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Is a vegan diet healthy?

is a vegan diet healthy
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is a vegan diet healthy? If you are thinking of changing your diet, this is something you might be asking. A vegan diet cuts out animal products completely, which means meat, poultry and dairy products such as eggs and cheese are off the table. While many people worry about not being able to get enough protein if they switch to a vegan diet, you’ll find the best vegan protein powders can help you to get the protein you need. 

But, protein requirements aside, the most important thing to note if you’re thinking of transitioning to a vegan diet is how healthy it is depends largely on the foods you’re selecting. Some vegan diets can be very healthy as they base their diets around plant-based foods including fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. 

That being said, just like non-vegan foods, there is such a thing as vegan junk food, with meat substitutes and processed foods often being high in sugar and saturated fats. There’s also the concern around making sure your diet is providing you with the right types of nutrients, including iron, protein and B12, the latter of which can’t be found in plant-based foods.

Still, a vegan diet can indeed be healthy if done correctly. In this article, we’ll talk to the experts and find out how you can stay healthy on a vegan diet if you decide it’s the right path for you.

What is a vegan diet?

Whether you are going vegan temporarily or want to change to a plant-based diet for good, becoming vegan can be beneficial for your health and the planet. However, a vegan diet isn’t always healthy and it largely depends on the individual and how they plan their meals. A vegan diet is also different to a purely plant-based diet, as well as a vegetarian diet. 

Plant-based diets for beginners tend to focus heavily on fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds but allow for some flexibility. These diets are great for reducing your meat intake but you don’t have to give up meat or animal products entirely. A vegetarian diet cuts out meat but not dairy, meaning vegetarians can get more of their key nutrients, such as protein and calcium, through foods such as eggs and cheese. 

Vegan diets, on the other hand, are based around giving up all animal products. It therefore cuts out meat, fish, poultry and dairy products, including cheese and milk. However, unlike a plant-based diet, vegans won’t necessarily cut out processed foods - which could be high in sugars and saturated fats. 

Someone preparing a vegan meal

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Is a vegan diet healthy?

Cutting out animal products from your diet can have massive benefits for your health, especially if you are concentrating on eating plant-based foods and keeping any processed foods to a minimum. However not all vegan diets are healthy, with Harley Street nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert (opens in new tab) warning: “Some plant-based diets carry a risk of not getting the right nutrition through protein, vitamin, and mineral intake. These risks can be overcome by choosing the right vegan foods and when necessary, supplements. I normally suggest vegans nearly always take a supplement for nutrients such as B12, iodine, iron and calcium.”

If you’ve ever been keen to follow a vegan diet for weight loss, you’ll be pleased to know that a healthy and balanced vegan diet can indeed help you to shift those unwanted pounds, with one study published in the journal of Diabetes Care (opens in new tab) showing that those who didn’t eat meat had a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) than those who did consume meat. Other benefits of cutting out meat can include reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. 

person serving a healthy vegan meal

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“The nutritional benefits of eating more plants are grounded in solid evidence,” adds Lambert. “A diverse range of plant foods providing 30g of fibre each day supports gut health, while fruit and vegetables are great sources for a range of vitamins and minerals.”

With more of us concentrating on living more sustainability, cutting animal products could also be great for the planet. “These diets are also beneficial for the planet, suggesting that a reduction in animal products will help to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” says Lambert.

A report by the United Nations (opens in new tab) in 2019 even stated that the meat and dairy consumption of the western world was fuelling global warming. This is due to animals producing methane gas into the environment, while deforestation for livestock rearing also impacts it. The research, for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that if we used our land more efficiently, rather than for livestock, we could store more of the carbon emitted by humans.

How to be healthy on a vegan diet

If you are swapping to a vegan or plant-friendly diet, Lambert believes, in order to be healthy, you should change your diet slowly.

“Small and gradual change is often the best way to avoid any nutritional deficiencies or digestive discomfort from a potential increase of fiber,” she says. “Try swapping animal-derived produce for plant protein alternatives such as beans, pulses, and tofu, and gradually introduce different types of vegetables to each meal.”

When you’re on a vegan diet it’s easy to get sidetracked with ‘vegan alternatives’ - but some may include more sugar and salt than your body needs. Check the ingredients or cook from fresh where you can. 

two women eating a healthy vegan meal

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Lambert also explains that the way vegetables are cooked is relevant for a healthy vegan diet. “Steamed vegetables are far more nutritious than deep-fried, for instance,” she says. But there are other things to be on the lookout for too.

“A lot of plant-based alternatives to animal products are not nutritionally balanced - pulled pork is often replaced by jackfruit, but the latter contains no protein. There are also many vegan ultra-processed foods available that are unhealthy. Vegetarian sausage rolls, for instance, can still be high in salt and saturated fat.”

To have a healthy diet as a vegan, most of us will need to take supplements, to get the quantity of nutrients we need. A study in 2016 by Mayo Clinic (opens in new tab) physicians found that the nutrients of concern are vitamin B12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. 

Nutritionist Thalia Pellegrini (opens in new tab) believes that all vegans should be taking supplements, and tells LiveScience: “Anyone eating a purely plant-based diet should definitely be taking supplements - I mainly see vegans with deficiencies in iron and B12, as they can’t get the right quantities through their food.”

Iron can be found in whole grains, leafy veg, legumes and nuts - but you can’t get the same levels of iron from these foods as you would from meat. Other important nutrients that vegans may be lacking in are vitamin A, calcium, and protein, with vitamin A being important for immunity and thyroid function.

Calcium is of course important for protecting bones, while protein helps to heal muscles and skin. Most women need about 45g of protein a day and men need 55g a day - but it’s harder to get the right amount through a vegan diet. For example, a chicken breast contains around half your daily required amount of protein, while a vegan alternative could have only a quarter of the amount you need. 

Pellegrini advises vegans to take a multivitamin to get the nutrients that could be lacking in their diet. Vegan protein shakes, normally made from pea protein, are also a great alternative to up your daily intake.


References

McVeigh, J. (2018, November 7). Vegans May Lack Essential Nutrient Intake. Mayo Clinic News Network. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/vegans-may-lack-essential-nutrient-intake-mayo-clinic-study-reports/ (opens in new tab)

Tonstad, S., Butler, T., Yan, R., & Fraser, G. E. (2009). Type of Vegetarian Diet, Body Weight, and Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care, 32(5), 791–796. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2671114/ (opens in new tab)

United Nations. (n.d.). IPCC â Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://www.ipcc.ch (opens in new tab)

Sarah is a freelance writer - writing across titles including Woman&Home, Fit&Well, The Independent, LiveScience, and the BBC in the UK. She covers a variety of subjects, including trends in beauty, business, and wellness - but her biggest passions are health and fitness. She can normally be found trying out the trendiest fitness class or interviewing an expert about the latest health trends.