A couple of years ago, veganism was booming. I was editing a glossy vegan food magazine and every day brought more plant-based product launches and glowing Instagram stars proffering raw Buddha bowls.
I, too, went vegan in the summer of 2016, aged 45. After years as a vegetarian with an abiding love for animals, it seemed ridiculous to keep eating eggs and dairy when alternatives made from soy, pea protein and lentils were suddenly available. I had constant access to health information and a cabinet rattling with supplements. What I didn’t have, unfortunately, was any understanding of how veganism would affect my health.
Despite reading glowing reports from other vegans of how their energy had increased, I was tired for hours every day. My hair was dry and brittle. My gums bled, I caught colds and felt low much of the time.
It took two years of inexplicable skin rashes and pain before I was diagnosed with a severe nickel allergy — a mineral in abundant supply in soy, pulses, beans and wholegrains. My entire diet, effectively. I had no idea that nickel allergy existed, but the dietitian I was finally assigned told me that she was seeing increasing numbers of patients developing it after turning vegan.
Despite my moral reservations, the specialist told me that I had to stop being vegan. I braved a piece of fish, and was amazed by its deliciousness.
I introduced prawns, salmon, tuna and mackerel to my diet, along with eggs and cheese.
Within a few days, my low mood lifted and my energy returned. I felt like taking long walks again, and over the months my hair was thicker, and my skin less rash-prone, too. Most importantly, I slept better.
A few years into the vegan revolution, it seems, the uneaten chickens are coming home to roost.
Increasingly, dietitians and GPs are expressing concern that in the stampede to save the planet, we may be risking our well-being. Last week, it was reported that Cheltenham Ladies’ College in the UK has taken the unprecedented step of giving regular blood tests to newly vegan pupils to maintain health and prevent eating disorders such as anorexia, often linked to highly restrictive diets.
And though many advocates remain healthy, others, like me, are admitting defeat. Singer Miley Cyrus recently revealed that she’d reverted to a less restricted diet. “I’ve had to introduce fish and omegas into my life because my brain wasn’t functioning properly,” she said.
Despite following “the strictest [vegan diet] you’ve ever known” for six years, other health issues reared up, including hip pain and a feeling of malnourishment. She reluctantly gave in and ate fish after suffering agonising kidney stones from excess oxalates, found in beans and spinach.
Actor Anne Hathaway has also spoken about her change of heart after going vegan — she “just didn’t feel good or healthy”.
Dietitian Jane Clarke accepts that cutting down on meat can be beneficial, but is concerned by veganism’s wholesale promotion by bloggers, rather than health experts.
“It’s great that there is now a much wider range of non-meat sources of protein, but the power of social media and supermarkets to influence our food choices needs to be combined with scientific evidence,” she warns, adding that the trend for highly-processed vegan food with lots of sugar, fats and salt added shows “you can easily be unhealthy as a vegan”.
She says the evidence still points to the health benefits of a balanced diet — including a limited amount of animal protein and dairy. Research recently published in the journal BMC Medicine found the lowest mortality rates in those eating up to 80g of meat a day.
“Calcium-rich foods including cow’s milk are proven to be beneficial to bone health and help produce anticancer substances such as butyrate. The fact is, meat is a great source of easily accessible protein.”
GP Noreen Nguru, the founder of whatthedoctorrecommends.com, says deficiencies of nutrients and vitamins are “common among new and even established vegans, and include micronutrients deficiencies in vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc — all responsible for building strong immune systems and protecting against bone fractures, high blood pressure and fatigue.
“Vegans are also at a much higher risk of developing a vitamin-B12 deficiency which, if left untreated for too long, can potentially cause irreversible neurological effects such as paresthesia (numbness or tingling in the hands and feet), co-ordination difficulties and even problems with memory.”
Such deficiencies can be prevented with careful supplementation, but some argue that nutrients and vitamins can be harder for the body to absorb this way. In one Oxford University study published in 2010, half the vegans in the sample were B12 deficient.
“The implications of diving into a meat-free, egg-free and dairy-free diet without adequate preparation and research are likely to bring more harm than good,” says Dr Nguru.
And though she agrees that meat and dairy consumption have been linked to problems such as bowel cancer, “there are several less restrictive diets that offer heart-protective benefits and reduce the risk of cancer, such as low carb and Mediterranean diets rich in omega 3 and good fats”.
Life coach Bianca Riemer (41) went vegan in 2011, having been largely vegetarian. Despite taking all the recommended supplements, including omegas and B12, she kept craving lamb and chicken.
Though she initially felt better, “my energy was still very depleted and my acupuncturist suggested I should eat eggs and meat again. I added salmon, and then I got pregnant after two years of trying. I also started eating chicken and felt so much better for it.”
After returning to meat, “the impact on my mental and physical well-being was close to immediate.
But I don’t think there’s a one-diet-fits-all approach,” she goes on. “Each of us should eat whatever suits us at different stages of life.”
Sophia Husbands had a failed attempt at veganism in 2018.
“I did Veganuary for my health,” says Husbands (41), founder of well-being site LoveHappyBody, “but I started to get run down and developed mouth ulcers in just a month. I felt dizzy and it turned out my iron levels were very low.”
Last year she went vegetarian, and says she’s found the diet much more sustainable.
“I’ve lost weight, my skin has improved. But I try to keep a balance now, and I’m wary of totally eliminating anything, as I think that can spark intolerances. If I craved meat or fish, I would return to it.”