Is a vegan diet healthy?

Is a vegan diet healthy? If you’re thinking about changing your diet, this might be something you’re wondering about. A vegan diet completely eliminates animal products, which means that meat, poultry and dairy products such as eggs and cheese are excluded. While many people worry about not being able to get enough protein if they adopt a vegan diet, you will find the best vegan protein powders can help you get the protein you need.

But, protein requirements aside, the most important thing to note if you’re considering switching to a vegan diet is that its health largely depends on the foods you choose. Some vegan diets can be very healthy because they base their diet on plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

That being said, just like non-vegan foods, there is such a thing as vegan junk food, meat alternatives, and processed foods that are often high in sugar and saturated fat. There’s also the concern of making sure your diet is providing you with the right kinds of nutrients, including iron, protein and B12, the latter of which cannot be found in plant-based foods.

Yet, a vegan diet can indeed be healthy if done correctly. In this article, we’ll talk to the experts and find out how you can stay healthy on a vegan diet if you decide it’s the right path for you.

What is a vegan diet?

Whether you’re going vegan temporarily or want to switch to a plant-based diet permanently, going vegan can benefit your health and the planet. However, a vegan diet is not always healthy and it largely depends on the individual and how they plan their meals. A vegan diet is also different from a purely plant-based diet, as well as a vegetarian diet.

Plant-based diets for beginners tend to focus heavily on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, but allow for some flexibility. These diets are great for reducing your meat intake, but you don’t have to completely give up meat or animal products. A vegetarian diet cuts out meat but not dairy, which means vegetarians can get more of their key nutrients, such as protein and calcium, from foods like eggs and cheese.

Vegan diets, on the other hand, are based on giving up all animal products. It therefore eliminates meat, fish, poultry and dairy products, including cheese and milk. However, unlike a plant-based diet, vegans won’t necessarily cut out processed foods — which could be high in sugars and saturated fats.

Someone is cooking a vegan meal

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Is a vegan diet healthy?

Eliminating animal products from your diet can have huge health benefits, especially if you focus on eating plant-based foods and keep processed foods to a minimum. However, not all vegan diets are healthy, says Harley Street nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert Warning: “Some plant-based diets carry a risk of not getting the right nutrition through protein, vitamin and mineral intake. These risks can be overcome by choosing the right vegan foods and, if necessary, I normally suggest that vegans almost always take a supplement of nutrients such as vitamin B12, iodine, iron and calcium.

If you’ve ever wanted to follow a vegan diet for weight lossyou’ll be happy to know that a healthy and balanced vegan diet can indeed help you shift those extra pounds, with a study published in the journal of Diabetic treatments showing that those who ate no meat had a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who ate meat. Other benefits of cutting out meat may include reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

person serving a healthy vegan meal

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“The nutritional benefits of eating more plants are based on solid evidence,” adds Lambert. “A diverse range of plant foods providing 30g of fiber each day supports gut health, while fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals.”

As more of us focus on living more sustainably, cutting out animal products could also be great for the planet. “These diets are also good for the planet, suggesting that a reduction in animal products will help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” says Lambert.

A report from The United Nations in 2019 even said that the western world’s consumption of meat and dairy products fuels global warming. This is due to the fact that animals produce methane in the environment, while deforestation for animal husbandry also has an impact on it. The research, for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said if we used our land more efficiently, rather than for livestock, we could store more carbon emitted by humans.

How to be healthy on a vegan diet

If you’re switching to a vegan or plant-friendly diet, Lambert believes that to be healthy, you need to change your diet slowly.

“A small, gradual change is often the best way to avoid any nutritional deficiencies or digestive discomfort from a potential increase in fiber,” she says. “Try replacing animal products with plant-based alternatives such as beans, legumes, and tofu, and gradually introduce different types of vegetables at each meal.”

When following a vegan diet, it’s easy to get sidetracked by “vegan alternatives” – but some may contain more sugar and salt than your body needs. Check ingredients or cook from fresh where you can.

two women eating a healthy vegan meal

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Lambert also explains that how vegetables are cooked is relevant to a healthy vegan diet. “Steamed vegetables are much more nutritious than fried ones, for example,” she says. But there are also other things to watch out for.

“Many plant-based alternatives to animal products are nutritionally unbalanced – pulled pork is often replaced with jackfruit, but the latter does not contain protein. There are also many ultra-processed vegan foods that are unhealthy Veggie sausage rolls, for example, can still be high in salt and saturated fat.

To eat a healthy diet as a vegan, most of us will need to take supplements, to get the amount of nutrients we need. A 2016 study by Mayo Clinic doctors have found that the nutrients of concern are vitamin B12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Nutritionist Thalia Pellegrini believes that all vegans should take supplements, and tells LiveScience: “Anyone on a purely plant-based diet should definitely take supplements – I mostly see vegans with iron and vitamin B12 deficiencies because they can’t get the good quantities thanks to their food.”

Iron can be found in whole grains, leafy vegetables, legumes, and nuts — but you can’t get the same levels of iron from these foods as you would from meat. Other important nutrients that vegans may lack are vitamin A, calcium, and protein, with vitamin A being important for immunity and thyroid function.

Calcium is of course important for the protection of bones, while protein helps to heal muscles and skin. Most women need around 45g of protein per day and men 55g per day – but getting the right amount is harder on a vegan diet. For example, a chicken breast has about half the amount of protein you need daily, while a vegan alternative might only have a quarter of the amount you need.

Pellegrini advises vegans to take a multivitamin to get nutrients that their diets may be lacking. Vegan protein shakes, normally made from pea protein, are also a great alternative for increasing your daily intake.


References

McVeigh, J. (2018, November 7). Vegans may lack essential nutrient intake. Mayo Clinic News Network. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/vegans-may-lack-essential-nutrient-intake-mayo-clinic-study-reports/

Tonstad, S., Butler, T., Yan, R. and Fraser, GE (2009). Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care, 32(5), 791–796. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2671114/

The United Nations. (nd). IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://www.ipcc.ch