Plant-based eating has become much more popular in recent years. While there are undoubtedly many benefits to a vegan diet, there are some potential downsides. In this article, we will discuss vegan diet health benefits as well as vegan diet risks.
What Is a Vegan Diet?
A vegan, or plant-based, diet is a diet that excludes all animal products—this includes meat, dairy, eggs, honey, bee pollen, or any other type of animal-based food. People choose to adopt a vegan diet for a variety of reasons. Some people do it for spiritual or religious purposes. Some people do it out of compassion for the animals. Some do it for the environmental impact. Others do it purely for health benefits.
While a vegan diet, by definition, excludes animal foods, there are many different types of vegan diets. Therefore, we cannot really talk about the health benefits of a vegan diet without first mentioning the many different types of vegan diets out there.
Just because someone eats a plant-based diet does not necessarily mean they are eating healthy. Someone can eat oreos, potato chips, French fries, soda and fast food veggie burgers every day and be on a vegan diet, but it doesn’t mean they are eating healthy or getting adequate nutrition.
On the other hand, there are very healthy ways to eat a vegan diet, focusing on whole foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. A whole-food, plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat a vegan diet. Still, there are some nutrients that are more difficult to get on a vegan diet. So, people on a vegan diet need to ensure they meet their body’s nutritional needs, no matter where they choose to obtain these nutrients.
We’ll talk about that more later in the article. But first, let’s discuss the benefits of a plant-based diet.
What Are the Benefits of A Vegan Diet?
1. May Promote Weight Loss
One of the great benefits of a plant-based diet is that it can help support weight loss. Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains tend to be much lower in calories than animal foods like meat and dairy. By cutting back on animal foods and eating more plant-based foods, you can reduce your calorie intake, which can help you lose weight. (1)
2. May Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease
Animal foods are high in saturated fat, which can raise your LDL cholesterol levels. High LDL cholesterol is associated with clogging of the arteries, which can reduce blood flow, increase blood pressure, and may lead to heart disease. (2) Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the world. (3)
A plant-based diet is very low in saturated fat. Coconut oil and certain nuts like brazil nuts and macadamia nuts contain some saturated fat, so people on a vegan diet can still get saturated fat in their diet, but it is far less than in a diet high in animal foods. There are some potential benefits of saturated fat as well, but only in small amounts. Too much can have adverse effects on heart health.
3. May Support Healthy Bowel Movements
Plant foods are naturally very high in dietary fiber. Fiber has many digestive benefits, one of which is supporting healthy bowel movements. People that eat a vegan diet rich in whole foods usually have no problem with elimination. On the other hand, constipation is fairly common for people eating diets high in animal foods, as they are relatively low in dietary fiber.
4. May Help Prevent or Manage Diabetes
A vegan diet may also help to prevent or manage diabetes. Weight is a major risk factor for diabetes, since more fat tissue makes the body’s cells more resistant to insulin (4). Since vegan diets support weight loss, they may also help prevent diabetes. Diets high in saturated fat may also contribute to diabetes. Again, vegan diets are typically low in saturated fat, which shows how they further prevent diabetes. One study even found that eating a plant-based diet filled with high-quality plant foods reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 34% (5).
5. May Lower Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease. Numerous studies have found that plant-based diets can help to lower blood pressure. Because of this, plant-based diets can have many benefits for heart health and can help lower your risk of heart disease significantly.
What Are The Risks of Following A Vegan Diet?
While a vegan diet has many potential health benefits, there are also some vegan diet risks to be aware of. The biggest risk of a vegan diet is that you may not get all of the nutrients that your body needs or may not get these nutrients in sufficient quantities. There are some necessary nutrients that are difficult to obtain from plants, such as:
Protein is the primary building block of tissue in the body. Our body makes protein from amino acids and needs to obtain nine essential amino acids from the food that we eat. While there are plenty of plant-based foods that contain all nine amino acids, they usually do so in very small amounts compared to animal foods.
For example, a 1-cup serving of cooked quinoa, which is a vegan source of all nine essential amino acids, contains only 8 grams of protein. (6) A small serving of 4 oz of chicken breast, on the other hand, contains 35 grams of protein.
Everyone’s protein needs are different and vary according to one’s weight, gender, and lifestyle. However, it can be difficult for people on a vegan diet to meet their body’s daily protein requirements. For this reason, many people on a vegan diet choose to supplement with high-quality amino acids and a high-quality protein powder.
Vitamin B12 is a very important nutrient needed for the production of red blood cells. A vegan diet also tends to be quite low in vitamin B12. The only plant foods with notable B12 content are foods that have been fortified with B12, such as certain fortified cereals, grains, plant-based milks, and nutritional yeast. Animal foods, on the other hand, are very high in vitamin B12, and a very easy way to obtain this nutrient. For those on a plant-based diet, it is recommended to supplement with a high-quality B vitamin complex.
Essential Fatty Acids
There are many plant-based sources of essential fatty acids, but it depends on the type of plant-based diet that one eats. As mentioned, there are a variety of different vegan diets out there, and some tend to be quite low in essential fatty acids. A lack of these healthy fats in the diet can lead to issues with brain and nervous system health, as well as a host of other issues. (7) If you are eating a vegan diet, aim to include more foods in your diet that are rich in essential fatty acids, like hemp seeds, olive oil, and chia seeds.
Iron is another nutrient that is fairly low in a vegan diet. Red meat and egg yolks are very good sources of iron and are where many people on a diet, including animal foods, get this important nutrient. Certain plant foods include iron as well, such as black-eyed peas and tofu. If you are on a vegan diet, make sure you eat foods that have iron in them.
Animal foods are high in vitamin D. Mushrooms, and fortified foods are the only vegan food sources of vitamin D. Thankfully, our body produces vitamin D when we expose our skin to the sunlight for about 15 minutes a day. (8) So, if you are on a vegan diet, make sure you get some sun each day or focus on eating vegan foods with vitamin D on the days you don’t have good sun exposure.
Vitamin K2 is a nutrient that has many benefits for bone and heart health. It is notably high in animal foods and practically non-existent in plant foods. The only plant sources of vitamin K2 are fermented foods like tofu, tempeh, kimchi, and sauerkraut. So, if you are on a vegan diet, make sure to include fermented foods in your diet as well. Not only will this help you get some vitamin K2 in your diet, but fermented foods can have many benefits for gut health as well.
Selenium is another nutrient that can be difficult to get on a vegan diet. It does exist in some plant foods, however, namely in nuts and seeds like brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, and peanuts. Selenium is an important nutrient that helps make DNA and protects against cell damage and infections. It is also involved in reproduction and the metabolism of thyroid hormones. (9)
Lastly, zinc is a nutrient that is high in animal foods and low in plant foods. This important nutrient helps your immune system and metabolism function properly. (10) Legumes like lentils and beans tend to be the best plant-based sources of zinc, as well as pumpkin seeds. Because it can be difficult to get enough zinc on a vegan diet, many vegans choose to supplement with zinc as well.
In addition to the risk of not getting the above-mentioned nutrients, there is a risk for some people on a vegan diet to not meet their daily calorie needs. This usually depends on the type of vegan diet they follow, but it is important to keep track of your calorie intake on a vegan diet and to make sure you are getting enough to maintain your ideal weight.
While a vegan diet can have many health benefits, it can have many risks as well. The biggest health benefits of a vegan diet include the following:
- Weight loss
- Lower cholesterol levels
- Lower blood pressure
- Better elimination
- Reduced risk of diabetes
- Reduced risk of heart disease
The biggest risk of a vegan diet is failing to meet your body’s nutritional needs. Some of the nutrients that may be difficult to obtain on a vegan diet are sufficient amounts of:
- Vitamin B12
- Essential fatty acids
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K2
People on a vegan diet often need to take extra care to ensure they are eating the foods that provide the nutrients that their bodies need.
It is worth mentioning that people who eat animal foods also may not be meeting their nutritional needs, as many people today tend to have rather poor diets. Regardless of the diet that you eat, it is important to make sure you are getting the nutrients that your body requires to function optimally and to avoid unhealthy processed foods that contain harmful ingredients.
Your health is your greatest wealth, and one of the best things you can do for your health is to be responsible with your diet and to eat nutrient-rich whole foods. Take good care of your body so it can take good care of you!