The Vegan Diet: Health Benefits & Keys To Your Success


In recent years, the vegan diet has become increasingly popular. According to a 2017 report on dietary trends, the percentage of individuals who considered themselves vegans in the United States grew significantly from 1% in 2014 to 6% in 2017. It seems the highly-touted health benefits of being vegan have seen an uptick in perception.

Unlike many other diets, being “vegan” often involves more than just eating or omitting certain foods for a period of time. It’s a lifestyle choice that excludes the consumption and use of animals and animal-derived products. Vegans, like vegetarians, don’t eat meat, fish, or poultry. In addition, they also avoid all foods from animal sources, such as eggs, dairy, and honey. Strict vegans also avoid using animal-based products like leather, oils or supplements.

While weight loss may be one reason to follow a vegan diet, there are a variety of reasons individuals choose this approach to diet and lifestyle. Common reasons include health benefits, ethical concerns, spiritual beliefs, and environmental preservation. (23)

What are the health benefits of a vegan diet?

A vegan diet is largely made up of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes. (11) A well-planned vegan diet is typically rich in carbohydrates, fiber, and several beneficial nutrients including folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, essential fatty acids, and many phytochemicals. (5)(11) Compared to vegetarian diets, vegan diets also contain less saturated fat and cholesterol, likely a result of omitting eggs and dairy. (5)

vegan salad with greens and falafel

A vegan diet is largely made up of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, plant oils, and legumes.

Several studies have examined the potential health benefits of vegan dietary patterns and plant-based diets. Research has shown that the vegan diet can offer protection against many conditions including cardiovascular disease, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and total mortality. (12) Research has also demonstrated promising results for individuals with arthritis, particularly rheumatoid arthritis, following a vegan diet. (22)

Cardiovascular health

One of the most well-established health benefits of a plant-based, vegan diet is the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. This benefit can be attributed to an increase in the consumption of cardioprotective foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and unsaturated fat. It was found that a vegan diet composed primarily of refined grains, processed starchy vegetables such as potato chips or french fries, and sugary foods and beverages is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. (9) This indicates that the benefits of a vegan diet are dependent on the increased intake of healthy, nutrient-rich foods, rather than simply the omission of animal products. However, compared to vegetarians, it was also noted that vegans tend to be leaner and have lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and risk of heart disease. (5)

A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials examining the health effects of plant-based diets found that these diets were associated with decreased cardiovascular risk factors. Compared to omnivorous diets, plant-based diets were associated with decreased total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). (27) One study also found that individuals following a vegan diet, without caloric restriction, demonstrated favorable changes in blood pressure comparable to individuals following conventional and portion-controlled diet recommendations for high blood pressure. (13)

Weight management & metabolic effects

In addition to improvements in cardiovascular health, numerous studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of the vegan diet in the prevention and management of obesity, glycemia, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. (14)(25)(26) Compared to vegetarians, vegan diets appear to be even more effective in protecting against obesity and type 2 diabetes. (12) A 16-week randomized clinical trial in which individuals followed a plant-based diet determined that this dietary approach may be effective in addressing obesity, improving body composition, and improving insulin resistance. The researchers attribute these improvements in part to the increased consumption of plant-based protein and decrease intake of the amino acids leucine and histidine. (10) Another 18-week study following corporate employees found that following a vegan diet resulted in improvements in body weight, plasma lipid levels, and glycemic control in individuals with diabetes. (15)

Compared to various other diets, the vegan diet may be the most effective when it comes to preventing and addressing type 2 diabetes. A study comparing the effects of a low-fat vegan diet and a conventional diabetic diet found that — when accounting for medication changes — the vegan diet resulted in greater improvements in glycemia and plasma lipid levels. (2) Similarly, a study comparing the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in vegans, vegetarians, and non-vegetarians, found that mean BMI and risk of type 2 diabetes was lowest in vegan individuals. (24)

Gastrointestinal health

Several studies have demonstrated a positive effect between the vegan diet and the intestinal microbiota, the collection of microbes that live in your gastrointestinal tract. Your microbiota plays an integral role in maintaining overall health, including proper digestive and immune function. Compared to omnivores, vegans have a distinct composition of bacteria that appears to be similar to vegetarians, indicating that plant-based diets may have a distinctive and unique effect on the microbiota. The microbiota in vegans includes a greater number of protective species and a reduced number of pathobionts, or pathological microbes. (7) A study of 144 vegetarians, 105 vegans, and 249 omnivores found that, compared to omnivores, individuals following a vegan diet had significantly lower counts of Bacteroides, Bifidobacterium, Escherichia coli, and Enterobacteriaceae. Another study found that both vegetarians and vegans have lower counts of Bacteroides fragilis. These differences may be attributed to higher carbohydrate and fiber consumption, as well as a lower pH in vegans, which creates an unsuitable environment for the growth of certain bacteria such as E. coli and Enterobacteriacea. (4)

Rheumatoid arthritis

While more research is needed to understand the effects of dietary interventions for rheumatoid arthritis, some evidence indicates a connection between diet, the microbiome, and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) disease activity. Benefits of the vegan diet in relation to RA may be attributed to changes in the intestinal flora and the diet’s higher content of antioxidants, lactobacilli, and fiber. (1)

One study of 53 patients with RA who transitioned from an omnivorous diet to a vegan diet demonstrated significant changes in microbiota compositions after one year on a vegan diet. Microbiota composition also varied between individuals who demonstrated high versus low improvements, further indicating that the composition of an individual’s intestinal flora may be related to RA disease activity. (4) Supporting this theory, a study compared the effects of an lactobacilli-rich, uncooked vegan diet in individuals with RA, compared to a control group. The vegan diet resulted in improvements in subjective RA symptoms, which were aggravated by returning to an omnivorous diet. (22)

Another study of examining the effects of a gluten-free, vegan diet in patients with rheumatoid arthritis noted reductions in immunoreactivity to food antigens, indicated by a decrease in immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibody levels. (8) A similar study demonstrated that RA patients following a gluten-free, vegan diet had decreased levels of LDL and oxLDL, and elevated levels of anti-PC IgM and IgA compared to individuals following a well-balanced non-vegan diet for one year. (6)

group of people sitting on the gym floor after a workout

Plant-based diets have been associated with leaner body compositions and improved glycogen storage as a result of high carbohydrate intake.

Athletic performance

Meat and animal products are typically considered an integral part of an athlete’s diet. With the emerging plant-based trends, however, the vegan diet is now being considered a viable option for athletes and may actually offer performance advantages. Plant-based diets have been associated with leaner body compositions and improved glycogen storage as a result of high carbohydrate intake. (3)

Endurance athletes may be at a higher risk for developing atherosclerosis and myocardial damage. As discussed earlier, plant-based diets can improve cardiovascular risk factors, such as plasma lipid concentrations, body weight, and blood pressure. High intake of antioxidants (i.e., fruits and vegetables) may also lead to reductions in oxidative stress and inflammation. Further, a reduction in blood viscosity and improvement in arterial flexibility and endothelial function may improve blood flow and oxygenation of tissues. (3)

The rules of engagement: tips for a successful vegan diet

Wondering what exactly veganism is and how you can be successful at it? Well Dr. Holly Lucille, ND, RN, gives her rules to being a successful vegan.

The key to any successful diet is education and a little planning. The following information provides an overview of the vegan diet, important considerations, and tips for success.

On a vegan diet, all animal products, including by-products and derivatives, should be avoided, including:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Dairy
  • Eggs
  • Honey and other bee products (i.e., pollen)
  • Shellac
  • Insects or products made from insects (i.e., dyes, silk)
  • Foods/products in which animal ingredients or animal by-products are used in the manufacturing process (i.e., sugar filtered with bone char)
  • Any animal-derived GMOs or animal-derived genes used to manufacture ingredients or finished product
  • Any products tested on animals
  • Animal-derived materials such as leather, silk, feathers, wool, etc.

Vegan & vegetarian certifications

When purchasing prepared and packaged foods or products, third-party certifications — that ensure the validity of vegan claims — can help you make accurate choices. Common vegan and vegetarian certifications include Vegan Action, the Vegan Society Trademark, VegeCert, and American Vegetarian Association. Certified products are easily recognized by the presence of a certification mark, some of which are listed below.

When purchasing supplements, always look for vegan third-party certifications to ensure that no animal products or by-products are used within the formulation or during the manufacturing process.

Certified vegan products are easily recognized by the presence of a certification mark on food and product labels.

Planning a healthy vegan diet

While a vegan diet is most often defined by the omission of animal products, it’s important to discuss what makes up a healthy vegan diet. When it comes to following this diet, two of the most common mistakes include failing to plan and depending too much on refined or packaged foods. It’s important to understand that just because a product is labeled vegan, it does not mean it’s healthy. Research has shown that the health benefits gained from following a vegan diet, including those highlighted in this article, apply to properly planned, healthy vegan diets based on whole, fresh foods. Vegan diets comprised primarily of refined foods do not provide the same beneficial effects. (9)

Base your vegan diet around a variety of fresh foods, including plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and plant oils. A common misconception about the vegan diet is that this type of diet doesn’t contain enough protein. On the contrary, by combining a variety of plant-based sources, you will ensure you consume the necessary essential amino acids. To learn more about plant-based protein, visit our blog.

DOWNLOAD A GUIDE TO PLANT-BASED PROTEIN

Common nutrient deficiencies & supplementation

While a well-planned diet can help ensure that your body is getting all the nutrients it needs, it’s important to be aware of common nutrient deficiencies that may arise as a result of following certain diets. When omitting animal and animal-derived foods from the diet, individuals may be at risk for deficiency in a number of nutrients found abundantly in these foods. These nutrients include vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, and essential fatty acids. (5, 11) When planning a vegan diet, it’s important to incorporate alternative plant-based sources of these nutrients and supplement when necessary.

Below are the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) and plant-based sources for each of these nutrients. The RDA is the “average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97%–98%) healthy individuals.” (19)

Vitamin B12 (19)

  • RDA: 2.4 mcg
  • Sources: fortified foods, nutritional yeast

Vitamin D (20)

  • RDA: 600 IU (15 mcg)
  • Sources: sun exposure, fortified foods, some mushrooms (D2)

Calcium (16)

  • RDA: 1,000 mg
  • Sources: tofu, turnip greens, kale, bok choy, broccoli

Iron (17)

  • RDA: 8 mg for men and 18 mg for women
  • Sources: beans, legumes, spinach, tofu, cashews

Zinc (21)

  • RDA: 11 mg for men and 8 mg for women
  • Sources: pumpkin seeds, cashews, chickpeas, oats, almonds

Omega-3 Fatty Acid (18)

  • RDA: 1.6 g for men and 1.1 g for women
  • Sources: flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts (ALA only)

While following these rules of engagement can help you get the most out of your diet, you may require additional support and guidance, especially if making the leap from an omnivorous diet to a vegan diet. Integrative healthcare practitioners can provide further education and tools for dietary planning. They can also help monitor your health and prevent common nutrient deficiencies. Keep in mind that extreme dietary changes can be overwhelming. To ease the transition, try gradually incorporating and substituting animal products for plant-based alternatives.

If you are a practitioner, consider signing up to Fullscript. If you are a patient, talk to your healthcare practitioner about Fullscript!

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