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Is a vegan diet healthy?

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What is Veganism?

It’s unlikely that you’ve never heard of Veganism, with its ever-increasing mainstream presence1. Much more than a diet, the Vegan Society defines it as a "philosophy and way of living" that seeks to avoid "exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food, clothing or any other purpose"2. From a dietary point-of-view that means abstinence from meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and honey. This could be seen to have health benefits, or health risks. It’s a tricky one to research scientifically because diet is difficult to look at in isolation. For instance, vegans have sometimes been found to smoke less and drink less alcohol3,4, factors that could influence health just as much as diet. Nevertheless, there are studies that have tried to investigate the health levels of vegans compared to non-vegans and we have reviewed the evidence surrounding this controversial topic.

Potential Health Benefits 

Various potential health benefits of a vegan diet have been documented. Some studies have found that vegans tend to have a higher intake of vegetables and fruit5,6 and legumes7 than omnivores, leading to higher fibre3,5,8 and low sodium5. Overall calories and saturated fat are generally lower3,4,5meaning vegans usually have lower BMIs and less likely to be obese4,9,10,11.

A British study found vegans had a higher intake of some vitamins and minerals including B1, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium and iron8. According to studies, some of the potential benefits of a vegan diet include: better gut health7, protection against diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and some cancers11, improved blood sugar levels in diabetics10, and even increased longevity12.

Potential Health Risks

It’s not all good news however, as there are also concerns surrounding potential nutrient deficiencies of a vegan diet.

These include:

  • Low calorie intake: leading to a risk of being underweight, which comes with health risks. A study on vegans in Germany found that 25% of participants were underweight3.
  • Potentially low in protein or particular amino acids7: important for growth, repair and maintenance.
  • Reduced intake of calcium from exclusion of dairy: leading to a potential increased risk of bone fractures7,13.
  • Potential deficiency in vitamin B12 from exclusion of all animal foods: potentially leading to cognitive impairment, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and dementia7
  • Low zinc levels since around half is usually obtained from meat: potentially leading to poor iron metabolism and to iron deficiency anaemia7.
  • Higher risks of experiencing iron deficiency: it is recommended that iron status is monitored amongst vegans and vegetarians. Although most evidence suggests those on plant-based diets may consume more dietary iron than omnivores, it is in a less bioavailable form of non-heme iron. Due to inferior absorption of non-heme iron compared to more bioavailable heme iron, there is a higher risk of deficiency as the ferritin (human storage) levels are lower14 and therefore from a clinical perspective it could be argued that monitoring iron levels in vegans might be worthwhile as they may have at a higher risk of experiencing iron deficiency.
  • Low iodine levels from exclusion of milk and fish: potentially leading to hypothyroidism15
  • Low EPA and DHA Omega 3 essential fatty acids from exclusion of oily fish: potentially leading to impaired mood states15,16

On the other hand, a well-planned vegan diet with use of nutritional supplements can mitigate these risks. For example, vegans weren’t at greater risk from fractures when 525mg of calcium was included in the daily diet13. In India and Hong Kong, where supplement use is low, vegans were found to be vitamin B12 deficient17 but not elsewhere3,4.

Veganism and Mental Health

When it comes to mental wellbeing, evidence is also conflicting around whether or not veganism is beneficial or detrimental. A recent survey in Brazil found that people who abstained from meat were more likely to be depressed than meat-eaters4. Low omega 3 and vitamin B12 might have been to blame but the researchers were surprised to find that nutritional deficiencies weren’t a factor in most of the cases. Instead they hypothesised that the depression was triggered by feeling isolated as a result of holding minority beliefs, or that reverse causality was the explanation (vegetarianism was caused by mental health issues rather than the other way around, for example through increased awareness of suffering of others).

Other studies have found the opposite results. Vegetarians in Taiwan were found to be less depressed than meat eaters18 and Seventh Day Adventists reported less negative emotion than omnivores16. However, there seems to be a lot of mixed research on this and so it is hard to draw a definite conclusion. That said, ultimately nutrition and diet can have a big influence on mental wellbeing and ensuring nutritional adequacy is important here - vegan or not. But there are many other individual factors such as genetics, work, stress, socioeconomic factors that can influence mental health.

Quality of Diet

What's really important is the quality of diet. For example, a survey conducted in Australia found that a high-quality vegetarian or vegan diet, containing high amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains and water, may be protective against depression when compared to a vegan or vegetarian diets based on highly processed and sugary foods19. In the Brazilian study, the non-meat-eaters had a higher consumption of heavily processed foods than the meat-eaters4 which may have been a factor.

An American study found no difference in health biomarkers when comparing plant-based and omnivorous diets, but found significant differences when they compared high and low quality diets, regardless of whether the diets contained meat or were fully plant-based20. While some studies have found that people following a vegan diet tended to have a healthier diet in terms of more vegetables and fruit and healthier fats5,6, this is certainly not always the case. The growing popularity of veganism in recent years has seemed to have created a market for vegan "junk" foods which are detrimental to health.

How To Have A Healthy Vegan Diet

As we have seen, a vegan diet can be a very healthy one, reducing risks of disease and even potentially increasing longevity, but only if it is done well. If you are one of the growing number of people who are vegan then chances are you are motivated by ethics and not health2. But if you would like to also be healthy, there are some steps you can take. Avoid processed meat alternatives and instead base your meals on wholefoods. Lentils, beans, and chickpeas are healthy meat substitutes, providing fibre as well as protein.Although, it may be helpful to mention that dried legumes are known to contain phytic acid which can inhibit absorption of micronutrients. Therefore, it is recommended to soak your legumes before cooking to reduce phytic acid and enhance bioavailability of micronutrients in food grains21.

A varied diet will help to ensure you include all the essential amino acids7. Some careful planning may help to avoid nutrient deficiencies. Include calcium rich foods in your diet daily, like tahini, calcium-set tofu, broccoli, bok choy, kale, cannellini beans and calcium-fortified milk alternatives22. Include seaweed as a source of iodine and pumpkin seeds for zinc.

Supplements are a great way to address any potential gaps in nutrient intake, for everyone, not only vegans. Feel’s Multivitamin contains many of the nutrients of concern for vegans such as B12, zinc and iodine, and our vegan Omega 3 from algae contains good levels of EPA and DHA. Rest assured all of our products are fully vegan friendly. Finally, if you have any concerns about your diet, you could also consider speaking to a nutritional therapist.

References

1https://www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics/worldwide
2https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism
3https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12879089/
4www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032722010643#ab0005
5https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24667136/
6https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25415255/
7https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7073751/
8https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12740075/
9https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3967195/
10https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23695207/
11https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/6/6/2131
12https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23836264/
13https://www.nature.com/articles/1602659
14Biomolecules| Iron Status of Vegans, Vegetarians and Pescatarians in Norway |
15https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/jpem-2017-0082/html
16https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-9-26
17https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4145307/
18https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/13/4/1059
19https://nutrition.bmj.com/content/4/2/e000332
20https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/11/6/1427
21https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/100/suppl_1/469S/4576666

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About the author
Ruth Lewis-Robertson - Ruth is a Nutritional Therapist, registered with BANT, CNHC and ANP. She studied for her Diploma in Naturopathic Nutritional Therapy with the College of Naturopathic Medicine, graduating in 2018. She set up her own business, New You, as soon as she graduated, and provides nutritional therapy consultations online and in person, alongside massage therapy.
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Is a Vegan Diet Healthy? What is Veganism? It’s unlikely that you’ve never heard of Veganism, with its ever-increasing mainstream presence. Much more than a diet, the Vegan Society defines it as a "philosophy and way of living" that seeks to avoid "exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food, clothing or any other purpose". From a dietary point-of-view that means abstinence from meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and honey. This could be seen to have health benefits, or health risks. It’s a tricky one to research scientifically because diet is difficult to look at in isolation. For instance, vegans have sometimes been found to smoke less and drink less alcohol, factors that could influence health just as much as diet. Nevertheless, there are studies that have tried to investigate the health levels of vegans compared to non-vegans and we have reviewed the evidence surrounding this controversial topic. Potential Health Benefits Various potential health benefits of a vegan diet have been documented. Some studies have found that vegans tend to have a higher intake of vegetables and fruit and legumes than omnivores, leading to higher fibre and low sodium. Overall calories and saturated fat are generally lower meaning vegans usually have lower BMIs and less likely to be obese. A British study found vegans had a higher intake of some vitamins and minerals including B1, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium and iron. According to studies, some of the potential benefits of a vegan diet include: better gut health, protection against diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and some cancers, improved blood sugar levels in diabetics, and even increased longevity. Potential Health Risks It’s not all good news however, as there are also concerns surrounding potential nutrient deficiencies of a vegan diet. These include: - Low calorie intake: leading to a risk of being underweight, which comes with health risks . A study on vegans in Germany found that 25% of participants were underweight. - Potentially low in protein or particular amino acids: important for growth, repair and maintenance. - Reduced intake of calcium from exclusion of dairy: leading to a potential increased risk of bone fractures. - Potential deficiency in vitamin B12 from exclusion of all animal foods: potentially leading to cognitive impairment, Parkinson's disease, - Alzheimer's disease and dementia. - Low zinc levels since around half is usually obtained from meat: potentially leading to poor iron metabolism and to iron deficiency anaemia. - Higher risks of experiencing iron deficiency: it is recommended that iron status is monitored amongst vegans and vegetarians. Although most evidence suggests those on plant-based diets may consume more dietary iron than omnivores, it is in a less bioavailable form of non-heme iron. Due to inferior absorption of non-heme iron compared to more bioavailable heme iron, there is a higher risk of deficiency as the ferritin (human storage) levels are lower and therefore from a clinical perspective it could be argued that monitoring iron levels in vegans might be worthwhile as they may have at a higher risk of experiencing iron deficiency. - Low iodine levels from exclusion of milk and fish: potentially leading to hypothyroidism. - Low EPA and DHA Omega 3 essential fatty acids from exclusion of oily fish: potentially leading to impaired mood states. On the other hand, a well-planned vegan diet with use of nutritional supplements can mitigate these risks. For example, vegans weren’t at greater risk from fractures when 525mg of calcium was included in the daily diet. In India and Hong Kong, where supplement use is low, vegans were found to be vitamin B12 deficient but not elsewhere. Veganism and Mental Health When it comes to mental wellbeing, evidence is also conflicting around whether or not veganism is beneficial or detrimental. A recent survey in Brazil found that people who abstained from meat were more likely to be depressed than meat-eaters. Low omega 3 and vitamin B12 might have been to blame but the researchers were surprised to find that nutritional deficiencies weren’t a factor in most of the cases. Instead they hypothesised that the depression was triggered by feeling isolated as a result of holding minority beliefs, or that reverse causality was the explanation (vegetarianism was caused by mental health issues rather than the other way around, for example through increased awareness of suffering of others). Other studies have found the opposite results. Vegetarians in Taiwan were found to be less depressed than meat eaters and Seventh Day Adventists reported less negative emotion than omnivores. However, there seems to be a lot of mixed research on this and so it is hard to draw a definite conclusion. That said, ultimately nutrition and diet can have a big influence on mental wellbeing and ensuring nutritional adequacy is important here - vegan or not. But there are many other individual factors such as genetics, work, socioeconomic factors that can influence mental health. Quality of diet What's really important is the quality of diet. For example, a survey conducted in Australia found that a high-quality vegetarian or vegan diet, containing high amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains and water, may be protective against depression when compared to a vegan or vegetarian diets based on highly processed and sugary foods. In the Brazilian study, the non-meat-eaters had a higher consumption of heavily processed foods than the meat-eaters4 which may have been a factor. An American study found no difference in health biomarkers when comparing plant-based and omnivorous diets, but found significant differences when they compared high and low quality diets, regardless of whether the diets contained meat or were fully plant-based. While some studies have found that people following a vegan diet tended to have a healthier diet in terms of more vegetables and fruit and healthier fats, this is certainly not always the case. The growing popularity of veganism in recent years has seemed to have created a market for vegan "junk" foods which are detrimental to health. How to Have a Healthy Vegan Diet As we have seen, a vegan diet can be a very healthy one, reducing risks of disease and even potentially increasing longevity, but only if it is done well. If you are one of the growing number of people who are vegan then chances are you are motivated by ethics and not health2. But if you would like to also be healthy, there are some steps you can take. Avoid processed meat alternatives and instead base your meals on wholefoods. Lentils, beans, and chickpeas are healthy meat substitutes, providing fibre as well as protein.Although, it may be helpful to mention that dried legumes are known to contain phytic acid which can inhibit absorption of micronutrients. Therefore, it is recommended to soak your legumes before cooking to reduce phytic acid and enhance bioavailability of micronutrients in food grains. A varied diet will help to ensure you include all the essential amino acids. Some careful planning may help to avoid nutrient deficiencies. Include calcium rich foods in your diet daily, like tahini, calcium-set tofu, broccoli, bok choy, kale, cannellini beans and calcium-fortified milk alternatives. Include seaweed as a source of iodine and pumpkin seeds for zinc. Supplements are a great way to address any potential gaps in nutrient intake, for everyone, not only vegans. Feel’s Multivitamin contains many of the nutrients of concern for vegans such as B12, zinc and iodine, and our vegan Omega 3 from algae contains good levels of EPA and DHA. Rest assured all of our products are fully vegan friendly. Finally, if you have any concerns about your diet, you could also consider speaking to a nutritional therapist.