vegan nutrition

Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?

When it comes to nutrition, a well-planned vegan diet offers substantial health advantages.

That said, every sort of diet has proponents exaggerating its benefits. No matter what type of diet you consider, you’ll find stacks of books promoting it as the best way to eat. If you want to be told that a vegan diet will make you live forever, you’ll find no shortage of so-called experts telling you exactly what you want to hear. But that doesn’t make it true.

Ditto for movies. “What the Health,” is among the most popular films suggesting a vegan is the healthiest way to eat. Unfortunately, the movie is brimming with false and misleading claims. Integrity matters, and at Vegan.com we seek to make the case for veganism without resorting to specious claims.

That said, a well-planned vegan diet indeed offers compelling advantages. So let’s run through some of the strongest health benefits associated with plant-based and vegan diets.

Potential health benefits of being vegan

A nuanced grasp of the diet’s connection to health can only come from years of graduate-level study. Moreover, nutrition is a young science and we don’t yet have definitive answers to many key questions. But let’s boil down to just a few paragraphs what we do know about the health benefits of going vegan.

In developed countries, heart disease and cancer are the two top causes of death. Let’s look at how each relates to diet.

Heart Disease

Vegans can and do die from heart disease. But certain vegan diets may reduce heart disease risk.

As long as you avoid palm and coconut oils, a vegan diet will likely contain very little saturated fat. Decades of research has repeatedly shown that saturated fat intake is associated with heart disease.

Additionally, vegans consistently have lower rates of obesity than omnivores. And excess body weight increases risk of both heart disease and cancer.

Cancer

A vegan diet can reduce two important cancer risks.

First, research consistently shows that fruits and vegetables contain beneficial substances capable of reducing cancer risk. And vegans consistently eat substantially more fresh produce than omnivores. Obviously, however, if you’re a Pepsi and potato chip vegan this won’t help you. But vegetables are delicious and satisfying, once you learn how to prepare them.

Second, beef and pork are consistently implicated in colorectal cancers. And roasting chicken generates substantial amounts of heterocyclic amines, a potent carcinogen. Since a vegan diet excludes beef, pork, and chicken, certain cancer risks are doubtless reduced.

Vegan Nutrition

All this said, there’s no clear evidence that vegans live longer than omnivores. But lifespan should not be confused with quality of life. You can probably move towards a vegan diet that is substantially more nutrient-rich than your current diet. But you should follow expert advice for any major dietary change.

The best place to start is by reading our vegan nutrition guide, written by Virginia Messina MPH, RD. Messina is arguably the top expert in the field of vegan nutrition. She has cowritten or reviewed several of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ landmark reviews assessing the healthfulness of vegetarian and vegan diets.

Vegan Protein Sources

Despite their many faults, meat, milk and eggs are undeniably rich in protein. If you rid your diet of these foods, you should add back comparably rich vegan protein sources.

Happily, you can easily get plenty of protein on a vegan diet. Tofu, beans, nuts, and soy milk are all fantastic sources of protein. Our vegan protein guide offers all the details.

You won’t automatically get sufficient protein on a vegan diet. But once you learn how much you need, and identify the richest protein sources, you can probably meet your needs with practically no effort.

Vegan Vitamins

When it comes to vitamins of interest to vegans, vitamin B-12 gets most of the attention. And that’s probably the best place to start, since most vegan foods contain absolutely no B-12. Even vegan foods that are B-12 fortified are unlikely to contain  amounts sufficient to reliably meet your needs.

Luckily, it’s both cheap and easy to get plenty of B-12. Our Vitamin B-12 page has all the details.

Vitamin D deserves nearly as much attention from vegans as B-12. Many people get most of their Vitamin D from dairy products. And while many vegan milk products are Vitamin D fortified, the FDA doesn’t even allow the substantial amounts that it requires for cows’ milk. So if your main source of Vitamin D is cows’ milk, and you replace it with soy milk, your Vitamin D status could easily drop from excellent to inadequate.

As with B-12, vegan Vitamin D supplements are both cheap and easy to find. Most vegans should consider taking a near-daily Vitamin D supplement.

Other nutrients especially worthy of attention are calcium, iodine, and iron. Just like omnivores, vegans can easily come up short on any of these. Please see our vitamins guide for details on how to meet your needs for these nutrients.

Vegan Fitness

For years, conventional wisdom had it that vegans faced overwhelming disadvantages when it came to athletic achievement. The notion that top athletes could follow a vegan diet seemed absurd.

But today, pros from all the leading sports follow vegan and near-vegan diets. So if you fear that a vegan diet will inhibit your ability to compete, take it up with Cade Cunningham, David Haye, or Cam Newton. Six time Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton is among the world’s most prominent vegans. And Novak Djokovic, ranked as the #1 men’s tennis player worldwide for more than 300 weeks, likewise follows a near-vegan diet.

Among women, tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams have long eaten plant-based and often exclusively vegan. Champion surfer Tia Blanco was raised vegetarian and now follows a vegan diet.

At the extreme ends of athleticism, some of the most accomplished athletes likewise eat vegan. These include ultramarathoners Rich Roll and Scott Jurek. Strongman Patrik Baboumian racked up a shockingly impressive set of achievements as a vegan. And here’s a collection of top vegan bodybuilders who’ll put any remaining stereotypes about vegans to rest.

If a vegan diet can support athletes who compete at this level, surely it can accommodate your physical fitness needs. Our lazy person’s vegan fitness guide will show you how easy it is to avoid a sedentary lifestyle. From there, you’ll be ready to move on to whatever level of fitness you wish to achieve.

Weight Loss

Some new vegans report that their dietary change melts the flab right off. Others assert that the switch brought about no body weight reductions at all. That’s only to be expected given the enormous metabolic variations from one person to the next.

Add to this the fact that not all vegan diets are equally healthy. For some people, going vegan instantly jettisons some incredibly unhealthy foods and replaces them with more sensible choices. For others, upgrades in dietary healthfulness are relatively small.

All that said, a switch to a vegan diet can certainly be done in a way that helps you achieve a healthier body weight. Our vegan weight loss page offers a sensible approach.

Vegan Gluten-Free Products

For most people, gluten is a healthy protein. Found in wheat and most other grains, it’s present in a great many vegan foods. Unless you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, or have evidence that you’re otherwise gluten-intolerant, there’s no good reason to avoid gluten.

However, if you do need to avoid gluten, you can certainly eat a varied and delicious vegan diet. There are all sorts of gluten free vegan cookbooks and food products on the market. Discover the best by visiting our gluten-free guide.

Vegan Pregnancy

If there’s ever a time to take nutrition seriously, it’s during pregnancy and nursing. Back in the bad old days, women were warned against becoming pregnant while vegetarian or vegan. But today the science is clear that a well-planned vegan diet offers everything needed to carry a healthy baby to term.

Anyone planning a pregnancy, whether vegan or not, needs to pay close attention to nutrition. Our vegan pregnancy guide was written by one of the world’s leading experts on vegan pregnancy, Reed Mangels, PhD, RD.

Steps Toward Healthy Vegan Eating

Nothing induces humility like digging into topics related to health and nutrition. The more you study these fields, the more you see how uncertain we are regarding even the most basic questions.

What we know for sure is that people can do remarkably well on a vegan diet, achieving excellence in athletics and thriving to old age. So let’s conclude with some key observations:

  • Reading up on nutrition is crucial for anybody changing their diet. It’s certainly possible for a poorly-planned vegan diet to pull your health in the wrong direction.
  • Beans and vegetables are two of the healthiest foods in existence, so it makes sense to learn how to prepare these foods in a variety of delicious ways.
  • Try to eat more of your foods in whole, minimally processed form. That means choosing whole grain breads instead of white, and fruits rather than sugar.
  • Take your B-12, and probably Vitamin D too. See our vitamins guide to identify any other gaps in your nutrient needs.
  • Even perfect nutrition won’t give you good health if you’re sedentary. So get off the sofa and find some physical activity you enjoy!

Remember that health is just one of many reasons to go vegan, and it’s not even close to being the most powerful argument. A plant-based diet protects huge numbers of animals and can markedly reduce your environmental footprint. Even if you don’t  go entirely vegan, the benefits of regularly trying new vegan foods are immense.

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vegan nutrition

Vegan Nutrition Guide

Just a little reading about nutrition can prevent serious problems down the road. Ensure all your bases are covered by reading our vegan nutrition primer by Virginia Messina, MPH RD.

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Of all the nutrients that vegans must pay attention to, Vitamin B12 is at the very top of the list.

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Plenty of vegan foods are excellent sources of protein. The satisfying vegan foods featured here will enable you to easily get all the protein your body needs.

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