Are There Health Benefits of Going Vegan?

Are There Health Benefits of Going Vegan?

More and more people are eating vegan meals and many of those are then turning this into a permanent lifestyle choice – and the main reason people cite? A vegan diet is seen as healthier. But social, environmental and ethical issues aside, is eating a vegan diet really better for your health?

The Vegan Society has seen numbers quadruple between 2006 and 2018, and many people are also simply cutting down on meat and dairy. One common motivation for this switch is the promised health benefits with the vegan diet generally considered to be higher in fibre and lower in harmful fats.

In many ways, society is ahead of the studies, as people who follow a more plant-based Mediterranean style way of eating, if not a fully vegan diet, purport many life-changing health benefits. But as studies play catch up they are showing a reduced incidence of cancer in those following a vegan diet.[1] And one recent study involving 48,000 people studied over 18 years compared the health of meat-eaters, pescatarians – who eat fish and dairy but not meat – and vegetarians, including some vegans. They found that people who eat vegan and vegetarian diets have up to 32% lower risk of heart disease among those with the highest intake of plant-based foods for cardiovascular disease, after adjusting for age, sex, race, education and health behaviours such as smoking, alcohol intake and exercise.[2]

Vegans also have a lower body mass index (BMI) which means better cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, and better metabolic profile, which is an indicator of developing metabolic syndrome including type 2 diabetes.[3]

Nutrient Deficiencies & the Vegan Diet

However, this same large 2019 cohort study also showed that those following a vegan diet had a higher risk of stroke, possibly partly due to a lack of vitamin B12. One common concern is whether a vegan diet provides enough vitamin B12, a deficiency can lead to neurological symptoms such as numbness, and it’s irreversible if the deficiency is present for too long. B12 helps prevent nerve damage, and is found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy, but not in fruit or vegetables. It’s stored in the liver but deficiency will eventually arise if levels are not replaced, which is why regularly taking vitamin B12 supplements is recommended for vegans.

Another common misconception is that vegan diets lack iron. This crucial micronutrient is present in meat (haem) form, as well as in vegetables and plants (non-haem) form so it’s unlikely a vegan diet will cause an iron deficiency, as long as the diet includes fruit and vegetables of every colour. That said, absorption of non-haem iron in the gut is not as efficient as the haem form, so iron supplement may be advisable for some, and certainly a daily dose of vitamin C (through diet and supplements) boosts iron absorption further. Over time, the body can also adapt to how much iron there is in our diet, and if you have a lower iron intake it can make more efficient use of that iron.

Protein deficiency is also cited as an issue with the vegan diet but the 2019 EPIC-Oxford study of over 65,000 people did not find statistical differences in protein levels affecting health for those following vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian diets.

Bone Health

A recent study from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has shown that those following a vegan diet may be at risk of thinning bones.[4] Another recent larger scale cohort study showed that there was also an increased risk of fractures (particularly hip fractures) in those following a vegan diet.[5]

The bone health and vegan diet debate normally centres around calcium so this is interesting that other biomarkers including vitamin D3, magnesium and vitamin B6 were identified as low and potentially contributing to reduced bone density. Vegan D3 and other bone supporting supplements can cover the dietary shortfall.

Vegan Junk Food

There’s been a rapid rise in vegan and vegetarian processed food sales, which is suggesting the poor food choices are still being made regardless of which style of diet you choose. Processed food is devoid of many nutrients, and may have higher levels of damaged fats, salt, sugar and artificial chemicals, which all negatively impact health. So the key to ensuring enough protein, as well as all the other macro and micronutrients is to eat minimum of 30 portions of vegetables weekly, with a variety of colours, nuts, wholegrains and beans and lentils, as well as chia, hemp and flax seeds, which contain the all omega 3 essential fatty acids.

So yes, there are some big short and long-term health benefits to following a more plant-based diet for many people. The main areas to address when moving to a vegan diet is to support bone health and vitamin B12 with supplementary nutrients, alongside a diet with large variety of colourful vegetables, pulses, beans and legumes and avoid the nutrient-poor vegan junk foods.

Coupled to this, in general the 2019 cohort study found that vegans typically smoke less, drink less alcohol and exercise more so maybe changing what you eat also then changes your lifestyle choices and decisions, so it’s win-win for your health, as well as win-win for the environment.

Dr Elisabeth Philipps PhD BSc (Hons) BSc Nutr Med AFMCP

Dr Elisabeth Philipps is a clinical neuroscientist and functional medicine practitioner, and runs a health consultancy specialising in brain health, the endocannabinoid system and phytocannabininoids including CBD. She regularly presents at conferences and events, and provides expert opinion for the national press, specialist healthcare publications and health companies. You can connect with Elisabeth via: | instagram – @drelisabethphilipps | Twitter – @drphilipps | Linked In – Dr Elisabeth Philipps

[1] Madigan M, Karhu E. The role of plant-based nutrition in cancer prevention. J Unexplored Med Data 2018;3:9.

[2] Tong, et al (2019) Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMJ 2019;366:l4897

[3] Medawar, E., Huhn, S., Villringer, A. et al. The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: a systematic review. Transl Psychiatry 9, 226 (2019).

[4] Menzel, J., et al. (2021) Vegan Diet and Bone Health—Results from the Cross-Sectional RBVD Study. Nutrients.

[5] Tong, T.Y.N., Appleby, P.N., Armstrong, M.E.G. et al. Vegetarian and vegan diets and risks of total and site-specific fractures: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMC Med 18, 353 (2020).

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Elisabeth Philipps

Karen Devine

Karen Devine

Shelley Harvey

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