning disorder that is characterized by muscle weakness and bone fragility. The best sources of vitamin D are oily fish (and fish oils), egg, and beef liver. Vegans can get vitamin D from fortified breakfast cereals, margarine, and soya milk. Mushrooms sometimes contain vitamin D, depending on how they are grown, but their vitamin D content can vary widely, so they aren't a reliable source.


Calcium is necessary for strong bones and the best source of calcium is from dairy products. However, there are other foods that can be consumed for calcium. These include calcium-fortified soy milk and juice, calcium-set tofu, soybeans and soy nuts, and green leafy vegetables such as bok choy, broccoli, collards, Chinese cabbage, kale, mustard greens, and okra.


Without sufficient iron, people can become anaemic (symptoms including weakness, fatigue and general malaise). Deficiency in children can also delay growth. Good sources of iron are liver, lean red meat (especially beef), oysters, poultry, salmon, tuna, eggs, legumes, dried fruit, iron-fortified cereals, and whole grains. The problem with iron from vegetables, fruits, grains, and supplements is that they are harder for the body to absorb. But by adding a vitamin C rich food with the meal you can increase the iron absorption. Remember too that teas may reduce iron absorption as they contain tannins that bind to the iron so that it cannot be absorbed by the body. 


Proteins found in animal products (such as meat, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy products) are called high-biological-value proteins – this means that they contain all essential amino acids (amino acids that we need to eat as our body cannot make them).  Vegan sources of proteins such as legumes, nuts and whole-grains are known as low-biological-value proteins as they do not contain all the essential amino acids.  However, this is easily rectified, as when they are combined correctly (for example legumes and whole-grains) they will give you the complete picture.  Knowledge of which foods to mix together is crucial.


In conclusion, I would say a vegan CAN be healthy, as long as they equip themselves with the knowledge on how to structure their eating to incorporate all the essential nutrients. To me it is almost more important that your eating style fits into your lifestyle, so that you will be able to maintain your health and body at its best!

(Written by registered dietician Kim Hoffmann of the Lean Aubergine Dietetic Services. To sign up for the monthly Lean Aubergine newsletter send an email to or

- (Health24, September 2011) 

 Read more:

Do vegan diets endanger child health?
The vegans strike back
The Tour de France on a vegan diet?

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.