While veganism has far-reaching benefits in environmental sustainability, reducing animal suffering and clearing one’s conscience, it has also been seen to have a wealth of health benefits. From accounts of weight loss and control to studies reporting lower levels of diseases such as diabetes and certain cancers.
In short: yes, veganism is a healthy diet and should never be considered otherwise.
However, this has to be taken with two caveats—(1) that you are achieving a balanced vegan diet and (2) you are not using veganism as your only measure of “health”. To expand on the latter, you’re not going to lose weight, get radiant skin or feel much improved simply by switching to eating vegan junk food and remaining static all day—but that is of course the case with absolutely any diet.
But, before you cast aside any thoughts of taking on veganism, remember that although veganism may not be a miracle cure for all health problems, it is an incredibly good start. Researchers at the University of Oxford have even exclaimed that “the vegan diet could be one of the healthiest”, putting any vegan in the best position for a healthy future.
Here we’ll outline a few of those specific health benefits, while also providing some insight into how to manage and maintain a vegan diet. Let’s dive in.
The Health Benefits of Veganism
Simply put, “eating more plants is always good”—an ideology put forward by Mascha Davis, the founder of NomadistaNutrition.com. This is because fruit and veg are chock-full of pretty much all the natural nutrients that our bodies desire. In such a way, vegans are seen to score better across many health markers. To put it in numbers, the same researchers observed a 32% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in vegans—and that was after adjusting for other key factors such as smoking, alcohol intake, exercise, age, race, and education.
The general benefits of a vegan diet can be split into two neat categories: avoiding the risks associated with animal products and reaping the benefits of vegan foods themselves. Let’s start with the first.
Avoiding Meat-Related Risks
While meat and animal products may be nutrient-rich foods, research has uncovered a wide range of health problems that can be stimulated by its consumption.
Most basically, a large-scale meta-analysis that took samples across 27 years and 195 found that eating 100 grams of red meat every day increases the risk of diabetes by 19%, colorectal cancer by 17%, and strokes by 11%. Such numbers only get bleaker when looking at processed meats, which are often the more affordable options. In this case, the WHO reviewed 800 studies and found that for every extra 50g of processed meat consumed per day, an individual’s risk of colorectal cancer was increased by 18%! Putting processed meats on par with the cancer risks found in plutonium, asbestos and smoking.
Thus, by switching to a vegan diet you would be mitigating these risks immediately.
Looking more closely at specific causes we have two clear offenders in the case of animal products: cholesterol and saturated/trans fats.
Saturated and trans fats are commonly found in animal products from butter, cheese and milk to bacon, sausages and fatty cuts of meat. Consumption of these types of fat has been shown to have strong correlations with the development of heart disease, cancers, gallstones, kidney disease and even type 2 diabetes. While saturated and trans fats can still be found in certain vegan products—most notably those which use coconut or palm oil—by cutting out animal products you are likely to significantly reduce your consumption of these fats. Meaning, of course, you will reap the benefits.
Cholesterol is a slightly different beast, in the fact that we only directly consume cholesterol from animal products. However contrary to popular belief this type of cholesterol that you consume does not have a huge impact on the cholesterol levels in your body. Instead, most cholesterol is a byproduct of consuming the aforementioned saturated and trans fats. Managing your cholesterol level is important, as high cholesterol is seen to increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. But to be clear, cholesterol is not your enemy. In fact, like many dietary products we hear about, cholesterol is essential for normal bodily function. But, in most normal cases, with a balanced diet, your body will naturally produce all the cholesterol it needs with any additional formation caused by saturated fats, trans fats, or dietary cholesterol pushing you over the line into a risk of high levels.
But this argument shouldn’t just be focused on what we are avoiding by becoming vegan—we should also focus on those inherent health benefits that come from all the good, natural fruits and veggies we will consume.
Health Benefits of Vegan Foods
Enjoying the natural nutrients cased within fruits and vegetables brings a swathe of inherent benefits. To rattle off a few:
- Vegans have lower incidence rates of high blood pressure.
- The occurrence of type-2 diabetes in vegans is up to 2/3 lower, with other studies placing that number in the ballpark of between 47% an 78% lower incidence.
- Across a variety of cancers, vegans are seen to be a lower risk by, on average, 15-20%.
Those three figures alone, alongside the reduction in the risk of heart disease, mean that vegans have a lower risk of developing some of the most common causes of death in the developed world.
Looking more closely at the nutrients themselves, vegans reap the benefits of an abundance of certain types. For example, vegans often eat a much larger amount of fiber than non-vegans—given that animal products are generally low in fiber. High fiber diets have numerous benefits including decreased risk of colorectal cancers, lower cholesterol and benefits for weight management.
Even more generally, many individual reports, along with some studies, have suggested that plant-based diets can even help to boost energy levels.
Thus, across the board, it seems that a vegan diet provides a plethora of health benefits ready to be reaped by anyone who takes it on—both in the short term and long term.
That said, it is important for all vegans to be aware of their diet. This needn’t be a daunting task, in fact it is incredibly simple, but ensuring you are still obtaining all the right nutrients at sufficient levels will make sure that your vegan diet is a triumph.
How to Manage Your Vegan Diet
The very first thing you’re likely to hear about a vegan diet is that you won’t get enough protein. And, well, that’s just 100% not true. While it is true that meat and animal products are ripe sources of protein, they in fact only contribute to 37% of global protein intake. And, for the record, if you thought you’d be low on calories because of your vegan diet, think again—as animal products only provide 18% of global calories.
In short, if you’re worried that you won’t meet any of your nutritional needs on a vegan diet, you can rest assured that much of the world already gains the majority of its nutrients from vegan foods. In fact, both the British Dietetic Association and the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recognize that a vegan diet is suitable to meet the nutritional needs of individuals at any age or stage of life.
That said, we aren’t just going to waft away your concerns, as it’s certainly necessary to know what vegan foods to look out for in order to meet nutritional needs across the board. So let’s take a look at some of the superfood mainstays of a vegan diet.
Meeting Calorie Requirements
Simply removing animal products from many national diets leaves only low-calorie foods such as salads, vegetables, and raw fruit. This means that without introducing new staples into your diet you may run the risk of having a low-calorie intake as a vegan. But, let’s be honest, in 2021 none of us equate veganism to simply eating salads—do we?
While vegan junk foods can be extremely high in calories, we would suggest avoiding making these mainstays of your diet, just as you would avoid any other junk food. This is because although they are vegan they are what they say on the tin—junk food. Which, at the end of the day, can result in giving you the same consumption profile as an unhealthy omnivore.
Many staple high-calorie foods will find themselves as accompaniments to your star of any dish—just as they would with an omnivorous meal. This means potatoes, rice, legumes and more which all form solid carbohydrate-rich staples which provide a wealth of calories.
That said vegans have a wealth of other options too. Nuts, dried fruit and nut butters are fantastic calory-packages that are also high in many other great nutrients such as healthy fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. What’s more, is that these are the perfect food-on-the-go as they are easy to package and pick at.
Avocados also have a reputation as a vegan’s best friend, and that is for good reason. With plenty of calories, fat and fiber, these plump creamy and deliciously mild fruits are a perfect calorie-rich component to many meals.
In short, calories shouldn’t be the greatest concern of individuals on a vegan diet—as there are plenty of calorie-rich options for vegans. That said, if you are concerned about your calorie intake perhaps download a calorie counter, which will help you to manage your particular situation. Many calorie counters are even available for free.
While protein is touted as the greatest challenge for a vegan, it’s clear that just isn’t the case.
Legumes such as beans, peas, peanuts, lentils, quinoa and soy offer impressive levels of protein. It’s important to highlight soy here, as its many forms—such as tofu, seitan and soy milk—retain the bean’s high protein content.
What’s more, is that many modern vegan substitutes—from mince and sausages to alternative milks—are enhanced with added protein to help bolster vegans’ protein levels.
In short, don’t let people fool you. There are plenty of ways for vegans to get their protein.
Again, carbs provide almost no challenge for vegans. This is especially true as there are in fact no carbs found in animal foods—with the exception of lactose found in milk. That means that while carbs provide somewhere between 40% and 80% of the world’s daily calorie needs—the vast, vast majority of which are already delightfully vegan.
Carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, grains and tubers. That means nuts, soy, legumes, rice, potatoes, and high-carb fruits can all be great staples to help meet your carbohydrate needs. Many of the world’s most popular meals also use processed forms of carbohydrates such as noodles, bread, and pasta.
That said, if you are looking to limit your carbohydrate intake, there are still plenty of options for you within veganism. Simply opt-out of many of these carb-rich staples and replace them with calorie-rich vegetables.
While animal products are typically associated with high levels of protein, most are also incredibly high in fat—often up to at least the 50% margin. This means that fats can in fact be one of the key nutrients vegans end up missing out on.
Fortunately, mother nature has stored away a plethora of good fats for us in nuts and fat-rich fruit and vegetables such as avocados and coconuts. Olive oil is also a fantastic source of fat.
While such fats are good for achieving a balanced diet, it is also easy enough to avoid such fats if you are looking to reduce your total fat intake. If this is the case, creating staples from ingredients high in plant proteins may be a good way forward.
Vitamins and Minerals
While proteins, carbohydrates and fats are easy enough to manage for modern vegans, it is most certainly worth paying attention to your needs regarding vitamins and minerals. This is because there are a few vitamins and minerals that vegans can commonly become deficient in—which, of course, can cause health issues down the line if gone unchecked. But before this scares you away from the diet, these micronutrients are incredibly easy to supplement by either incorporating certain foods into your diet or obtaining supplements directly.
The most well-known of these necessary vitamins is B12—and for good reason. Vegans and vegetarians run the risk of B12 deficiency due to it only being found in animal products. Such a deficiency has been liked to stroke and can be found to have some neurological effects if left unchecked for incredibly long periods. Thankfully, the vegan world is well aware of this. Many vegan substitutes and alternative milks are fortified with B12 while obtaining B12 supplement tablets is a breeze. As a rule of thumb, ensure that you are eating a substitute that is fortified with B12 multiple times a week or get yourself some B12 supplements. If in doubt, do both—just ensure you don’t exceed the recommended daily allowance.
Iron, like protein, is touted to be something that vegans surely lack. Again, it’s just not true. Pulses and wholemeal bread are great sources of iron, along with leafy greens such as broccoli. This means that you will likely obtain enough iron from your diet but, as always, if in doubt check up on the nutrients of your diet and obtain some supplements if necessary.
Omega-3 is another big one and is commonly thought to only exist in fish oils. However, vegans can obtain omega-3 from a number of oils such as flaxseed, rapeseed and soya oil or from soy-based foods such as tofu or milk.
Nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D have been found to be lower in vegans. But before pointing fingers, it’s worth pointing out that studies have found that one in four children in the US lack calcium and more than one in two are deficient in vitamin D—and, well, we know this can’t be down to veganism given those numbers! But, even this is no cause for alarm for vegans as there are plenty of options. Leafy greens like broccoli, cabbage or okra are packed with calcium and vitamin D. And, if necessary, supplements are again readily available.
Simply put, while it is important for vegans to be aware of their vitamin and mineral intake, fortified foods and an incredible array of readily available supplements mean that it is relatively easy for vegans to get all their necessary nutrients.
That said, if you are concerned about your diet or feel you are not sure whether you are getting enough nutrients don’t sit by and wait. You can immediately get to counting calories and nutrients with calorie counters, giving you peace of mind while also ensuring you stay within recommended daily allowances. There are also tonnes of helpful sources for promoting vegan dietary health online—so you can educate yourself on all the necessary nutrients to obtain and how to obtain them. And, of course, if you are encountering any specific issues or concerns never hesitate from contacting healthcare or dietary professional as they will be able to provide you with the most direct advice that is specific to helping you along with your vegan journey.
In sum, we end where we started. Noting how veganism has the potential to be one of the healthiest diets out there. With careful consideration and commitment—something that is required for any balanced diet I might add—you can not only get all the necessary nutrients from a vegan diet but you can concurrently reduce global animal suffering and have a positive impact on climate change.
Thus, it is clear that veganism is healthy. And no matter the rampant false-claims the nay-sayers spout about deficiencies, vegans are surviving, thriving and in many cases living longer and healthier lives than their animal-eating counterparts.