People who choose vegetarian or vegan diets often learn more about nutrition and the importance of various food groups and nutrients. As a result, they can make better food choices and tend to be more health conscious as demonstrated by Bedford and Barr (2005). A vegan diet is not necessarily a healthy one because many unhealthy, processed foods high in fat and sugar are also suitable for vegans, however vegan diets tend to be healthier and include more health-protective foods than omnivorous diets.
What does the science say?
- A 2010 review of the effects of vegan diets on health stated that compared with other vegetarian diets, vegan diets contain less saturated fat and cholesterol and more fibre (Craig, 2010). As a result, vegans tend to be slimmer, have lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure which reduces their risk of heart disease. Craig also mentioned that based on his research vegan diets have a cancer-protective effect and highlighted that vegans have a considerably higher intake of foods and nutrients protective against cancer.
- Another review by Fraser (2009) pooled data from studies on vegetarian diets and health. Although he acknowledges that vegetarian diets can vary to a high degree, he says there is convincing evidence that vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, low cholesterol levels, lower rates of hypertension and diabetes and lower prevalence of obesity. He also emphasised vegetarians’ cancer rates are lower than those of others living in the same communities and they have longer life expectancy. And Huang et al. (2012), who also reviewed scientific data on the subject, agree – vegetarians (including vegans) have increased longevity, lower risk of heart disease (and all risk factors for heart disease) and cancer.
- One of the latest papers focusing specifically on the health of North American vegans brought interesting insights (Le and Sabaté, 2014). Compared to vegetarian diets (including dairy and eggs), vegan diets seem to offer greater protection from obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and heart disease related mortality.
- An exhaustive review of the literature published between 1950 and 2013 on chronic diet-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney and liver disorders and cancers confirmed that plant food groups, especially unrefined plant-based foods, are more protective than animal food groups (Fardet and Boirie, 2014). Whilst plant-based diets contribute to good health, the authors warned that diets based on animal foods seriously increase the risk of chronic diseases.
- Tuso et al. (2013) assert that plant-based diets are cost-effective, low-risk interventions that can reduce body weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and improve blood sugar control. The authors state 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.”
Scientists agree that it’s not simply avoidance of animal products that matters but that vegetarian and vegan diets’ overall composition is what makes them healthier.
For references and more information, see The Incredible Vegan Health report.