More and more people are switching to vegan foods and cutting down on the amount of meat and dairy they include in their diet and between 2006 and 2018, the number of vegans has quadrupled. One of the most common reasons for going vegan is the promised health benefits which come with the change.
The vegan diet is believed to be considered lower in cholesterol, salt, protein and calcium and higher in fibre than an omnivorous diet, but there are still many misconceptions and concerns when it comes to cutting out fish, meat, eggs and dairy from our diets completely.
Some health experts express concern as to whether a vegan diet provides our bodies with enough vitamin B12, which helps to prevent nerve damage. Typically, this vitamin is found in fish, meat, eggs and dairy and not in fruit or vegetables. Being deficient in B12 can lead to neurological symptoms, which can become irreversible if the deficiency is present for too long.
It is easy to get the small amount of B12 that our bodies need from nutritional yeast or fortified foods, like plant-based milk, however, it is argued that these don’t contain enough of the vitamin. Often, tablets and supplements aren’t suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
Another concern for those who transition to a vegan diet is whether it provides enough protein. Our bodies use protein to build and repair tissue and is important for our bones, muscles, skin and blood. Experts say that this shouldn’t be a reason for concern, as protein deficiencies tend to only be found in people who don’t consume enough calories as protein tends to be in everything. For people who are concerned, soy milk tends to contain roughly the same amount of protein as cow’s milk.
It is also unlikely that vegan diets will cause iron deficiencies, so long as your diet contains plenty of fruit and vegetables in every colour. Over time, our bodies can adapt as to how much iron is in our diet, so if you have a low iron intake, then your body can make more efficient use of the iron you consume.
Is a vegan diet healthy?
A balanced vegan diet is one of the healthiest diets, outperforming vegetarian and pescatarian diets, as the vegan diet is higher in fruits, vegetables and legumes, such as beans and pulses, and the health benefits from this diet compensate over anything else.
Experts advise eating plenty of fruit and vegetables in a variety of colours, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. If you’re worried that a vegan diet doesn’t offer enough variety, a recent study found that there was no evidence that having a varied diet promotes a healthier diet or weight loss. It was found that those who ate a more diverse diet were more likely to consume sugary drinks and processed foods.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the popularity of vegan junk food. Vegan junk food replacements can often contain more calories than their meat or vegetarian counterparts and can give vegans the same consumption profile as an unhealthy omnivore.
The health benefits which come from a plant-based diet come from the combination of eating a wider range of fruits and vegetables and consuming fewer animal-based foods which tend to have higher levels of saturated fats.
There is a lot of research which compares the vegan diet and health outcomes, but this can be unreliable as the vegan lifestyle tends to be healthier. Typically speaking, vegans drink less alcohol, smoke less and exercise more and these lifestyle factors, which can contribute to lower risk of heart disease, which suggests that the vegan diet may be healthier than it is.
This research should be used as a starting point if you are looking to switch to a vegan diet. There are still uncertainties surrounding the vegan diet, particularly when it comes to the long-term effects of vegan diets.
Currently, society is ahead of research when it comes to learning about the vegan diet, so lots of people tend to have doubts about switching over because of the potential nutrient and vitamin deficiencies. A lot of researchers want to take the fear away and learn more about the long-term consequences which come with a vegan diet. This could make more people consider taking up the vegan diet for various health reasons.
Whilst the evidence still isn’t very strong, the vegan diet does tend to be linked to better overall health. Generally speaking, vegans tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI), which means better cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, which is one of the major factors for heart disease. Although having the occasional treat is acceptable, healthier swaps such as skinny cocktails which are vegan would be the most viable option.
The vegan diet is like any other and depends largely on the foods you eat. If you compared a plant-based diet with an unhealthy diet, then the plant-based diet will obviously be better, but if you eat a largely omnivorous diet, such as the Mediterranean diet which is high in fruit, vegetables, dairy and legumes and low in meat, there is evidence to suggest that this type of diet is as healthy as a vegan diet.