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Can A Vegan Diet Give You All You Need? German Nutritionists Say 'Nein'

Sep 12, 2016
Originally published on September 15, 2016 1:23 pm

For some, there's a a glam factor attached to the vegan lifestyle. And these days, there seems to be a growing chorus singing the praises of the environmental and health benefits of a plant-centric diet.

Perhaps nowhere is the embrace of a vegetarian diet more on display than in Berlin, Germany, dubbed a global vegan mecca for its growing array of restaurants (think: vegan kebabs, pizza and ice cream) as well as vegan street festivals — and even a vegan butcher. One pro-vegan group estimates about 80,000 people in Berlin are following a vegan diet.

If you listen to my story, you'll hear Berlin resident Moza Kabbar, who says there's a huge boom in enthusiasm for veganism in the city.

But not everyone in Germany is on board. In a new paper, the German Nutrition Society says a vegan diet can't provide everything your body needs.

"With a pure plant-based diet, it is difficult or impossible to attain an adequate supply of some nutrients," states the German Nutrition Society's new position on the vegan diet. "The most critical nutrient is B-12," which is found in eggs and meat. The group says if you follow a vegan diet, you should take supplements to protect against deficiencies.

According to the German nutritionists, other "potentially critical nutrients" that may be a challenge to get in a vegan diet include omega-3s — found in fatty fish — as well as minerals such as calcium, iron, iodine, zinc and selenium. So the group recommends that vegans get advice from a nutrition counselor and be "regularly checked by a physician." In addition, the society recommends against a vegan diet for pregnant women, women who are breast-feeding, children and adolescents.

Advocates for veganism say the new position from German nutritionists goes too far.

"With a little planning and knowledge, rest assured, you can get everything you need from a vegan diet for great health ... at any age," Jimmy Pierson, a spokesperson for the Vegan Society, based in England, told us by phone.

Pierson acknowledges the point that it's harder to get some nutrients, such as omega 3s, from a vegan diet. But he points out that there are plant-based alternatives.

"Omega-3 is found in flaxseed, so I make sure I consume quite a bit of flaxseed every week," Pierson says. He says omega-3 supplements are another option. He also acknowledges that other supplements can be beneficial, too.

But he pushes back against the idea that you can't get enough calcium or iron while following a vegan diet. He says it's a matter of eating a wide array of plant-based foods, including beans, seeds, greens and nuts, as well as fruits and vegetables.

So, can you get everything you need from a vegan diet? I wondered what nutrition experts in the U.S. think.

"It is possible to get the nutrients you need," says Lisa Cimperman. She's a registered dietitian in Cleveland, Ohio, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

But she says if vegans are not careful, they can — as the new German position paper points out — miss out, especially when it comes to vitamin B-12.

"B-12 only comes from animal products," says Cimperman. "It's necessary for proper red blood cell formation, as well as normal neurological function."

Many foods — including some breakfast cereals, as well as some nondairy creamers and milks — are fortified with B-12. So it's possible to get all the nutrition you need this way, if you eat enough of these fortified foods regularly.

But to make sure you're covering all your bases, "I would recommend [taking] a standard multivitamin," Cimperman says. It's a good insurance policy for vegans.

As for putting kids on vegan diets, the American Academy of Pediatrics says children can be well-nourished on all kinds of vegetarian diets, "but nutritional balance is very difficult to achieve if dairy products and eggs are completely eliminated," the position states. The academy recommends that if your child is following a vegetarian diet, "you need to guard against nutritional deficiencies."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, if you're interested in a vegan diet, a good place to be these days is Berlin, Germany. From vegan lifestyle festivals to a growing array of vegetarian restaurants and shops, Berlin has really become a world vegan capital. In fact, some people call it that. But as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, Germany's leading group of nutritionists is pushing back.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When the temperature pushed towards 80 degrees on a recent afternoon in Berlin and there wasn't a cloud in the sky, Moza Kabbar and his wife were craving a last taste of summer. So they stopped in for an ice cream.

MOZA KABBAR: It's a vegan ice cream. That's what makes it so beautiful and so nice (laughter).

AUBREY: This ice cream shop serves up only vegan options. In lieu of dairy fat, they use palm oil. And Kabbar says he likes that it doesn't come from a cow.

KABBAR: The one that I'm eating, it's like cookies and cream. The chocolate is really nice. And the cream is very tasty.

AUBREY: Kabbar, who's social worker in his 30s, has been vegan for about four years - mostly, he says, because he opposes animal cruelty. It used to be a little challenging to find vegan options in Berlin, but not now.

KABBAR: Today you find, like, vegan options in even, like, the mass-production bakeries that you find in the train station. So, yes, there is a unbelievable growing boom of veganism in Berlin.

AUBREY: It's hard to know just how many people are following a vegan diet in Berlin. One pro-vegan group says 80,000 people, which of course is just a small fraction of the population. But given all this buzz about veganism in the city, the German Nutrition Society has just put out a new position paper. It warns that if you follow a vegan diet, one that is completely free of all animal products, you can lose out on key nutrients your body needs, such as vitamin B-12, found in meat and eggs, or omega-3s, found in fish - even minerals, such as calcium and iron.

Now, the society says if you're following a vegan diet, you need to take supplements to guard against deficiencies. The group also states that a vegan diet is not recommended for kids, teens or pregnant women. The society did not have a spokesperson available for an interview in English. So we linked to their new position paper on npr.org. Now, advocates of veganism say these recommendations go too far.

JIMMY PIERSON: Hello, Jimmy speaking.

AUBREY: Jimmy Pierson is a spokesperson for The Vegan Society, which is based in England.

The German Nutrition Society has said that it is difficult, or maybe even impossible, to attain the adequate nutrients you need from a vegan diet. Do you agree with that?

PIERSON: Not at all, actually - with a little knowledge and planning, rest assured you can get everything you need from a vegan diet for great health.

AUBREY: Pierson says he acknowledges the German nutritionists' point, that it is harder to get some nutrients, such as omega-3s, from a vegan diet. But he points out there are plant-based alternatives.

PIERSON: Omega-3 is found in flaxseed. And so I make sure that I consume quite a bit of flaxseed every week.

AUBREY: He says you can also get enough of other minerals, such as calcium and iron, if you plan out a vegan diet well. So can you easily get everything you need from a vegan diet? Are the Germans being overcautious? I wondered what nutrition experts in the U.S. think. Lisa Cimperman is a registered dietitian in Cleveland, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

LISA CIMPERMAN: It is possible to get the nutrients you need in a vegan diet.

AUBREY: But she says if you're not careful, you can - as the Germans say - miss out, especially when it comes to B-12.

CIMPERMAN: B-12 only comes from animal products. It's necessary for proper red blood cell formation as well as normal neurological function.

AUBREY: Now, some foods, such as breakfast cereals, are fortified with B-12. So you could get all you need this way. But to make sure you're covering all your bases...

CIMPERMAN: I would recommend a standard multivitamin.

AUBREY: It's a good insurance policy for vegans. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story, we state that a Berlin vegan ice cream shop uses palm oil to make its ice cream. That is what an employee of the store told us during taping; however, the owner has since written us to correct this. The owner says the ice cream is made with cocoa butter, avocados or olive oil, depending on the flavor. And some types don't need any oil beyond what's already in the soy milk or coconut milk.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.