Experts advise that a vegan diet can be nutritionally adequate and help to prevent chronic diseases. However, someone must plan a vegan diet appropriately to gain the health benefits and avoid nutrient deficiencies.
The percentage of vegans in the UK increased by 40% in 2020, according to a poll by finder.com, and a record-breaking 500,000 people signed up to Veganuary in 2021. Moreover, there were almost 10 million Americans following a plant-based diet in 2020.
Although health is not everyone’s motivation for becoming vegan, it’s essential to understand if plant-based eating provides the nutrients someone needs when following the diet.
Here’s the potential health benefits of being vegan explained – and what the research says. Also discussed below are the risks of not planning a diet properly and what nutrients to consider.
What are the potential health benefits of being vegan?
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics advises that appropriately planned vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for preventing and treating certain diseases.
Additionally, it confirms that plant-based diets are appropriate for all life cycle stages and athletes. Furthermore, the academy points out that vegans have a lower risk of certain health conditions and chronic diseases.
The following sections look more closely at the health benefits of a vegan diet.
Helps to manage weight
According to a 2019 systematic review, there is robust evidence that plant-based diets are more beneficial than conventional diets for weight loss.
Interestingly, this is not due to fewer calories, as some people might assume. Instead, the review suggests that multiple mechanisms may help weight loss, including better blood sugar control, lower inflammation, and altered intestinal activity.
Reduces risk of chronic diseases
A review of findings from Adventist studies indicates that vegetarian diets show a lower risk for cardiometabolic diseases and some cancers, while also offering additional protection against the following outcomes:
- cardiovascular mortality
- type 2 diabetes
According to the review, vegans have lower body mass index (BMI) and cholesterol levels than vegetarians, which may account for the additional health benefits.
Improves gut bacteria
Gut bacteria, which scientists refer to as the microbiome, is a huge area of interest for researchers due to how it influences health and disease.
Research indicates that microbial communities in the gut and saliva differ between plant-based and omnivorous diets. Plant foods contain fiber which acts as a ‘prebiotic’ to feed beneficial bacteria, and this may help to increase bacterial diversity.
Although scientists need to do more studies, it seems that Prevotella bacterial abundance in vegans may be beneficial for regulating blood sugar and weight.
Gut bacteria also influence cognitive and mental health via the microbiome-gut-brain axis. Put simply, bacteria in the gut can have a positive impact on the brain. However, the evidence for the effects of strictly plant-based diets on cognition is limited.
Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant
Healthy vegan diets are abundant in fruits and vegetables, which contain beneficial phytochemicals and antioxidants. These plant compounds fight free radicals, which cause damage to the body and help to prevent inflammation.
While inflammation can be a beneficial immune response, chronic low-grade inflammation is a fundamental part of many health issues and diseases.
Research indicates that plant foods can prevent the formation of reactive oxygen species and oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – major contributors to heart disease. Another study suggests a whole food plant-based diet may prevent cellular damage and skin aging.
Additionally, eating more plant compounds such as flavonoids and anthocyanins is associated with a reduced rate of cognitive decline due to their beneficial effect on inflammatory processes.
Furthermore, a study suggested that plant-based diets avoid substances that negatively affect our metabolic status and overall health. For example, animal products such as dairy, meat, and eggs can contain nitrosamines, antibiotics, and dioxins that can cause oxidative stress and inflammation.
Are there any potential drawbacks of being vegan?
The main potential risk of a vegan diet is due to not planning it properly. Vegans must be aware of what nutrients they need to avoid ill health and optimize their wellbeing. While studies indicate that vegan diets are generally rich in vitamins C, E, folic acid, and magnesium, other nutrients can be too low.
For example, research indicates that vegans may have a higher fracture rate due to lower calcium intake. Furthermore, some vegans are deficient in vitamin B12, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders.
Avoiding nutrient deficiency
The British Dietetic Society advises that well-planned plant-based diets can support healthy living at every age and life stage. However, it suggests that there are specific nutrients that vegans must be aware of consuming in sufficient amounts. These include:
- vitamin B12
- omega-3 fatty acids
- vitamin D
People can achieve their recommended intake of some of these nutrients through whole foods and fortified foods.
However, experts advise that vegans can take a supplement to meet daily amounts of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, some manufacturers design multi-nutrient supplements for vegans to ensure they get the correct dosages.
Vegans who are pregnant or breastfeeding should speak to their healthcare provider about taking supplements. If they are deficient in vitamin B12, they may not provide adequate amounts through their milk. They may also need an iron supplement as non-heme iron is less bioavailable than animal sources. They may need other nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, so they should always check with a doctor.
Another potential drawback to a vegan diet is the risk of eating too many processed foods. Most vegan junk food is ultra-processed, containing high levels of sugar, fat, or salt.
If someone doesn’t limit these foods, this could lead to weight gain or ill health.
Foods such as fake meats often contain fillers and additives and are not nutrient-dense. Occasionally eating these foods may not cause a problem, but vegans shouldn’t rely on them for essential nutrients and should focus on eating mainly whole foods.
Evidence suggests multiple health benefits of a plant-based diet, including weight loss and less risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Vegans generally consume higher amounts of specific vitamins and minerals, but they need to know which nutrients could become deficient. An excellent starting point is to plan varied whole-food meals carefully.
Additionally, people can find information from a reputable source such as the Vegan Society or consult a nutrition professional for advice.
Furthermore, supplementing a healthy diet with specific nutrients such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids helps to ensure that vegans stay healthy and avoid deficiencies.