While it isn’t necessary to go vegan in order to be healthy, vegan diets can certainly help. When well-planned, vegan diets can contribute to good health and disease prevention for almost everyone, including babies, children, pregnant women, and athletes. In this article, we will take a look at how a vegan diet can be healthy, with a focus on personal food choices and physical health impacts gleaned from evidence-based books written by vegan dietitians—particularly the 2011 edition of Vegan for Life by Jack Norris and Virginia Messina and Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina. Information is also sourced from websites such as VRG.org, vegan.com, and VeganSociety.com.
What Is a Vegan Diet?
Someone who eats a vegan diet abstains from eating foods (or using products) that were made by exploiting animals. Vegan diets are largely made up of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds—including grains, and legumes such as black beans, chickpeas, peanuts, lentils, and soybeans.
What’s the Difference Between Vegan and Vegetarian?
Vegetarians refrain from eating meat, fish, and poultry (chickens, turkeys, and other birds). Generally speaking, vegetarians also eat eggs and dairy products. Vegans are a subset of vegetarians that additionally refrain from eating or using any animal products, including eggs, gelatin, animal milks and cheeses, leather, honey, wool, or silk. Vegans do not exclude human breast milk from their diet.
Vegans not only follow a diet but a lifestyle that rejects the exploitation of animals. This means that vegans also avoid entertainment or research that relies on the use of animals. Being vegan is a personal practice that involves learning about and becoming increasingly reverent towards other beings on the planet. So if you’re trying to reduce harm towards animals, welcome to veganism.
Is Going Vegan Healthy?
The following list of the potential benefits of a vegan diet relies heavily on group studies comparing the health outcomes of non-vegans to vegans. These studies tend to describe strong associations between independent and dependent variables. The associations are typically not yet fully established as causal, and thus are not fortune-telling devices for one’s personal health. Most importantly, health outcomes are the result of not just dietary changes, but lifestyle and environmental factors including racism and other social determinants of health.
Better Heart Health
The vegan diet is one of the most powerful tools to protect against cardiovascular disease, when it is well-planned and made up of whole, unprocessed foods. Overall, when looking at the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, vegans fare well: vegans eat foods with less saturated fats, have lower levels of cholesterol in their blood, and see lower rates of heart disease than meat-eaters. Vegans generally also have lower levels of blood pressure and are less likely to get hypertension. Hypertension is the condition of having chronic high blood pressure, and if unchecked, can lead to heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, and dementia.
Vegans can replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats to reduce their blood cholesterol. Cholesterol is a yellow, waxy substance only made by animal cells, including your own body. Vegans tend to have lower amounts of LDL cholesterol than meat-eaters. LDL is the type of cholesterol that results in plaque build-up on artery walls, leading to blockages, constricted passages, and higher blood pressure, which damages arteries and can contribute to heart disease. However, vegans also have to be careful not to eat too many refined carbohydrates in place of saturated fats—such as white rice, flour products, and sugar-laden drinks—which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Potential additional concerns for the heart health of vegans include the need to take B12 supplements in order to reduce the amount of homocysteine in one’s blood. Homocysteine is an amino acid that can damage blood vessel walls when its levels are high, leading to heart disease. Vegans concerned about good heart health may also want to take omega-3 fatty acids and increase their intake of vitamin D.
Lower Cancer Risk
Overall, eating plant foods tends to protect people from the risk of cancer, while eating red and processed meats is linked to cancer. There are multiple factors, however, that correlate with cancer incidence, and diet is just one. Cancer researchers have found several dietary recommendations for individuals seeking to protect themselves against cancer: lower one’s body fat; engage in daily physical activity; limit your intake of sugary and alcoholic drinks, fast food, and high-calorie, processed foods; avoid red meat and meats that are smoked, cured or salted—like bacon and deli meats; avoid salty foods; and get one’s nutrients directly from vegetables, fruits, and plant-based foods.
Vegans tend to be slimmer than non-vegans, and studies of chronic disease interventions have demonstrated that vegan diets helped participants lower their body weight. But plenty of overweight vegans can tell you that gaining or losing weight is more complex than simply abstaining from animal products.
Certain aspects of vegan diets can contribute to weight loss goals: vegans typically eat more fiber, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole foods than non-vegans. Vegans also tend to eat less processed and less fast food, and they avoid meat and dairy, in contrast to non-vegans. Fat vegans seeking to lose weight might focus on the calories of energy that are entering and getting used up by their bodies—usually, this means eating less food and exercising. They can also look at how some foods are better at helping them burn calories from fat instead of muscle—like high-protein legumes, nuts, and soy products.
Personal circumstances can also impact one’s weight, including sleeping habits, experiences with stress and emotional hardship, and wider environmental factors such as exposure to toxins, portion sizes, the persistent social effects of settler colonialism, and opportunities for outdoor activity. Other ideas for losing weight include eating low-glycemic index foods and eating fresh fruits and vegetables, in place of foods that have high calories and low amounts of nutrients.
Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Studies seem to show that vegan diets can help prevent the onset of Type 2 diabetes and have even been used to treat the disease, as it can sometimes be managed with diet and exercise alone. By excluding processed foods, red meat, high-fat dairy foods, sugary and starchy foods, and drinks, fried foods, and trans fats, researchers in 2011 found that Type 2 diabetes risk was reduced among participants across eight studies who maintained “ideal body weight.” Dietary factors that reduced the risk of Type 2 diabetes were the consumption of plant foods like green leafy vegetables, fresh fruits, whole grains, and nuts. Vegans who do not get enough vitamins D and B12, however, may worsen their experiences with Type 2 diabetes.
Improved Kidney Function
For people with kidney disease, vegan diets offer zero cholesterol, low levels of saturated fat, and high levels of fiber, along with moderate amounts of protein. Plant-based foods also contain a form of phosphorus that is absorbed by the kidneys in a more controlled way. As a result, the American Dietetic Association states that a vegan diet “may slow progression of kidney disease.”
Reduced Pain From Arthritis
There is limited but encouraging evidence on treating rheumatoid arthritis with a vegan diet. For example, a vegan diet, combined with fasting, helped people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, according to researchers in Finland.
Are the Health Risks of Veganism Real?
Exploring the effects of a vegan diet on one’s body is a bit like a crash course on human biology. The following items are some common areas of concern in vegan nutrition.
All vegans must take B12 supplements or eat foods fortified with the vitamin, as B12 only occurs in animal foods. A lack of B12 in one’s body can result in megaloblastic anemia, nerve damage, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and strokes. Vitamin B12 deficiency can also lead to gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea and indigestion. Vitamin B12 helps your body form red blood cells, helps DNA and cell reproduction, and protects nerve fibers with myelin sheaths. It also helps convert food into energy. As a group, vegans tend to have lower levels of B12 in their systems in comparison to non-vegans.
Vegans typically do get enough iron, and iron from plant foods is better regulated by the body than iron from animal foods. However, it is a top nutrient deficiency worldwide, so consider yourself fortunate if you eat leafy greens and beans every day. People who do not get enough iron can suffer from anemia. Iron helps transport oxygen throughout your body and carries away carbon dioxide. Among other tasks, iron helps your immune system function, it helps produce energy in cells, and it is vital for learning and regulating behavior.
People usually do not get enough calcium, vegan and non-vegans alike. Calcium helps make bones and teeth hard, and it is essential for bone health and preventing bone fractures. Calcium helps relax your muscles, coagulate blood, and transmit nerve impulses, among other functions. Consuming too much sodium can decrease the amount of calcium available in your body, and can contribute to bone loss.
As with calcium, vegans typically consume lower amounts of vitamin D than is recommended. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus, repairs systems throughout the body, controls cell growth and maturation, and protects against diabetes, among other functions. To raise vitamin D levels in your body, you can go outside in the sun or eat supplements and fortified foods. Learn more about vitamin D here.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
It is possible that as a vegan, you are not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in your daily diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain, heart, and circulatory system health.
While zinc deficiency is not prevalent among vegans in Australia and countries in the global north, zinc levels have been found to be lower among vegans than non-vegans overall. The rates of zinc deficiency are much higher in poorer countries. Zinc helps your body grow and fight infections, among other functions.
Some studies have shown lower iodine intake levels in vegans compared to non-vegans. Iodine is essential for your thyroid gland, to help you convert food and water into energy.
Is There Anyone Who Should Not Be Vegan?
Many different types of people embrace veganism, although there are some limiting factors. Anyone who is not interested in trying out the lifestyle or philosophy of veganism should probably not do so. And while becoming vegan is often seen as a decision that is best reserved for those who are ethically opposed to harming sentient beings, people go vegan for many reasons, including their health, the animals, and the environment.
Taking the First Step
Health can be one reason why people adopt veganism, but going vegan is not a one-size-fits-all solution for good physical health. Learning about the ins and outs of what you are putting in your body as a vegan is a good step towards a lifetime of self-care.
Remember, this article is not a medical resource, nor should it be used as one. If you are concerned about your health, please consult a doctor before going vegan.
Hemi is a writer and educator.