Being a vegan seems to attract polar opposite reactions from “you can’t survive”, through “you look healthy for a vegan” to “you look so much younger, it must be your vegan diet”.
There are still more negative than positive reactions such as one sneeze and your vegan diet is to blame and people becoming nutrition experts in an instant worrying about your protein and calcium intake. But despite this dated negativity, there’s a skyrocketing number of people going vegan for health reasons, celebrities, nutritionists and athletes promoting vegan diets and shops expanding their vegan ranges. Could the wimpy vegan be just a myth about to explode? Let’s look at the cold, hard scientific data and see what research says about human health and vegan diets.
Several recent studies compared nutrient intakes of vegans, vegetarians, semi-vegetarians, pescaterians and omnivores from Europe, Canada and the USA. Vegans turned out to have the healthiest diets and their nutrient intake was more than sufficient in all studies (Clarys et al., 2014; Key et al., 2014; Rizzo et al., 2013). So much so that the researchers suggested that the health protective effects of vegan diets can be ascribed to the generally healthier diet composition. And it makes sense – a vegan diet generally means you eat more fruit, vegetables, pulses including soya, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, all of which are good for you! A vegan diet is not automatically healthy as there are plenty of junk foods suitable for vegans but bear in mind that these studies looked at real-life vegans and their normal diets, including treats and the not-so-healthy foods and vegans still came out on top!
And when scientists look at the health of vegans more closely, the results are even more encouraging. A review of studies examining how diets affect our health found that compared with other diets, including vegetarian, vegan diets have less saturated fat and cholesterol and more fibre (Craig, 2010). As a result, vegans tend to be slimmer, have lower blood cholesterol, blood pressure and a reduced risk of heart disease. This study also highlighted that vegans have a considerably higher intake of foods and nutrients protective against cancer which explains their lower overall cancer risk.
You might still have doubts though so here’s some more science: Other large studies looking into and reviewing data on the subject keep arriving at the same conclusion – vegans have lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity, lower rates of high blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and tend to live longer (Fraser, 2009; Huang et al., 2012; Le and Sabaté, 2014).
Scientists agree that it’s not simply the absence of animal products that matters but that vegan diets are simply better for our health. A study by Tuso et al. (2013) actually states that “They [plant-based diets] may also reduce the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases and lower ischemic heart disease mortality rates. Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.”
And when you look at populations with traditionally plant-based diets and their health, it becomes clear that we, humans, have evolved to thrive on plants. Many of our civilization diseases are the result of poor diet choices and lifestyle and only a small fraction can be actually ascribed to genetics.
Occasionally, I hear from someone who ‘tried to’ go vegan but they got really unwell so chances are you’ve probably heard those stories too. To be honest, going vegan and eating well isn’t that difficult, science supports the healthfulness of vegan diets and all the long-term vegans I know are healthy (I’m not exaggerating!). So when I hear stories of unwell vegans it makes me question whether they really tried to do it well or maybe they discovered a food intolerance in the process that could have been dealt with. Another reason can be that as they changed their diet, the digestive system had to readjust and catch up with all the changes and some people can struggle with common things like flatulence or the simple fact that they can or need to eat more than they were used to. But all these issues are temporary and tend to disappear as the body gets used to the new diet. As with any big lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking or taking up a sport, there is a transition period and we need to give our bodies a bit of time but it’s well worth it!
Every year, I visit vegan events in the UK and sometimes in other countries and every year I see thousands of healthy, radiant looking people there. I see the numbers of vegan athletes swell and, even if slowly, the number of health professionals supportive of vegan diets grow. Veganism is a lifestyle, rather than a diet, but the health benefits are undeniable and it’s great to see people from all walks of life recognising that.
You can’t get a diet change prescribed by your GP just yet but the evidence suggests it should be the first step on the way to better health!
To find out more about vegan diets, the studies mentioned above or to get help with going vegan, see our Vegan Health section and Viva! Health’s latest publication The Incredible Vegan Health Report which explains what a good vegan diet is, how it can benefit our health and looks into many health conditions in more detail (including asthma, cancer, diabetes, fibromyalgia, heart disease, digestive disorders, kidney problems and mental health). Read it here or order a paper copy.