If You’re Thinking of Going Vegan for Health Reasons, Here’s What You Should Know
A dietitian weighs in on the pros and cons of the vegan diet.
The vegan diet is becoming more and more mainstream, with people cutting out animal products for environmental, ethical and health reasons. So is veganism more of a personal or moral decision? Or is it how we should all be eating for long-term health?
What Is It?
Plant foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, and soy) are the mainstays of all vegetarian diets. Whether foods like milk, yogurt, and eggs are included with that depends on the type of vegetarian diet being followed. Some vegetarians include dairy or eggs, and certain vegetarians even consume fish at times. However, a vegan diet is the strictest form of vegetarian diet since it means avoiding all animal products—including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs, but also less conspicuous ones like gelatin, butter, and sometimes honey.
What Can You Eat?
Vegan diets consist only of plants foods. This includes all vegetables, non-starchy and starchy; legumes, lentils, and peas; nuts, seeds, and nut butters; fruits, grains, and soy products like tofu. When planned well, a vegan diet can meet the average person’s needs for protein and most required nutrients. However, meal planning does take a little more thought to ensure plant protein sources complement one another to provide all essential amino acids. This is true even compared to the planning required of other vegetarians who consume dairy or eggs.
Wondering what a vegan breakfast looks like with eggs and yogurt out of the picture? Here's what a sample day on the vegan diet looks like:
Breakfast: Chia pudding, oatmeal, or overnight oats prepared with plant-based milks; nut butter or avocado on toast; or sweet potato hash are all filling, relatively easy vegan breakfast options.
Lunch: There are tons of lunch options for vegans, from a simple and classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, to a chickpea salad, to an Instagram-worthy Buddha bowl.
Dinner: Ideas for dinners that can be meal prepped ahead of time include red lentil dal, tofu stir fry, and quinoa-stuffed peppers.
Snacks: Some snack ideas include carrots and hummus, kale chips, nut butter and oat balls, and spicy roasted chickpeas.
How Much Does the Vegan Diet Cost?
Just like most diets, the cost of a vegan diet is determined by how the person on the diet decides to plan, shop, and eat. One of the rumors about the vegan diet is that it is wildly more expensive than eating the typical American diet. True, costs can add up quickly if you buy vegan alternatives, like non-dairy cheese and imitation meat products. And, like any diet, you can waste a ton of money going out to eat, especially at specialty vegan restaurants. But eating vegan at home on a budget requires the same key concepts as a non-vegan diet: A little planning, shopping the sales, and cooking in bulk.
Positives and Potential Health Benefits
Sustainability & Ethics
Decreasing animal protein intake by following a plant-based diet (vegan, as well as other vegetarian diet forms) is suggested to have a lower carbon footprint on the environment and to be more sustainable. Animal production requires water and crops for the animals and transportation of the animals and products, and it creates methane—a destructive greenhouse gas—from cattle. The need for grain to feed animals for slaughter contributes to deforestation as well. While a plant-based diet also requires natural resources, its overall environmental impact is thought to be significantly less and more sustainable long-term. Additionally, some may be attracted to veganism because it promotes a more cruelty-free way of living than a traditional omnivore diet.
Overall Health Improvements
The health benefits associated with plant-based diets are pretty significant. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported in 2009 that vegan diet followers tend to have lower body weights, lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol. It also found that vegan individuals consumed more fiber, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, and magnesium and less saturated fat. Results from studies where plant-based diet have been used as interventions for weight loss and cardiovascular risks support this. In fact, the health effects seen in obese children suggested significantly greater decreases in BMI, total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol compared to children who followed the American Heart Association eating guidelines. A 2013 published study of GEICO employees found that those following plant-based diets lost an additional 6 pounds compared to the control group, and had significant improvements in blood lipids.
Improved Glucose Control
Following a plant-based diet may also improve insulin sensitivity and possibly reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. When the health effects associated with following a plant-based diet were compared to following an American Diabetic Association eating plan, findings suggested that while both groups had better blood glucose control, the vegan group had the greatest improvements. A study published in 2009 also found that diabetics who followed a vegan diet exhibited greater improvements in blood glucose control, and some were even able to reduce their diabetic medications. Most plant-based diet data suggests significantly higher fiber intakes, which likely has an impact on glycemic response as well as satiety and weight control.
Downsides and Potential Health Concerns
Nutrients at Risk
While the 2009 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition article referenced some very positive intakes of certain nutrients, it also highlighted nutrients that vegans are at particular risk being deficient in. These nutrients include iron, B12, calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Iron: Vegans may be prone to developing iron deficiency because they are eliminating sources of heme iron (from animals), which is more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron (from plants). So not only are iron amounts lower in plant foods, but that iron isn’t absorbed as well. One thing to do to improve non-heme iron absorption is to consume iron-rich plant foods with a food rich in vitamin C.
B12: Vitamin B12 is only naturally found in animal products such as eggs, meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products—all foods excluded on a vegan diet. Inadequate intake of vitamin B12 can cause symptoms such as megaloblastic anemia, fatigue, loss of appetite, and potentially severe neurological symptoms. Luckily, vitamin B12 is fortified in many vegan foods such as certain plant-based milks, breakfast cereals, and soy products, and there are also vegan vitamin B12 supplements that can be taken to make up for the gap of B12 sources in the diet. The key is incorporating those fortified foods on a regular basis, or using a vitamin supplement if needed.
Calcium and vitamin D: Often found together in foods, these two nutrients also work together to maintain bone health. Inadequate intake of one has an affect on the other’s ability to perform tasks. It’s key that vegans seek out plant-based foods fortified or supplemented with both of these.
Omega-3 fatty acids: These essential fatty acids play key roles in heart health, brain and eye health, and reducing chronic inflammation. The best sources are fish, eggs, and sea vegetables, but they can also be found in some nuts and seeds like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Adequate intake of those plants foods are key, and DHA supplements may be needed.
Eating at Restaurants Can Be Difficult
According to Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017, about 6% of consumers in the United States identify as vegan. Even though this number is a huge jump from the 1% of Americans who identified as vegan in 2014, it can still be difficult to find vegan-friendly foods at restaurants, family gatherings, and work events since the food industry is more geared to serve the majority of the population. Those living in major cities such as New York City or Los Angeles are more likely to find vegan restaurants, bigger vegan grocery store sections, and ready-to-eat vegan food products.
Unwanted Weight Gain
It is common for people to switch to a vegan diet for health reasons, only to find that they gain weight after making the change. One reason this happens is because there are a lot of surprising processed food products that are vegan—Oreo cookies, Pillsbury crescent rolls, Ritz crackers, and unfrosted Pop Tarts, among many others. It can become an easy habit to turn to processed foods and comfort foods (like vegan mac and cheese and soy ice cream) in stressful, busy times. Including enough plant-based protein to trigger satiety can help combat unwanted weight gain and carbohydrate binging.
The vegan diet can be a healthy eating pattern for individuals who ensure they are meeting all of their macronutrient and micronutrient needs, such as iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids. The environmental and ethical benefits to a vegan diet are positives on top of the health benefits. However, individuals shouldn’t feel pressure to follow a vegan diet if it doesn’t sound appealing. The research supports similar health benefits when all forms of vegetarian diets are consumed—even those that contain dairy and eggs. It's important to note that people can still follow the confines of veganism and eat a diet of unhealthy, processed foods. Also, a healthy vegan diet likely requires more time in the kitchen cooking and planning meals out than a standard diet.