Vegan diet as lifestyle choice and the need for risk communication

November 14, 2017

"Deficiencies in nutrients like vitamin B12 or iron are possible in those who completely refrain from eating foods of animal origin, particularly in the case of pregnant women and children", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "If we want information on potential risks to reach the target group, then it's essential that we know about their attitudes."

The BfR is now publishing the findings of a research project on the individual and social influencing factors that motivate people to take up and maintain a vegan diet (in German). One of the things that became clear in the project was that effective risk communication needs to pick up on the existing convictions of vegans. The aim is to provide concrete tips for everyday life which can be combined with a vegan diet.

A growing percentage of the population is deciding to take up a vegan diet, but it is not yet absolutely clear from a scientific point of view what advantages and disadvantages are associated with such a decision. Some studies show that a vegan diet can positively impact health - by lowering cholesterol levels, for example, or reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. At the same time, a purely vegan diet can result in potential health risks, because a plant-based diet makes it more difficult to ensure an adequate supply of some specific nutrients. Alongside vitamin B12, there are, for example, several minerals, certain amino acids and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that are seen as potentially critical nutrients. This applies in particular to especially vulnerable groups of the population such as pregnant women and children. In 2016, the German Nutrition Society (DGE) adopted a stance on a vegan diet based on the latest scientific literature, and came to the conclusion that "the DGE does not recommend a vegan diet for pregnant or nursing women, infants, children and adolescents".

The BfR decided to focus on this topic in order to develop suitable risk communication strategies. A research project was conducted in which a total of 42 vegans were asked about their attitudes in focus group interviews. In view of the sometimes very pronounced differences compared to the average population, the findings allow generalised statements.

According to the survey, vegans have above-average educational backgrounds and a sound knowledge of nutrition. 40 of the 42 respondents are aware, for example, that a vegan diet can result in a deficiency of vitamin B12. Most respondents therefore said that they regularly supplement this vitamin. There is, however, also a need for information. Knowledge regarding sources of iron in foods is fragmentary, for example. Nevertheless, the majority of respondents have an awareness of the risks of this special form of diet. The Internet is cited as the most important source of information for people interested in a vegan diet.

The survey highlighted the uniformity of attitudes. The decision in favour of a vegan diet is generally driven by ethical concerns, for example, and mostly also implies doing without animal products in other areas, such as clothing. The overwhelming majority of respondents could not imagine returning to an omnivorous diet permitting animal products, and neither is a pregnancy cited to any great extent as a potential reason for doing so.

It became apparent during the course of the study that portraying a vegan diet as dangerous or abnormal does hardly reach the target group. An effective risk communication strategy should rather attempt to pick up on existing convictions. This could include concrete guidelines which vegans can integrate with their nutritional preferences.
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BfR Federal Institute for Risk Assessment

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