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

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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.

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