How does being vegan benefit your health: Vegan diets offer a range of health benefits.
For people looking to lose weight, a vegan diet can help. Eating vegan may also help you maintain your heart health. What’s more, this diet may offer some protection against type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
This article examines the science behind the potential benefits of vegan diets. We’ll highlight some recipe ideas that feature the versatility of plant-based, whole food eating. And if you’re wondering how a vegan diet differs from a vegetarian one, we’ll cover that, too.
A vegan diet is richer in certain nutrients (How does being vegan benefit your health)
Switching to a vegan diet from a typical Western diet means you’ll eliminate meat and animal products.
This will lead you to rely more heavily on other foods. In the case of a whole food vegan diet, replacements take the form of:
- whole grains
Since these foods make up a larger portion of a vegan diet than a typical Western diet, they can lead to a higher daily intake of certain beneficial nutrients.
Several studies have reported that vegan diets tend to provide more fiber, antioxidants, and beneficial plant compounds. They also appear to be richer in potassium, magnesium, folate, and vitamins A, C, and E (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source, 3).
Vegan diets even appear to be higher in iron. However, the form of iron that plants provide is not as bioavailable — meaning, your body is not as able to absorb it — as the form found in animal foods (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source, 3).
Yet, not all vegan diets are created equal.
For instance, poorly planned vegan diets may not provide sufficient amounts of vitamin B12, niacin, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin D, calcium, iodine, selenium, or zinc (1Trusted Source, 3, 4Trusted Source).
That’s why it’s essential to choose whole plant foods and fortified foods. You may need to consider supplements for nutrients such as vitamins B12 and D, zinc, and calcium, since these may be lacking in a vegan diet.
While whole food vegan diets are generally higher in certain nutrients, poorly planned vegan diets may lead to deficiencies of several key nutrients.
Eating vegan can help you lose excess weight
An increasing number of people are turning to plant-based diets in hopes of shedding excess weight. While there’s no guarantee that a vegan diet will lead to weight loss, there may be some good reasons to give it a try.
Many observational studies suggest that vegans tend to be thinner and have lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than nonvegans (5Trusted Source).
In addition, several randomized controlled studies — the gold standard in scientific research — report that vegan diets are more effective for weight loss than the diets they are compared with (6Trusted Source, 7, 8, 9Trusted Source).
- A small study found that people eating a low fat, high fiber vegan diet lost more weight than those eating a conventional low fat diet (6Trusted Source).
- Participants following a vegan diet lost an average of 13 lbs (6 kg) over 16 weeks, while those following the Mediterranean diet did not see any weight loss (7).
- Vegan eaters also lost more weight in a study than people who included meat or fish in their diets. Vegetarians lost just as much weight as vegans in this study (8).
- When comparing a low fat, whole food vegan diet to a standard omnivorous diet over 16 weeks, the vegan diet resulted in an average of 13 lbs (6 kg) of weight loss. People eating their regular diets did not experience significant weight loss (9Trusted Source).
What’s more, a small study comparing the weight loss effects of five different diets concluded that vegetarian and vegan diets were just as well-accepted as semi-vegetarian and standard Western diets (10Trusted Source).
Even when study participants weren’t following the diets perfectly, the people in the vegetarian and vegan groups still lost more weight than those on a standard Western diet (10Trusted Source).
Overall, more studies are needed to understand which aspects of a vegan diet make the biggest difference when it comes to weight loss. Whether a diet is vegan or not, many factors can affect how well a weight loss diet works, including:
- fiber content
- calorie levels
- eating whole foods versus processed foods
Vegan diets may help to promote weight loss without the need to actively focus on cutting calories. More research is needed to understand why a vegan diet may be effective.
A vegan diet appears to lower blood sugar levels and improve kidney function
A vegan diet may also provide benefits for type 2 diabetes and declining kidney function.
Indeed, vegans tend to have lower blood sugar levels and higher insulin sensitivity and may have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes (11Trusted Source, 12, 13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source).
Even if you don’t go fully vegan, increasing your intake of healthy plant-based foods and decreasing your intake of meat- and dairy-based foods may reduce your type 2 diabetes risk (15Trusted Source).
A 2006 study even reported that a vegan diet lowers blood sugar levels in people with diabetes more than the recommended diet from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) (16Trusted Source).
In one 2009 study, 43% of participants following a vegan diet were able to reduce their dosage of blood sugar-lowering medication, compared with only 26% of participants who followed an ADA-recommended diet (17Trusted Source).
Lower risk of diabetes complications
In general, a vegan diet is thought to lower the risk of complications for people with type 2 diabetes (18Trusted Source).
People with diabetes who substitute plant protein for meat may reduce their risk of poor kidney function, but more research is needed on this topic (19Trusted Source, 20Trusted Source).
What’s more, several studies report that a vegan diet may help to relieve pain caused by peripheral neuropathy, a common condition in people with diabetes (21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source). But more evidence is needed before experts can confirm that this approach is effective.
Vegan diets may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. They are also particularly effective at reducing blood sugar levels and may help prevent further medical issues from developing.
Going vegan may protect against certain cancers
According to the World Health Organization, at least one-third of all cancers can be prevented by factors within your control, including diet (23Trusted Source).
Benefits of eating more plant foods
Vegans generally eat considerably more legumes, fruits, and vegetables than nonvegans. This may explain why a 2017 study found that vegans may benefit from a 15% lower risk of developing cancer (24Trusted Source).
For instance, eating legumes regularly may reduce your risk of colorectal cancer by 9–18% (25Trusted Source).
And according to the National Cancer Institute, eating higher amounts of plant-based foods reduces your risk of several types of cancer, including stomach, lung, mouth, and throat cancers (26Trusted Source).
It may also reduce the risk of colon, prostate, and pancreatic cancers.
What’s more, vegan diets generally contain more soy products, which may offer some protection against breast cancer (27, 28Trusted Source).
Benefits of avoiding meat
Avoiding certain animal products may also help reduce the risk of prostate, breast, stomach, and colorectal cancers. Red meat, smoked meat, or processed meats and meats cooked at high temperatures are thought to promote certain types of cancers (29Trusted Source, 30Trusted Source, 31Trusted Source, 32Trusted Source, 33Trusted Source).
Because a vegan diet does not contain meat, vegans don’t consume these foods. This could lower their cancer risks.
Effects of avoiding dairy
Vegans also avoid dairy products, which some studies suggest may slightly increase the risk of prostate cancer (34Trusted Source).
On the other hand, there is evidence that dairy may help reduce the risk of other cancers, such as colorectal cancer (35Trusted Source, 36Trusted Source).
So, avoiding dairy may not be the factor that lowers vegans’ overall risk of cancer.
It’s important to note that these studies are observational. They make it impossible to pinpoint the exact reason vegans have a lower risk of cancer.
However, until researchers know more, it seems wise to focus on increasing the amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes you eat each day while limiting your consumption of processed, smoked, and overcooked meats.
Certain aspects of the vegan diet may offer protection against several types of cancer, including prostate, breast, stomach, and colorectal cancers.
A vegan diet is linked to a lower risk of heart disease
Eating fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, and fiber is linked to a lower risk of heart disease (37Trusted Source, 38Trusted Source, 39Trusted Source).
Well-planned vegan diets generally include all these foods in amounts higher than the standard Western diet.
Observational studies comparing vegans with vegetarians and non-vegetarians report that vegans may benefit from up to a 75% lower risk of developing high blood pressure (40Trusted Source).
Vegans may also have a lower risk of dying from heart disease, though more studies are needed to understand the relationship (40Trusted Source, 41Trusted Source).
What’s more, several randomized controlled studies report that vegan diets are much more effective at reducing blood sugar, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and total cholesterol levels than the diets they are compared with (11Trusted Source, 12, 42Trusted Source).
This may be particularly beneficial to heart health, since reducing high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels may reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 46% (43Trusted Source).
A well-balanced vegan diet includes plenty of whole grains and nuts, both of which are good for your heart (44Trusted Source, 45Trusted Source).
Vegan diets may benefit heart health by significantly reducing the risk factors that contribute to heart disease.
A vegan diet can reduce pain from arthritis
A few studies have reported that a vegan diet has positive effects in people with different types of arthritis.
One small study randomly assigned people with arthritis to either continue eating their omnivorous diet or switch to a whole food, plant-based vegan diet for 6 weeks (46Trusted Source).
Those on the vegan diet reported higher energy levels and better general functioning than those who didn’t change their diet (46Trusted Source).
Several other studies suggest a vegan diet may help improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, including pain, joint swelling, and morning stiffness, but the relationship needs further investigation (47Trusted Source, 48Trusted Source).
The vegan diet’s higher antioxidant, probiotic, and fiber content, as well as its lack of certain trigger foods, could be responsible for these benefits (47Trusted Source, 48Trusted Source).
Vegan diets based on antioxidant-rich whole foods may significantly decrease symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Vegan recipe ideas
Now that you’ve seen the potential benefits, you might be wondering how to add more plant-based meals to your rotation.
Fortunately, there’s lots of room for variety in a vegan diet. We’ve highlighted a few flavorful recipes to get your meal ideas flowing.
Savory sheet pan dinner
By roasting all of your veggies and proteins together on a baking pan, you’ll deepen their flavors and also cut down on cleanup time.
This vegan Mediterranean sheet pan dinner features a lemony marinade and smooth tahini sauce. You can swap in different vegetables to please choosy eaters.
Stir-fry with a nutty sauce
Featuring Asian-inspired seasoning, this spicy peanut cauliflower stir-fry makes pan-fried cauliflower the star. And you can adjust the spice level to be as mild or as fiery as you like.
Serve it with cooked rice or quinoa to take advantage of the gingery peanut sauce.
Potato and spinach curry is packed with veggies and chickpeas, and it can be made ahead and frozen for a quick dinner when you need one.
Serve it over cooked rice and try making the garlic tortilla dippers for a fun accompaniment.
Classic comfort food, vegan-style
If you’re looking for rich-tasting comfort food, this vegan macaroni and cheese will satisfy.
The sauce is full of velvety butternut squash, and nutritional yeast adds a cheesy, savory flavor.
Vegan vs. vegetarian
To understand what makes a vegan diet unique, it helps to look at how vegan and vegetarian diets differ.
There are several different forms of vegetarianism (3):
- Lacto vegetarians: eat dairy but avoid meat, fish, and eggs
- Ovo vegetarians: eat eggs but avoid meat, fish, and dairy
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians: eat dairy and eggs but avoid meat and fish
- Vegans: avoid meat, fish, dairy, and eggs
Veganism is the strictest form of vegetarianism. All vegetarian diets exclude meat, but only vegans restrict their diet to include plant-based foods only.
This means that vegans avoid all animal-based foods, like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. They often avoid animal byproducts, too, such as gelatin. Many vegans also choose to avoid products produced by bees, such as honey.
While some people choose a vegan diet for its potential health benefits, other reasons can include ethics, religion, or environmental concerns.
The bottom line
Vegan diets may provide a range of health benefits.
For the most part, researchers do not yet understand exactly what causes these benefits.
That said, until further research emerges, it can only benefit you to increase the amount of nutrient-rich, whole plant foods in your diet. (How does being vegan benefit your health)