A vegan or plant-based diet excludes all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. When people follow it correctly, a vegan diet can be highly nutritious and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Due to the benefits of a vegan lifestyle, increasing numbers of people are moving toward a vegan diet due to health, animal welfare, or environmental concerns.
Vegan diets tend to be rich in nutrients to keep your body nourished and reduce your risk for chronic diseases; and low in saturated fats, which means it helps lower bad LDL cholesterol in the blood, so people enjoy the benefits of eating healthy. Research suggests that the diet can improve heart health, protect against cancer, and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
In 2015 The Economist reported that 3.4% of people in the U.S. were vegetarian, and out of those numbers, 0.4% were vegan. A 2018 Gallup poll reported that about 3% of people in the United States were fully vegan and noted that sales of plant-based foods were steadily rising. Jump to January 2021, when the total number of vegetarians in the U.S. jumped to 9.7 million people, and out of those numbers, 1 million people were completely vegan.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet involves eating only foods comprising plants. Those who follow this diet avoid all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. Some vegans even avoid consuming honey to avoid all forms of exploitation, including the exploitation of bees, because they want to take a stand against bad beekeeping practices. For some, being vegan is a dietary choice, while for others, it is a lifestyle choice. People who live a vegan lifestyle also avoid clothes, soaps, and other products that use or contain parts of animals, such as leather and animal fur.
Vegan diets can provide a wide range of important vitamins, minerals, healthful fats, and protein. However, people following this diet should take care to obtain key nutrients that people usually consume in animal products. These nutrients include iron, protein, calcium, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D.
Vegan vs. Vegetarian
The main difference between vegans and vegetarians is that although vegetarians do not eat meat (including cows, pigs, chicken, and fish), they consume dairy products, eggs, or both. The vegan diet excludes all products with animal-based ingredients. So, absolutely no eating, wearing, or using anything from animals—whether from land (meat, dairy, eggs, honey, shellac, leather, fur, etc.) or water animals (fish, prawns, crab, lobster, etc.) Vegans also exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty.
The vegan diet is more restrictive, so people must consider where their nutrients come from to ensure they meet their daily dietary requirements.
Vegan diets can provide all the nutrients a person needs and also eliminate some risks that research has associated with harmful animal fats. Research has linked the vegan diet to various health benefits, including below.
Better heart health
Vegan diets can boost heart health in several ways. Let’s discuss this further.
A large-scale 2019 study by The Journal of the American Heart Association linked a higher intake of plant-based foods and a lower intake of animal foods with a reduced risk of heart disease and death in adults.
Let’s dig deeper. Animal products — including meat, cheese, and butter — are the main dietary sources of saturated fats. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), eating foods that contain these fats raises cholesterol levels. High levels of cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Plant foods are also high in fiber, which the AHA links with better heart health. Animal products contain very little or no fiber, while plant-based vegetables and grains are the best sources.
In addition, people on a vegan diet often take in fewer calories than those on a standard diet. A moderate calorie intake can lead to a lower body mass index or BMI and reduce the risk of obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease.
Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
According to a 2019 research study done by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that was published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, research linked eating plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, to lowering your chances of getting type 2 diabetes.
The researchers found that people with the highest commitment to predominantly plant-based diets had a 23% lower risk of type 2 diabetes than those with weaker commitments to the diet. They also found that the association of lowering your risk for type 2 diabetes was strengthened for those who ate a plant-based diet.
Lower stroke risk
In 2021, a Harvard research study found that people who eat diets with higher amounts of healthy plant-based foods and lower amounts of less-healthy planet-based foods may reduce their risk of having a stroke compared to people with lower-quality compared to people with lower-quality diets, according to the newest study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They found that healthy plant-based diets, such as leafy greens, whole grains, and beans, and lower levels of foods like refined grains, potatoes, and added sugars, may lower overall stroke risk by up to 10%.
Nutrients to consider on a vegan diet
A vegan diet does remove some sources of nutrients from the diet, so people need to plan their meals carefully to avoid nutritional deficiencies. You may want to seek a doctor or dietitian before adopting a vegan diet, especially if you have existing health conditions.
Key nutrients that may be low in a vegan diet include:
Vitamin B-12: Vitamin B-12 protects the nerves and red blood cells.
Iron: Iron is important for blood health.
Calcium: Calcium is crucial for bone health. Eating tofu, tahini, and leafy greens will help keep calcium levels up.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D protects against cancer and chronic health conditions and helps strengthen bones and teeth. (The sun can boost vitamin D levels too.)
Omega-3 fatty acids: Important for heart, eye, and brain function; there are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: EPA, DHA, and ALA. Walnuts and flaxseeds are good sources of ALA, but seaweeds and algae are the only plant sources of EPA and DHA.
Zinc: Zinc is important for the immune system and DNA damage repair. (Beans, nutritional yeast, nuts, and oats are high in zinc.)
Iodine: Iodine is important for thyroid function.
You may want to ask your doctor for advice on whether to take supplements or consume more fortified foods (foods that have added nutrients that don’t naturally occur in the food.) In general, if you’re choosing a plant-based diet, you need to be aware of how to obtain certain nutrients, including iron, calcium, and vitamin B-12, that usually come from an omnivorous diet. As with any diet, you must ensure that your body receives a well-balanced diet.