Benefits of being vegan
In recent years, the plant-based diet has become really popular around the world. According to the Vegan Society, 600,000 people in the UK identified as vegans in 2019 and over 450,000 people round the world took part in Veganuary in 2020.
This increase has led to a rise in the availability of vegan products in shops and supermarkets, from dairy-free cheese and milk to meat-free burgers. In short, it’s never been a better time to be vegan.
What is veganism?
Being vegan means you avoid eating all animal-based produce and adopt a plant-based diet. Vegans don’t eat any meat, fish, seafood, dairy products or eggs, and they also avoid honey.
Most vegans will also try to avoid using any animal materials (e.g., leather) and any products that might have been tested on animals.
Is veganism good for your health?
There are plenty of reasons to try veganism. Lots of people believe that the butchering and eating of animals is cruel and unethical. It’s also thought that farming is one of the biggest contributors to environmental issues such as climate change.
When done right, veganism can also be really good for your health. If you’re thinking about making the switch, read on to discover some of the key health benefits.
What are the benefits of a vegan diet?
A vegan diet can be richer in certain nutrients
The NHS recommends eating five portions of fruits and vegetables each day, but lots of us don’t manage to do that. When you switch to a vegan diet, it’s easier to get the nutrients you need, simply because you’re eating more plant-based foods high in fibre and essential vitamins.
A vegan diet can also be more nutritious as it includes more pulses, like lentils, chickpeas, and kidney beans. These are a great source of protein that can be used to replace animal products. They’re also packed with essential nutrients like iron and calcium. As a bonus, pulses count towards your 5-a-day.
Veganism may lower your risk of heart disease
Saturated fat is a type of fat found in lots of common foods. When we eat too much it can raise our levels of “bad” cholesterol and increase our risk of heart disease and stroke.
The worst offenders when it comes to saturated fat are animal products like butter, hard cheese, cream, sausages, fatty cuts of meat, and chocolate. For this reason, switching to a vegan diet can help cut your risk of high cholesterol and heart disease.
In this study from 2019, a plant-based diet was found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in middle-aged adults.
Just bear in mind that some vegan foods, like coconut oil and cream, are also high in saturated fat and should be eaten in moderation.
It may lower your risk of type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is a condition that can develop if you have an unhealthy diet. The best way to lower your risk is to cut back on foods that encourage insulin production. It’s a good idea to reduce your intake of carbohydrates, starting with sugary drinks and sweets, and foods made with refined grains like white bread and white rice.
A vegan diet won’t necessarily help with cutting back on carbs, but it can help to reduce the saturated fat in your diet – another risk factor for diabetes. Vegan diets tend to include plant-based sources of fat and protein, including nuts, avocadoes and pulses. These are much healthier than meat-based alternatives like fatty cuts of beef or processed sausages.
This review of nine separate studies found an “inverse association” between a vegan diet and a risk of type 2 diabetes – in other words, there is medical evidence that eating a plant-based diet reduces your risk of this disease.
A vegan diet may help protect against certain cancers
Cancer risk is linked to a variety of factors, including your age and genetics. With certain cancers, diet is a key factor.
It’s thought that your risk of bowel (colorectal) cancer is increased by eating lots of red meat such as beef, lamb and pork. Following a vegan diet that cuts out red meat is thought to be a good way of reducing your risk of this particular cancer.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that a vegan diet can be protective against other types of cancer, including breast, prostate and lung.
It may improve kidney function
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a condition where the kidneys don’t function properly. It’s usually caused by another condition that puts strain on the kidneys, such as diabetes or high cholesterol. Both of these are associated with a diet high in saturated fats i.e. one that includes a lot of fatty and processed meat and dairy products.
Kidney stones are associated with a high-protein, low fibre diet, which is more likely to be one incorporating animal products. By cutting back on animal products – particularly ones containing a lot of saturated fat – and eating more fruits, vegetables and fibre, you can help maintain good kidney function.
A vegan diet can help weight loss
Cutting out meat and dairy doesn’t automatically lead to weight loss. In fact, lots of vegan foods available in shops, restaurants and supermarkets can be high in sugar and fat. However, as we’ve seen, a vegan diet can help you eat more fruit and veg, and less fatty and processed meat and saturated fats.
If you want to lose weight and get healthier, make a dedicated switch to a balanced and varied vegan diet. Your meals should be packed with fruits, vegetables and starchy wholegrain carbohydrates, and low in sugar and fat.
Remember, exercise is also really important. Eating a healthy, nutrient-packed vegan diet can be great for your body, but if you want to lose weight you’ll need to exercise regularly.
Find out more by reading this article: Can a vegan diet help with weight loss?
A vegan diet could help reduce pain from arthritis
A small 2022 study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine did suggest that eating a low-fat plant-based diet could maybe help people with rheumatoid arthritis. Participants in the study found that their joints were less swollen and painful during the vegan diet phase. They also lost around 14 pounds on average during that part of the trial.
More studies would need to be done and verified in the UK for a vegan diet to be linked with relieving arthritis symptoms.
A vegan diet could improve your skin
A vegan diet can improve blood sugar levels
If you have diabetes, it’s thought that eating a more plant-based diet can help you control your weight and diabetes symptoms. A strict vegan diet can help improve your blood sugar levels and insulin response.
Is a vegan diet safe?
Absolutely! Veganism is perfectly safe for children and adults when done correctly. As with any diet, you need to make sure you’re getting the essential nutrients your body needs. This is possible by doing research into the vegan diet, and planning out certain foods that you might need to add to your daily meals.
If you don’t manage to eat a balanced and varied diet, there’s the risk that you’ll miss out on essential vitamins and minerals. You might need to take supplements such as vitamin B12, iron and calcium.
What are the risks of a vegan diet?
The key risk of a vegan diet is missing out on important nutrients. However, it’s possible to miss out on these even when you eat meat, eggs and dairy.
Calcium is important for healthy bones, teeth, muscles and helps your blood clot normally. Non-vegans tend to get calcium from dairy products. But if you’re vegan you can still get calcium milk alternatives (oat, rice and soya milk), sesame seeds, pulses, bread and some dried fruit
Iron is used by your body to make red blood cells, most commonly we get iron from meat. But if you’re not eating meat, you can also get it from leafy green vegetable like broccoli and spinach.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart health. We tend to get these from oily fish, but if you don’t eat fish you can get omega-3 fatty acids from some nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and soya products.
We all need vitamin D to keep our bones and skin healthy. Generally, we all get vitamin D from sunlight, but this can be tricky in the winter months in the UK. Non-vegans can get some vitamin D from their diet from dairy produce, but you can also get it from some breakfast cereals and soya produce (milks and yoghurts etc). You might also want to take a vitamin D supplement in the winter.
Our bodies need vitamin B12 to support your nervous system and get energy from your food. Lots of us will get vitamin B12 from meat, eggs and dairy. But if you’re eating a vegan diet, you can get it from some cereal, yeast extract and soya-based products. These options are fairly limited if you’re vegan, so it’s quite common for vegans to take B12 supplements.
If you’re thinking about going vegan, in the UK it’s fairly easy to remove animal produce from your diet as we have lots of great alternatives, and also a wide variety of produce available to us. Some people might start by going vegetarian first and then making the move to veganism.
Popular vegan alternatives:
- Cows’ milk: almond, soya or oat milk
- Meat: quorn, jackfruit, seitan, tofu and tempeh
- Eggs: aquafaba (chickpea water) and tofu
- Cheese: cashew cheese and nutritional yeast
- Butter: margarine and sunflower spread
- Honey: maple syrup, agave and date syrup
Whatever diet you follow, make sure it’s balanced and varied and doesn’t include too much saturated fat, sugar and salt. It’s also important not to overeat or to eat too little – the NHS recommends around 2,500 calories per day for men, and 2,000 per day for women.
For more guidance on following a vegan diet safely, check out the Vegan Eatwell Guide from The Vegan Society.