Being healthy in today’s day and age can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Beset on all sides by diet trends, wellness “influencers”, and recipe hacks of every variety, it’s a struggle to know what the right choices are.
But what about veganism? In the last few decades, the vegan diet, sometimes called a plant-based diet, has both captured attention and maintained staying power. Most vegans are vegans for ethical or environmental reasons, but often claim to enjoy the health benefits as well.
But what are these health benefits? Are they backed up by science? Let’s dive into the research to see the top 10 benefits.
1. LIFE EXPECTANCY
First off the bat, the mother of all health benefits: a longer life.
Understanding longevity and diet is extremely difficult due to the high number of confounding variables and the near impossibility of creating experimental conditions to measure longevity. Worldwide, meat consumption is correlated with high life expectancy, but this is likely because high-income countries, who tend to have better healthcare, less crime, and other important correlates, have higher meat consumption. It doesn’t mean eating meat makes you live longer.
When researchers analyse specific populations of vegans and non-vegans, we can see that meat abstinence is actually associated with longer life. One study that did not test veganism but instead modelled an “optimised diet” (one that had far higher levels of fruits and vegetables and minimal animal products), found that the optimised diet could improve life expectancy by up to 10 years. It also found that legumes, nuts, whole grains, and a lack of red meat were the biggest contributors to long life. Another summary of six studies of vegetarians found that long-term vegetarians were significantly more likely to have a long life, possibly three years or more longer after two decades of vegetarianism. And in a massive observational study of half a million people, plant protein intake was correlated with longer life.
There is strong evidence that eating vegetables, fruits, and whole grains while reducing red meat, processed meat, and other animal products lowers your chance of dying. The exact number of extra years is hard to determine, but may be significant, depending on other lifestyle factors of course.
2. LOWER RISK OF CERTAIN CANCERS
One of the biggest benefits of a plant-based diet is the lowered risk of several types of cancer. A meta-analysis of 96 diet and cancer studies found that vegans were 15 percent less likely to have developed all forms of cancer. Specifically, cancers tied to insulin resistance appear least likely to affect vegans, including colon, breast, and prostate cancer.
Avoiding meat is extremely beneficial, as red and processed meats are classified as “possibly carcinogenic” and “carcinogenic”, respectively, by the World Health Organization. By contrast, vegetables, fruits, and other foods high in fibre have anti-carcinogenic properties, leading researchers from one analysis to conclude that “The direct and indirect evidence taken together suggests that vegetarian diets are a useful strategy for cancer prevention.”
3. LOWERED CHOLESTEROL LEVELS
Has your doctor told you to watch your cholesterol? Well, maybe you should think about your consumption of meat, considering that the only foods that contain cholesterol are animal products. Vegan foods are completely free of it.
It’s no wonder then that vegans have better cholesterol levels. In clinical research, vegan diets are associated with high levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol and low levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Another study of long-term vegetarians in Korea found that vegetarians have less cholesterol than omnivores on average, and almost all the vegetarians tested had cholesterol levels in the normal range. It is possible that a vegan who eats processed foods high in sodium and saturated fats could have high cholesterol, although it is far less likely than for those eating a meat-heavy diet.
4. WEIGHT LOSS
Many people opt for a plant-based diet to shed some pounds. Observational research analysing many different diets has found that vegans have the lowest BMI when compared to vegetarians, pescatarians, and omnivores.
These results also hold up in experimental research. In one study comparing a low-fat vegan diet to the National Cholesterol Education Program diet, people assigned to a vegan diet lost an extra 3kg after one year. In another, people assigned to veganism lost twice as much weight compared to other diets. In one experimental study that tested adherence to diets, scientists found a surprising result: people assigned to a vegan or vegetarian diet who did not adhere to the diet completely, lost 6kg more than people assigned to a different diet plan. In other words, even an imperfect vegan diet can benefit your weight loss journey.
5. LOWER RISK OF DEVELOPING TYPE 2 DIABETES
A vegan diet can help prevent type 2 diabetes through a variety of mechanisms, including by helping weight loss, improving the gut microbiome, and a decrease in saturated fat consumption. One meta-analysis of 15 studies of diabetes found that a vegan diet can help prevent the onset of the disease. Further, vegan diets can also improve the symptoms of patients already living with type 2 diabetes. In one study, 43 percent of people suffering from diabetes who switched to a low-fat vegan diet regained enough health to reduce their diabetes medication.
6. IMPROVED GUT HEALTH
Do you listen to your gut? Well, you should. The gut’s microbiome — the complex array of bacteria and microorganisms that helps break down food in your digestive system — is incredibly important for overall health. Scientists are discovering that the microbiome helps your immune system, regulates body weight, and even is connected to your brain function.
Fibre-rich vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are best for the microbiome, so vegans who eat plenty of these foods will naturally have a thriving gut ecosystem. One review of studies found that vegans enjoyed a lower quantity of harmful bacteria alongside thriving species of helpful microbiota. Another review found that “ a vegetarian/vegan diet is effective in promoting a diverse ecosystem of beneficial bacteria to support both human gut microbiome and overall health.”
7. REDUCED INFLAMMATION
Excessive inflammation is essentially an immune overreaction; a response to an enemy that isn’t there. It is characterised by joint pain, redness, and swelling, and is linked to many diseases including heart disease and diabetes. There are many interconnecting causes of inflammation, including certain kinds of food, such as red or processed meat, processed grains, fried food, processed dairy, and sugary beverages.
A vegan diet, which naturally does not contain two of these risky foods, is linked to lower inflammation. In one eight-week experimental trial, participants with coronary artery disease who were assigned to eat a plant-based diet had a 32 percent lower incidence of an inflammation-marking protein than participants assigned to eat the diet recommended by the American Heart Association. This study authors go on to say that a vegan diet could be utilised clinically to reduce inflammation.
8. REDUCED SYMPTOMS OF ARTHRITIS
There is evidence that a vegan diet, often paired with other dietary factors, can reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis because of its inflammation-lowering properties: plenty of natural antioxidants and polyphenols.
One study of about 80 participants with arthritis found that 40 percent of patients on a gluten-free vegan diet improved their symptoms (compared to just 4 percent of non-vegan dieters). A meta-analysis of 31 studies found that intermittent fasting combined with a vegetarian diet showed “clinically significant beneficial long-term effect” for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Another study found that a low-fat vegan diet showed “significant reductions” in almost all symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
9. REDUCED RISK OF COGNITIVE DECLINE
Your diet may help more than your heart and your waistline — it can even strengthen your brain. Diets high in plants have been regularly found to help prevent cognitive decline, including diseases like dementia. Observational research also supports the claim that vegan diets can specifically help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, although the authors do note that vegans must be mindful to supplement vitamin B12, as deficiency in this nutrient is tied to Alzheimer’s onset.
10. IMPROVED ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
Want to not feel so sore after pumping iron or pounding out miles on a treadmill? A review of the literature on vegan and vegetarian athletes found that the diets “maximize performance, recovery, endurance and resistance to illness” and can lead to strong overall performance. And another scientific analysis argued that athletes on plant-based diets can improve body composition, improve vascular flow, reduce oxidative stress, reduce inflammation, and store energy more efficiently. The authors go on to conclude that there exists, “a scientific foundation for the increased use of plant-based diets by endurance athletes.”
Anecdotal evidence also backs up these scientific claims. Top athletes like Serena and Venus Williams, Lewis Hamilton, Patrik Baboumian, and many others all enjoy plant-based diets while remaining elite in their respective sports. Scott Jurek, an ultrarunner who once ran the 2,200-mile long Appalachian Trail in just 46 days, advocates a vegan diet.
While not everyone will be able to run across a continent, eating more plants can certainly help one’s recovery time after hitting the gym.
ARE VEGANS ACTUALLY HEALTHIER?
Given this wealth of evidence, we can see quite clearly that vegan diets are correlated with lower risks of many diseases and better overall health outcomes. However, this does not mean that going vegan will automatically change your health overnight.
Health stems from a complex array of genetic and lifestyle factors that go well beyond animal products; for example, a smoking, binge-drinking vegan can easily be less healthy than a sober non-vegan who exercises regularly.
Secondly, almost all of the benefits of veganism boil down to two factors: elimination of animal products and/or the addition of healthy, whole, plant-based foods. It is possible for someone to switch to a vegan diet and not eat whole foods, instead opting to replace meat with processed alternatives only (sometimes called a “junk food vegan”). This type of vegan may benefit from reduced cholesterol and saturated fats, but may not benefit as much from the nutrients in fruits and vegetables.
On a population level, however, vegan diets are undoubtedly beneficial. One researcher, using a study from Taiwan, has argued that the NHS could save £30bn per year if the entire UK population stopped eating meat. Meat consumption is not just a matter of personal taste, but public health policy.
PROS AND CONS OF VEGANISM
Vegans appear to enjoy a lower risk of developing many long-term diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, dementia, and more. Vegans find it easier to maintain their weight, cholesterol, and inflammation. Vegans are also likely to live longer on average.
However, vegans, like all people, should be mindful of nutrient intake. B12 deficiency is somewhat higher among vegans than non-vegans, so plant-based eaters would benefit from a supplement. Vegans should also mindfully source calcium, zinc, iodine. iron,vitamin D, and omega-3s, which can be more difficult (though not impossible) to find in plants in the required quantities.
IS VEGAN PROCESSED FOOD UNHEALTHY?
In general, whole foods trump processed foods in terms of health. But not all processing is the same, and not all processed foods are the same.
Vegan processed foods are frequently derided, but they are clearly an improvement on processed meat, and the “processed” tag often muddies the waters over differences between products.
Critics often follow the NOVA food classification system, in which some vegan products are classified as “ultra-processed” alongside potato chips, cookies, and Coca-Cola. But NOVA standards are not scientific. In one 2022 experiment, nutritionists using NOVA standards varied their assessments wildly, leading the authors to conclude that “current NOVA criteria do not allow for robust and functional food assignments.”.
While not a miracle cure, a vegan diet can improve overall health, especially when high-fibre fruits, vegetables, and grains are prioritised. People who are considering switching to a vegan diet may want to consider the lower chances of many long-term, harmful diseases like diabetes and heart disease.