Healthspan July 09, 2018

Some people choose to go vegan for animal welfare, some for a challenge. However, some choose to go vegan for the health benefits; so, is there any and what are they?

The vegan diet

The vegan lifestyle is one that cuts out all animal products from your diet; so, no meat, dairy or honey, but also certain confectionary is off limits too as these can include gelatine, or E-numbers that are used as food colours that could contain crushed beetles, animal bones, bees wax or other substances.1

Just like any diet, being vegan can be healthy or unhealthy. Veganism does allow you to explore new types of food; branching out and eating something you may not have considered trying prior to cutting out animal products.

Weight loss

There have been multiple studies that show that the vegan diet aids weight loss due to the general lower calorie intake without it being a calorie restrictive diet.2  One study compared veganism with vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, or omnivorous diets and found that vegans can result in greater weight loss than all the above.3

These studies primarily focus on a low-fat vegan diet, which is not necessarily calorie or portion restrictive, but does look at being a healthier kind of vegan rather than the ‘Junk Food Vegan’ who are almost always ethical vegans who didn’t come to this lifestyle for health reasons.4Junk Food Vegans tend lean towards veganised versions of their favourite meals, i.e. pizza, burgers, mock meat, etc. and therefore generally wouldn’t see a decline in their weight in comparison to the studies.

Health benefits

Interesting studies have shown that following a plant-based diet can help reduce the risk of harmful diseases due to their food choices. An overall analysis of 98 cross-sectional studies and 10 cohort prospective studies, with a total of over 130,000 and 15,000 vegans, was undertaken to ensure there is a more accessible and conclusive study. This found that there is a reduction for risk of incidence of ischemic heart disease (-25%), and with the limited number of vegan participants the studies showed a significant association with a reduced risk of total cancer incidence (-15%). The sample size for vegans is lower than that of vegetarians, however it was found that vegetarians still had a reduced risk of total cancer incidence (-8%).5 

Food habits are down to you to decide; whether you’re omnivore, vegan or anything in-between, if you choose to eat a well-balanced diet, you will generally reap the benefits. Whilst vegans can lead a cruelty-free, plant-based lifestyle, this doesn’t always equate to being healthy.

Richer nutrient intake

Eliminating meat and animal products from your diet ultimately can lead to relying on other food sources to meet your nutritional needs. Some vegans will transition into eating more whole-foods such as whole grains, fruits, veg, beans, peas, nuts and seeds.

Several studies have found that vegan diets provide more fibre, antioxidants, magnesium, vitamins A, C, and E as well as other nutrients that benefit the body; but some found that the diet lacks fatty acids, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, iodine or zinc.6, 7

It’s shown in studies and widely known that vegans can have low intakes of vitamin B12, protein and calcium. The consensus with vitamin B12 is that it’s a vitamin vegans lack as it comes from the micro-organisms produced by the animal’s gut, therefore through eating meat; while this remains true B12 can be consumed through fortified foods such as cereals or dairy alternative milks or taking a B12 supplement! This also applies to protein and calcium; although many plant-based foods are already high in protein and calcium, making it easy to add them into your diet without the need to supplement. However, if you can’t get omega-3, protein and other nutrients your body needs through your diet then you can always supplement.

For more information about supporting your vegan health, see our vegan advice hub.


References
1Vegsoc.org. (2018). Vegetarian Society - Fact Sheet - E Numbers - Introduction
2Turner-McGrievy, G.M., Davidson, C.R., Wingard, E.E., Wilcox, S. and Frongillo, E.A., (2015). Comparative effectiveness of plant-based diets for weight loss: a randomized controlled trial of five different diets. Nutrition, 31(2), pp.350-358
3Turner-McGrievy, G.M., Davidson, C.R., Wingard, E.E., Wilcox, S. and Frongillo, E.A., (2015). Comparative effectiveness of plant-based diets for weight loss: a randomized controlled trial of five different diets. Nutrition, 31(2), pp.350-358
4Alena. (2017). 15 Different Types of Vegan Diets: Which is Right for You? Nutriciously
5Dinu, Abbate, R., Gensini, G.F., Casini, A. and Sofi, F., (2017). Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: a systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 57(17), pp.3640-3649.
6Davey, G.K., Spencer, E.A., Appleby, P.N., Allen, N.E., Knox, K.H. and Key, T.J., (2003). EPIC-Oxford: lifestyle characteristics and nutrient intakes in a cohort of 33 883 meat-eaters and 31 546 non-meat-eaters in the UK. Public health nutrition, 6(3), pp.259-268.
7Craig, W.J. and Mangels, A.R., (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. Journal of the American dietetic association, 109(7), pp.1266-1282.

Bibliography
Barnard, N.D., Scialli, A.R., Turner-McGrievy, G., Lanou, A.J. and Glass, J., (2005). The effects of a low-fat, plant-based dietary intervention on body weight, metabolism, and insulin sensitivity.The American journal of medicine, 118(9), pp.991-997.
Barnard, N.D., Cohen, J., Jenkins, D.J., Turner-McGrievy, G., Gloede, L., Jaster, B., Seidl, K., Green, A.A. and Talpers, S., (2006). A low-fat vegan diet improves glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in a randomized clinical trial in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care, 29(8), pp.1777-1783
Mishra, S., Xu, J., Agarwal, U., Gonzales, J., Levin, S. and Barnard, N.D., (2013). A multicenter randomized controlled trial of a plant-based nutrition program to reduce body weight and cardiovascular risk in the corporate setting: the GEICO study. European journal of clinical nutrition, 67(7), p.718

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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