Is the vegan diet healthy? What is healthy about the vegan diet, what makes the vegan diet healthier than other diets, and what are the cons of eating a plant based diet.
There are many vegan diet myths that are shared in our society. For example, some people don’t quite know which vegan deficiencies are actually real or if certain deficiencies are even vegan specific.
Others have heard vegans live longer, while more believe vegans are malnourished and skinny. There are many forms of the vegan diet and not all are healthy. But if you plan your meals the right way, you will enjoy the many benefits provided by the vegan diet.
Is The Vegan Diet Healthy?
Yes, with exceptions. There are many forms of a vegan diet: whole food plant based, raw vegan, junk food vegan, ethical vegan, gluten free vegan, oil free vegan, and so on.
Fries and Oreo cookies are vegan, so we can’t say a vegan diet is always healthy. Sugar, salt, and oil are vegan but, consumed too much, will cause your health to suffer.
A whole food plant based diet is the healthiest vegan diet. It focuses on whole, unprocessed foods and cuts out things like refined sugar. It’s not only about cutting out animal foods, it’s also about making more space for good foods. Therefore, you can enjoy more foods with less calories (volume eating). For the same amount of calories you were consuming on an omnivore diet, you are now consuming much more fiber, minerals, and vitamins (which, yes, make you healthier) on a whole food plant based diet.
Reasons a Well-Planned Vegan Diet Is Healthy
#1 You eat more fiber
Meat, dairy, and eggs contain zero fiber. You will increase your fiber intake drastically by replacing these foods with plants.
More than 90% of Americans do not eat the recommended amount of fiber (source). This is bad news because there is proof that fiber reduces the risk of colon cancer (source), breast cancer (source), diabetes (source), heart disease (source), obesity (source), and stroke (source). It helps control cholesterol (source) and blood sugar levels (source). Fiber also binds toxins, lead, and mercury (source), which is mostly accumulated in animal fat.
Recommendations of daily fiber intake range from 25g to 38g daily (mayoclinic). Other sources recommend even more fiber in your diet.
Check out this easy 5-day work week vegan meal plan for high fiber intake.
#3 Your cholesterol stays low
If you eat cholesterol (only found in animal food) you will increase your blood level cholesterol. There is no benefit adding cholesterol through the food you eat because your body makes all the cholesterol it needs. Vegans, in general, enjoy low cholesterol levels. My personal levels are around 130 total and my LDL (bad cholesterol) is about 55.
“Coronary artery disease is essentially nonexistent in cultures whose nutrition assures cholesterol levels <150 mg/dl. Patients with advanced coronary artery disease may abolish disease progression through a plant-based diet and cholesterol-lowering medication to achieve and maintain a total cholesterol <150 mg/dl.” (source)
There is no tolerable intake of cholesterol because any intake above 0% trans fats, saturated fats (found in animal products), and cholesterol will raise your LDL cholesterol concentration (source). Therefore, you are better off cutting cholesterol altogether.
#2 You eat more antioxidants
Antioxidants prevent circulation of oxidized fats in the bloodstream, decrease artery stiffness, prevent blood clots, lower blood pressure, and reduce inflammation (“How not to die“, page 57). On average, plants contain sixty four times more antioxidants than meats. Just like a healthy vegan diet (WFPB) increases fiber, it will also increase your antioxidant intake.
#4 You are 78% less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes
As diet becomes more plant based, diabetes and hypertension rates drop (diabetes rate reduced by 78%) (source). Also note that insulin resistance is the most common cause of type 2 diabetes. “Diabetes incidence was significantly and positively associated with the proportions of total saturated fatty acids in plasma” (source).
#5 You are happier
Another study notes that “the consumption of diets enriched with polyphenols may present the potential of dietary manipulation as a non-invasive, natural, and inexpensive therapeutic means to support a healthy brain”(source). Polyphenols are found in plant based food.
Moreover, higher fruit and vegetable intake was significantly associated with lower odds of depression, distress, and anxiety (source).
#6 You enjoy a stronger immune system
Food choices easily influence our immune system. In this study, researchers took all fruits and vegetables out of the diet which resulted in decreasing immune function within two weeks.
Older people who eat 5 or more servings of fruits and veggies a day (compared to less than 3) had an 82 percent greater protective antibody response (source). You might still get sick, but apparently less often.
Related: 10 proven immunity boosting foods
Now, you might be thinking, well, other diets can have these positive health effects, too. And, you are right to an extent. You can go 90% plant based, 80% plant based, reduce certain animal foods, or only cut out dairy and experience better health.
BUT there are some benefits that only vegans enjoy.
Is the vegan diet the healthiest?
Here are three points I want to mention that highlight the health benefits of a vegan diet.
#1 Reversal and prevention of heart disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US (source). While this study was small, there is evidence that a whole food plant based diet prevents or reverses heart disease. I am not aware of a study that proves the complete reversal of heart disease at this point (only improvement).
Dr. Esselstyn put 200 participants on a whole food plant based diet. Of the individuals that did not stick with the diet (21 people), 62% developed serious health problems including stroke and heart attack. Of the individuals who followed the diet plan (177 people), only 0.6% had the same negative outcome (source).
While the control group is small (only 12 people), the outcome is drastic. In the image above and to the right you can see a patient with coronary artery disease with insufficient blood flow. Following a plant based diet for only 3 weeks with no other intervention, the image above and to the left shows the same patient with completely restored blood flow. Read more in his book: Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure.
#2 Vegans are the only diet group with normal BMI
Weight and health go hand in hand. If you are overweight or obese, chances are you suffer or will suffer from other diseases and health conditions.
Compared to meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians, vegans have the best BMI (source).
#3 Comparison to other diets
“In conclusion, results concerning body weight, nutritional intake, nutritional quality and quantity are in line with the literature on restricted and prudent diets versus unrestricted omnivorous diets. The use of indexing systems, estimating the overall diet quality based on different aspects of healthful dietary models (be it the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans or the compliance to the Mediterranean Diet) indicated consistently the vegan diet as the most healthy one.” (source)
As you can see, the vegan diet is not just a fad diet that cures one disease or only helps you lose weight, it helps to improve health across the board and can be used for diabetes and heart disease or to heal acne and control weight.
When Is The Vegan Diet Not Healthy?
As I have already mentioned above, the vegan diet is not healthy for you body if you still include a lot of processed foods. It is important to focus on whole plants as much as possible.
Consume the appropriate ratio of food groups. You want to make sure you eat mostly fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while including a plant based protein source. Beware, going too starch heavy can also lead to deficiencies. Please refer to the vegan food pyramid for more info.
I always suggest using cronometer (free app) to track your nutrition. You can see if you eat too much of any bad food and at the same time see if you have any deficiencies in your diet.