People adopt a vegan lifestyle for any number of reasons but for those that choose to follow a vegan diet, health is often a part of their choice. People who base their decision solely on ethical & philosophical reasons to be vegan may look down on such dietary vegans, but we think that anyone becoming vegan is doing a great thing. For many, adopting a plant-based diet for health reasons is the first step on the road to a completely vegan way of life. For others, it is the start of a journey that sees them better understand the moral reasons for being vegan too.
Ethics aside, the fact is that health is a big factor for many people who decide to eschew meat and animal products in their diet. Here we look at the health benefits of a plant-based diet, consider any negatives and seek to provide a conclusion that answers the question of whether or not a vegan diet is healthy.
Health Benefits of a Vegan Diet
There is no single entity that can be called a “vegan diet”, of which we can categorically say “yes, this is a healthy diet”. As with non-vegan diets, some are healthy, some are less healthy, and others may be quite damaging. What we intend to consider here is whether or not the sort of vegan diet we would advocate is likely to be healthy and without spoiling the debate, the simple answer is: yes, it is.
Done properly, a vegan diet has numerous significant and proven health benefits that can lead to a longer and happier life. Now that’s decided, you could stop reading and go and celebrate with an apple and some nuts, or you can read on to find out a little more.
First of all, we should start by saying that a vegan diet, carefully planned, can provide the essential nutrients required for optimum health. All the other pros are rather pointless if you die of a single particular deficiency, but that really shouldn’t be the case, subject to a few minor caveats as outlined below.
In addition though, a vegan who eats a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables, a daily helping of nuts and seeds, plenty of wholegrains and a few servings a week of legumes and beans, and some additional good fats in the form of olive, rapeseed or flax oil should do far better than simply meeting the basic requirements.
Benefits of Not Eating Meat
We’ll come back to all the great things that should be included in a vegan diet shortly, but for now, let us consider some things that vegans don’t eat. The World Health Organization has specifically looked at the role of red and processed meat in causing cancer and this is certainly not something for vegans to be concerned about.
Limiting Saturated Fat
Saturated fat is another thing that many vegans will be consuming less of compared to those that eat meat and dairy products. Saturated fat is not exclusively found in animal products but by and large it is these things that have it in the highest amounts. Coconut-based fats and palm oil are among the exceptions to this.
There has been some debate over saturated fats with some studies claiming to show that actually they are not as bad for health as was first thought. However, based on the current information we have and the biggest, most reputable meta-studies available, key organisations, including the NHS, British Dietetic Association and World Heart Federation (and indeed many more) all agree that limiting saturated fat intake is beneficial to health.
The most proven link between illness and saturated fats concerns cardiovascular disease but there are also strong suggestions of a link with various types of cancer and potentially with bone health issues too.
Fibre & Nuts Are Beneficial to Health
Eating high quantities of fibre may be the healthiest dietary option of them all and yet fibre is so often overlooked. Many omnivores who are considering veganism worry about not getting enough vegan protein if they switch to a plant-based diet, when in fact they may be wiser to focus on the extra fibre they are likely to get.
A Vegan Diet is High in Fibre
The NHS state, “Eating plenty of fibre is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer”. On top of that, a report in the Lancet showed that meta-analysis of 185 studies and 58 clinical trials indicated that 13 deaths and six cases of heart disease per thousand people could be prevented by moving people to a diet that is high in fibre. According to the BBC, the report “… also showed lower levels of type-2 diabetes and bowel cancer as well as lower weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And, the more fibre people ate, the better”.
On top of all that, there is lots of evidence to suggest high fibre intake promotes a strong, healthy and varied gut microbiome. This is an increasingly fashionable – though also highly promising – area of study that looks at the variety and quality of bacteria in the human gut. A healthy microbiome is linked to a huge range of health benefits, including improved mental health.
And, guess what vegans? The good news is that by and large a vegan diet will have more fibre in it than a non-vegan one, especially if you follow the sort of healthy vegan diet we have already discussed. Research published by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health showed that in their study, vegans consumed more than double the amount fibre of omnivores. The British Nutrition Foundation also agree that vegans usually eat more fibre and this is backed up by further studies around the world.
Vegans Eat Plenty of Nuts & Seeds
Yet another benefit of the vegan diet is the increased consumption of nuts and seeds. This is where we have to come back to our point about each individual’s diet being different. Not all vegans eat nuts and seeds, and conversely lots of steak-loving, vegan-haters, may regularly down ounces of them.
There aren’t huge studies to indicate that vegans necessarily eat more nuts and seeds than non-vegans but it seems likely that they do. These two nutrient-dense food types certainly tend to feature in the diets of many vegans and they definitely should be included in a healthy, well-balanced plant-based diet.
Health Benefits of Nuts
Vegans don’t get protein from meat, eggs or other animal sources, so besides their numerous other health benefits, almonds, cashews and other nuts and seeds are an excellent source of vegan protein.
Nuts also contain high levels of fibre, which is very beneficial as discussed earlier. Throw in lots of good fats too and nuts and seeds are brilliant in terms of the macronutrients they offer. However, when it comes to micronutrients, they are arguably even better.
Different seeds and nuts offer different benefits and as with the fruit and vegetables you consume, the more variety you can get the better. However, in general, nuts and seeds offer good levels of vitamins and minerals, chiefly vitamin E and some B vitamins, plus zinc, selenium, magnesium, potassium, calcium and iron.
In addition to all that, nuts contain compounds called flavonoids, which can protect your heart, a wide range of antioxidant polyphenols and phytochemicals, including lutein and zeaxanthin, omega-3 and plant sterols (which can help lower cholesterol).
There are a huge number of excellent studies that link nut consumption to maintaining a healthy blood pressure, better longevity overall, improved heart health, better fertility, and reduced susceptibility to insulin resistance and developing type 2 diabetes. As if all that wasn’t good enough, eating nuts can also help you lose weight, which in turn confers further health benefits in itself.
Vegans Tend to Eat Lots of Greens
The Internet is awash with nutritional information and food fads and yet the best advice may be the oldest healthy eating adage of them all, dispensed by mothers throughout history (when fathers didn’t bother with such niceties as caring for their children): eat your greens.
In slightly more specific terms, we would expand that to “eat lots of vegetables and fruit, in that order, focussing on leafy greens but getting a full colour palette”. Not quite as catchy as “eat your greens” but perhaps a little more nutritionally sound.
Once again, it is self-evident that simply calling oneself a vegan and eschewing animal-based foods won’t transfer a diet of crisps, chocolate, sugary drinks and salty processed meals into a life-giving way of life. But as with nuts and seeds, logic and anecdotal evidence suggests that vegans are likely to consume more fruit and veg than omnivores. More concretely, the vegan diet we would advocate is one that includes lots of these fresh, colourful, vitamin-packed goodies.
UK governmental advice is based on eating five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, with a serving usually being around 80g. There is more detailed advice about what counts as one of your five at the NHS website, including information on dried fruit, fruit juice, potatoes and more.
7 Servings is Better than 5
However, it is worth noting that in 2014 a UK study by researchers at University College London, based on the Health Survey for England, suggested that eating seven servings of fruit and veg a day would offer even greater health benefits. Other studies have shown that eating even more than that is better still but due to the difficulty in finding enough people following such a diet it is not yet know what the optimum levels of such foods might be.
The message though is clear – eating fruit and vegetables is beneficial to health and protects against a range of major conditions. UK advice has always set the magical “five a day” as a minimum level, rather than a maximum or optimum, and vegans who embrace the full, healthy wonders of a plant-based diet and life can certainly expect to benefit.
Issues to be Aware of on a Vegan Diet
There are lots of nutritional issues to be aware of on a vegan diet and to reiterate once again, perhaps the most important of those is that vegan doesn’t always mean healthy. However, done well, a vegan diet can be incredibly healthy, but there are some key things that vegans, would-be vegans and those catering to plant-based eaters should know.
Micronutrients Can Be Harder to Come By
One thing to acknowledge is that getting some nutrients into a vegan lifestyle will take a little extra effort. Getting everything you need is most certainly possible but the fact is that there are some nutrients that are largely found in animal products and are harder to get if you don’t eat those. Some of these micronutrients are added to every day products such as (non-dairy) milk, cereal, bread and fruit juice, and this is how lots of vegans will get vitamins and minerals such as iron, vitamin D and certain B vitamins, including vitamin B12.
We look at this issue in more depth via individual features in the health and fitness area of the site, as well as in our article on vegan vitamins & supplements. In addition to the vitamins and minerals named above, zinc, selenium, and iodine may also be difficult for vegans to obtain through their diet and these are not commonly (though some cereals may have added zinc) used to fortify food.
Supplements & Other Tips
However, whilst some people choose to take supplements to ensure they get these and other essential nutrients, this is not always necessary. For example, just a few Brazil nuts a day would be enough for an adult to achieve their selenium requirement.
Adding small amounts of seaweed or other sea vegetables to your diet is an easy to get vegan-friendly iodine, whilst wild rice, cashew nuts and pumpkin seeds are excellent sources of zinc.
Be Wary of Too Many Macronutrients
Whilst a typical vegan may be worried about what they aren’t getting enough of, there are also some concerns to note the other way, which is to say that a vegan diet may provide too much of certain things.
In terms of micronutrients, there isn’t too much to worry about. Perhaps kelp-lovers should watch their iodine levels and Brazil nut fiends might fall foul of too much selenium (levels can vary significantly), but on the whole, it is more the macronutrients that can prove troublesome.
Much as we have proselytised about the wonders of nuts and seeds, as with most things (not leafy greens, when it comes to those you can go for it!) in life, it is all about balance and moderation. On hearing that nuts and seeds are “healthy”, some people may think “great, I can have 12 packets of peanuts in the pub!” Sadly, that isn’t the case. Moreover, any nuts that you eat should be plain (that is not roasted in oil) and unsalted/unflavoured.
Nuts and seeds are very dense in calories, meaning that a small serving can have a surprisingly high amount of energy. These are absolutely healthy foods and, as reported above, there is lots to suggest they can help with weight loss. That doesn’t change the fact that they contain relatively high quantity of calories when compared to many other vegan foods.
Nuts Are High in Fat
As well as being very calorific, nuts are also high in fat, that latter fact largely explaining the former one. Fat has nine calories per gram, with protein and carbohydrates much lower at four calories per gram. Whilst many nuts are high in protein, they are also high in fat and whilst this tends to be a mix of healthier fats, it does mean that by weight nuts have a lot of calories.
But it isn’t just the calories that should be of concern for, whilst fat may no longer be the nutritional bad guy it once was, the NHS still recommends limiting overall fat intake and especially saturated fat. The fat, saturated fat and calories of some popular nuts can be seen below:
Fat Content of Popular Nuts
|Nut||Calories per 100g||Fat per 100g||Of which Saturated|
Please note – the values above refer to plain, raw nuts. Also, please note that whilst peanuts are technically legumes not nuts they are usually treated as nuts from a nutritional perspective.
Balance & Moderation is Key
The key, as with much when it comes to what we eat, is portion size. Most (presumably non-metric!) sources recommend an ounce of nuts per day, which is approximately 28g. The Lancet analysis referenced earlier suggests a similar figure of 25g, although this is for nuts and seeds combined. Other research and organisations say two ounces, or around 56g per day and in truth, again, there is no simple, incontrovertibly proven number regarding what is optimum.
Other than the fat and calories, eating too many nuts is unlikely to be an issue though, so we would suggest around 25g to 60g of mixed nuts and seeds per day is probably best. Until you get a good idea of what such a weight looks like, a simple set of scales is recommended, although a small handful is usually around an ounce.
It’s very easy to eat 100g or more of nuts but bearing in mind that would serve up around 25% of your recommended calories and potentially your entire fat allowance, this should be avoided. When it comes to saturated fat, 100g of Brazil nuts would yield 75% of the NHS-recommended maximum, not to mention potentially delivering too much selenium.
It isn’t just nuts that people eating a plant-based diet need to exercise portion control with though. Whilst most vegetables can be eaten freely, the more calorific plants, such as starchy roots (potatoes, sweet potatoes and so on) and most legumes should be eaten in relative moderation. More importantly, vegans may want to be careful when eating fruit, especially if this isn’t in whole form.
Many fruits are high in (albeit natural) sugar and if they are consumed as juice or a smoothie, or any kind of processed form, much of the fibre and other nutrients may be absent. It is thought that the fibre in whole fruit may slow the absorption of the sugar and so the impact on blood sugar levels is small. Diabetes UK say that “most fruits have low to medium glycaemic index, so they do not lead to a sharp rise in your blood glucose levels” but this is less the case with juice.
Fruit is unquestionably healthy and good for us but even when consumed whole, some fruits are quite high in sugar. For example, a large apple may have as much as the equivalent of four teaspoons of sugar in it, whilst bananas, cherries, pomegranates, mangoes, grapes and figs are among the most sugary fruits and should certainly be eaten in moderation.
Too Few Calories?
Having said that, vegans should be careful about eating too much sugar and fat, there is a potential risk that some vegans may not actually consume enough calories. A 2014 study showed that vegans consume fewer calories than vegetarians and omnivores. The average calorie intake for the participants of the study is shown below.
|Diet type||Average (Mean) calories per day|
Obviously this is just one study and our usual caveat applies that one vegan diet is very different from another. And, it is worth noting that with an average calorie intake of more than 2300, vegans in this study were still by and large eating well. However, there is no escaping the fact that the meat-eaters were consuming a lot more calories than the vegans – more than 600 calories per day more, or around 25%.
The fact that there are many foods that vegans cannot eat is an obvious explanation for this. More importantly, many of these foods, such as fatty meat, cheese, butter, cream, many cakes, pastries and baked goods, are very high in calories. So, whilst many vegans do get enough calories and it is certainly very easy to do so (anyone for some Brazil nuts and three pints of vegan-friendly beer?), this is worth bearing in mind.
Conclusion: Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?
The National Health Service state that “You should be able to get most of the nutrients you need from eating a varied and balanced vegan diet.” Whilst that is hardly the most gushing of endorsements, it should go some way to satisfying anxious parents, friends and relatives that the vegan they cook for isn’t going to be dropping dead thanks to their diet.
Proof from Famous Vegan Athletes
Another consideration should be the many great vegan sportspeople that have been the best in the world at sports as diverse as boxing, snooker, tennis and Formula 1.
If a vegan diet is good enough to power the sporting brilliance of the likes of David Haye and Serena Williams, simple logic would suggest it must be healthy, at the very least in the short to medium term.
Some Vegan Diets Are Healthier Than Others…
However, we can go much further than that and say that in many instances a plant-based diet is likely to be hugely beneficial in the long term too. As said, there is no such thing as one single vegan way of eating.
At one end of the spectrum you may have a raw vegan eating endless amounts of fresh vegetables, fruit and nuts, whilst at the other you could have someone drinking vegan wine to excess, and eating vegan chocolate and animal-free ready meals that are none the less low in nutrients and high in fat, salt and sugar.
What A Healthy Vegan Diet Looks Like
However, there are things that characterise a “good” vegan diet and these things are closely linked by peer-reviewed scientific meta-studies to a reduction in a whole range of serious health issues.
The sort of diet we are talking about is highly likely to include the following:
- High fibre & a good variety of fibre
- Low saturated fat intake
- Consumption of nuts, seeds & other sources of “good” fat
- Lots of fruit & vegetables
- No red or processed meat (obviously!)
- Lots of wholegrains
- Regular consumption of beans & legumes
Whilst some micronutrients can be slightly harder to obtain in a vegan diet, the fortification of many products, including vegan milks, fruit juice, bread and breakfast cereals means that almost all of these can be obtained relatively easily on a vegan diet.
Some vitamins and minerals, for example vitamin B12, iodine and vitamin D may be harder to obtain but those eating a well-constructed and balanced diet should be fine. For those who don’t quite have such a varied diet, don’t like certain foods or can’t eat them for any reason, various vegan multivitamins & supplements are an option.
Benefits of a Healthy Vegan Diet
Those vegans who are meeting all their nutritional needs through the many super-healthy vegan foods that are the mainstays of a good plant-based diet can expect (this expectation being supported by a host of robust scientific research) the following benefits:
- Lower rates of heart disease
- Reduced incidence of some types of cancer
- Lower blood pressure & cholesterol
- Lower rates of type 2 diabetes
- Probable reduction in a range of other diseases and mental health issues
So, all in all, we think it is more than safe to say that the vegan diet, done well, is very healthy and it is easy to see why more and more people are choosing to move towards a plant-based. If you need some inspiration about what to eat, check out our vegan recipes section.