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Are you becoming a junk-food vegan?

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

Is veganism's rapid growth bad for our health?

The success of Veganuary over the past few years has been truly astonishing, with over half a million people signing up in 2021 compared to 23,000 in 2017. This trend shows no sign of slowing down and more of us every day are making the choice to remove meat and other animal products from our diet.

Nobody could fail to see the proliferation of plant-based foods available in supermarkets and online. And whilst there is much to cheer on as people cut down on their meat and animal consumption, I do feel slightly concerned that we might be opening ourselves up to exploitation by the food industry, as well as not always understanding the effect on our bodies.

Whilst I'm not making any judgement about the rights or wrongs of meat-eating v veganism, I do have something to say about these topics.

Are vegan foods bad for you?

There is plenty of evidence that a vegan diet can be healthy. Eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts, cereal grains, legumes, and seeds can only be good for us. There is, however, concern that the increased prevalence of vegan junk food poses a risk that may undermine the beneficial effects.

Recent developments in the food industry have given us new plant-based meats and dairy substitutes, many of which would be classified as ultra-processed foods. These foods are generally manufactured in a lab from substances extracted from other foods and include additives such as texturizers, dyes, and emulsifiers.

Some foods are highly processed or ultra-processed. They most likely have many added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors or preservatives. Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial colours and flavours or stabilizers. Harvard Health

What is vegan junk-food?

Junk-food is junk-food whether it contains animal products or not. Junk food tends to be ultra-processed with little nutrient value whilst still being high in calories. A Greggs sausage roll and their vegan sausage roll both contain between a quarter and a third of your recommended daily salt and fat intake and around a half of your saturated fat recommendation. That's what makes them so tasty!

One thing to note is that much vegan processed food does have nutrients added, notably vitamin B12 and iron which are often lacking in a vegan diet. However, the fact is that most of these pre-packaged foods are high in fats, sugar, and salt which can be detrimental to our health if we eat them too often.

Transitioning to a vegan diet can be challenging when you are used to having your main protein coming from animals and seeing a big lump of meat on your plate. It's extremely tempting to replace that with something that resembles meat, and carry on cooking and eating the way you always have.

I know, I've done it myself.

These foods aren't going to harm you in the short term and can be useful as you move to a plant-based diet, but they may not be a healthy choice in the longer term. Finding a way to embrace a healthy vegan diet, based on a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pulses, legumes and grains, with occasional processed foods is a sustainable lifestyle choice.

Is veganism affecting your health?

I was chatting with a friend recently who decided to do a 'staged' transition. She cut out all meat and dairy and only occasionally ate fish and eggs. After a couple of months, she found her energy levels were dipping every day, she was suffering headaches and a lack of concentration. She also started craving meat and eventually succumbed to a juicy steak. After just a few weeks of eating a small amount of meat and increasing her fish and egg intake, her energy levels were back to normal and all the negative symptoms disappeared.

What's causing the problem?

Many people who make a conscious decision to become vegan will do their research, get advice and plan their diet with care. Unfortunately there are others who dive in, full of good intentions but without planning how to replace the foods we are giving up.

And that's where the problems start.

“Obviously the pros are that [veganism] is getting people to think about plant-based foods, but the con is that it makes us think that it is good for you when it can be equally or more unhealthy,” says Megan Rossi, a dietician at King’s College London and author of Eat Yourself Healthy.

Potential deficiencies

People switching to plant-based often say they have less energy. Sometimes this is simply because they're eating less calories; meat and dairy are calorie-intensive so cutting out cheese, butter, milk, steak and sausages, and replacing them with the same size portions of wholefoods could mean losing a significant number of calories. The good news is you can eat lots more of these foods, so fill up your plate and introduce new foods to your daily meals.

It’s well-known that vegans and vegetarians need to pay attention to their protein sources. Animal products contain complete proteins, whereas you need to ‘blend’ your proteins to get all the essential amino acids when you’re dependent on plant sources (soy and quinoa are notable exceptions). Human beings seem to have understood this for millennia (long before we had Google), which is why dishes such as rice and peas, which together form complete proteins, are the basis of many traditional diets. Lack of protein can make you feel sluggish so check you’re designing your meals to provide all the amino acids you need.

Due to the absence of red meat in a plant-based diet, vegans (and vegetarians) are typically deficient in vitamin B12 and iron. This can lead to fatigue, headaches, dizziness and if left untreated, anaemia. (

Vitamin B12 and veganism

Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin which helps make red blood cells and plays a crucial role in the health of your nervous system. Unfortunately, B12 is only found naturally in animal food and several studies have shown that, while anyone can have low vitamin B12 levels, vegetarians and vegans have a higher risk of deficiency. (Although some plant foods seem to contain a form of vitamin B12 naturally, there’s no scientific evidence to show it can be absorbed by the body.)

The recommended daily intake of B12 is 2.4 mcg per day for adults and the only scientifically proven way for vegans to reach these levels is by consuming B12-fortified foods or taking a vitamin B12 supplement. Lots of products specifically targeted at vegans are fortified with B12 including some plant milks, breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast.

Other nutrients which might be lacking in a solely plant-based diet include Iron, Calcium, and Vitamin D. As your diet changes, so too does your microbiome, and the bacteria in your gut. Getting a personalised nutritional plan could help you develop a healthy, balanced eating pattern.

Supplementing a vegan diet

Many vegans and vegetarians will take supplements to achieve optimum levels of essential nutrients. The danger is that 'occasional' non-meat eaters may not be aware they are lacking.

I discussed this with my friend and recommended a high-quality wholefood vitamin and mineral supplement which will provide her with these key nutrients. As she adapts to her new plant-based life, and learns more about how to get the nutrients she needs from her diet, she may be able to reduce her supplement needs but, to achieve optimum wellness, some supplementation may always be necessary.


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