Thinking about quitting burgers and pizza in the name of health or the environment? You'd be in good company. Roughly 7.3 million Americans follow a vegetarian diet, the Vegetarian Times noted in 2008, and plenty more aren't eating less meat in the name of health or wellness. Approximately one million people are vegans.
Science confirms that veganism does a body good. Eating a vegan diet is associated with being thinner, having lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to the standard American diet, according to an article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
But veganism isn't exactly the magic health bullet some people think it is. For starters, the diet doesn't always provide certain essential nutrients like calcium and iron. And certain vegan staples like protein-rich soy potentially harm the environment. Even more, some of the most common vegan eats aren't always as healthful as they're marketed to be.
So done without care, veganism is more questionable when it comes to the environment than many people realize. Here's what you need to know if meat and dairy are off the table for you.
Vegan staples aren't necessarily as healthy as they're cracked up to be.
1. Fake meats contain iffy filler ingredients.
Questionable ingredients help mold fake meats into burger patties, deli slices and other shapes, DailyBurn reported. Some brands of meat substitutes, for example, contain processed mold (ew), a food additive the Center for Science in the Public Interest warns against.
2. Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat.
Vegans aren't the only ones who love coconut oil, however, the trendy oil is helpful in vegan baking because it's solid at room temperature and has a high smoke point, Vegan Baking noted. It's no health elixir, though. Coconut oil is extremely fatty — 92% saturated fat compared to olive oil's 8%, the Cleveland Clinic noted, explaining that a body of research has established that saturated fat harms heart health.
3. The benefits of soy are overstated.
Many soy studies emphasize the plant's heart-healthy benefits. But the amount of soy used in many studies is much higher than the amount people consume in real life, Dr. Mark Hyman, Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic, noted.
Some staple nondairy foods are bad for the environment.
You're saving the animals, but are you still saving the environment? Here's what to know about favorite vegan foodstuffs and how their carbon footprints stack up.
4. It takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce a single almond.
Yup, your favorite snack food or nondairy milk choice takes tons of water to produce. "The ecological implications are potentially dire," Mother Jones' Tom Philpott wrote, noting that farmers are over-pumping water aquifers in California, causing the ground to sink an average of 11 inches per year.
5. Avocados need a ton of water, too.
Many vegans rely on naturally creamy avocados as a nondairy substitute in recipes. In California, it takes 74 gallons of water to produce a pound of avocados, Mother Jones reported. (For reference, it takes just 5.5 gallons for a pound of lettuce.) The demand for avocados is so great that in Chile, some towns' water supplies have been depleted, Mother Jones stated.
6. Soybean production is causing deforestation.
Many natural ecosystems across South America are being disrupted so more soy can be produced, the World Wildlife Fund noted. Bad news for the environment — deforestation emits copious amounts of carbon dioxide and reduces biodiversity, and important factor that helps the environment be resilient.
7. 94% of U.S. soybeans are genetically engineered.
Care about eating GMOs because the long-term environmental impacts aren't known? Lay off the U.S. soy. While expert don't agree about whether or not GMOs are safe, a proposed bill that calls for GMO labeling in the US will likely see results the next two years.
Vegans miss out on important nutrients.
Going cold turkey on, well, turkey (and other meats) has consequences. Animal-based food sources provide essential vitamins and nutrients. Here's what vegans are missing:
9. Antioxidant compounds in vegetables prevent absorption of calcium.
Even if vegans consume enough calcium from leafy greens, studies show that phytate, which also occurs naturally, can interfere with how the body digests calcium, meaning calcium in plants is less bioavailable than calcium in dairy, Kresser noted. Translation: It takes more servings of vegetables to get the same amount of calcium as a yogurt.
10. Plant-based iron is often less bioavailable than meat-based sources.
Your body has a harder time digesting iron from plant sources, Everyday Health noted. Iron from plants is considered "nonheme" and iron from meat is considered "heme," and the rates of absorption are 2% to 20% for nonheme and 7% to 35% for heme.
11. Antioxidant compounds in vegetables prevent zinc absorption.
Same story as calcium — phytate blocks zinc absorption. One study recommended that vegetarians get up to 50% more zinc than omnivores, in order to compensate for the lack of bioavailable zinc.
12. Vitamin D levels are lower in vegans.
They can be as much as 74% lower, Kresser noted. Vitamin D is important for bone health and can prevent rickets and osteoporosis, the NIH noted, but it's hard to get, no matter your diet. Only a few animal foods contain vitamin D, while plant-based sources of vitamin D are few and far between.
Jan. 31, 2018, 5:04 p.m.: This story has been updated.