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It’s good to talk about the dangers of vegan diets

“Dairy-free diets warning over risk to bone health.” It may seem an innocuous enough headline, but it has had vegans online spitting out their virtual soy lattes in rage. The BBC News article concerns a release from the National Osteoporosis Society expressing worries that lots of young people are eliminating dairy from their diets, and this means they are drastically reducing their calcium intake and thereby, risking their bone health.
Vegans who know they can get their daily requirement of calcium from plant-based sources are frustrated by the article, which suggests some people, especially young people, are neglecting their health when they switch to a vegan diet. It made me want to text my mum and reassure her I am doing fine – it made others post angry comments on social media about #fakenews and dairy industry propaganda. Each to their own.
It’s a strange situation because both the article and its attackers are correct. So first, yes, you can meet your daily calcium needs and protect your bone health on a vegan diet. I am loth to join the ranks of unqualified people on the internet offering dietary advice (more on that later) but eating calcium-fortified dairy alternatives, fortified breads, leafy greens, beans, nuts, seeds and certain types of tofu will set you on the right track. Even hard water (thanks, London!) can provide calcium in your diet. And you can also take supplements and remain plant-powered and cruelty-free. However, the article acknowledges this. Check out the quote at the end of the piece from a spokeswoman for the British Nutrition Foundation:

“While it’s not necessarily dangerous to cut out dairy from your diet it’s important to ensure you get enough calcium from other sources. Dairy tends to make the biggest contribution to our calcium intakes and so this needs to be replaced by other sources such as bread, cereal, canned fish, nuts, seeds and leafy green vegetables as well as choosing dairy alternatives that are fortified with calcium.”

There are other things in the article I agree with too. People who transition to a vegan diet without considering their calcium requirements are neglecting their bones – and osteoporosis is a very serious problem. It’s also true that as the article warns, lots of people are getting nutritional advice from unqualified bloggers and vloggers. A lot of these web sources are clearly aimed at, or at least very likely to appeal to, teenage girls. A lot of these people advise extreme versions of the vegan diet, which for example, exclude all oils and fats, or cooked foods, altogether. I have seen vegan bloggers discussing how eating a meat-free diet can change eye colour, lighten the menstrual cycle and somehow give people a closer appreciation of the earth and the natural wisdom of plants. Really. Some of this is silly, but some of this is outright dangerous. Vegan diets can be very healthy, but simply ditching meat and dairy doesn’t make you a bean-powered super being. And if you are prioritising “lightness” and “clean eating” over a balanced diet containing protein, fats, carbs, vitamins and nutrients, yes you are at risk of some serious health problems.

Recently, I really liked this article by Daisy Buchanan, which expresses worries about young people excluding foods, specifically milk, from their diets without proper advice, and in very serious cases, as part of an eating disorder. Sadly, I saw too many people dismiss this piece as an attack on veganism and vegan nutrition, which it really isn’t.
Omnivores, vegans and all types of people, especially in their teenage years, need to take care of their bones, and this begins with calcium. And exercise. Sorry.
Those who consume meat, dairy and eggs may well be eating too much protein, saturated fat, cholesterol and so on. But as vegans we shouldn’t be smug about that. We should be making sure our diets are balanced too – and that we are getting enough B12, Vitamin D, iron and calcium (all things harder to find in vegan diets) and and not eating too much processed junk, just because it’s cruelty-free,
It’s common to hear vegans complaining that omnivores ask them where their protein comes from (ha, your protein’s protein, dude!) or their iron, or calcium. It’s a really valid question though, even if the answer seems obvious to us.


Pamela Hutchinson is the editor of Silent London

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