Top 10 health benefits of a vegan diet
With vegan diets increasing in popularity, registered nutritionist Kerry Torrens explores more about this switching to a plant-based lifestyle
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What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is a plant-based diet that includes vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and fruits. Vegans do not eat foods that come from animals, including meat and meat-derived products like gelatine and rennet, as well as fish, shellfish, dairy, eggs and foods containing them. Vegans also avoid honey.
Whether you're a long-term vegan or just starting out, obtaining a balanced vegan diet is achievable with the right planning and a little know-how.
So, is eating vegan good for you? Here are the top 10 benefits of a vegan diet:
- may support weight management
- may be heart-healthy
- may lower blood pressure and cholesterol
- may support blood sugar control
- may reduce the risk of diabetes complications
- may reduce the risk of certain cancers
- may be beneficial for gut health
- may be anti-inflammatory
- may support healthy skin
- can be a very nutritious way of eating
Top 10 health benefits of a vegan diet
1. May support weight loss
For some, the incentive to lose a few pounds is motivation enough to turn to a plant-based diet. A US study comparing the nutritional quality of a number of diets showed a balanced vegan diet has the lowest total energy intake, a better fat profile and the highest dietary fibre levels, when compared to omnivore and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets. A greater fibre intake means meals are more satiating, making you less likely to snack and potentially better connects you with your hunger signals.
Other studies support the fact that, in general, vegans tend to be thinner and have a lower body mass index (BMI). In one study, over an 18 week period, a low-fat vegan diet helped participants lose 4.2kg more than those on a control diet. An added benefit is that a vegan diet is naturally lower in calories making calorie counting and portion control unnecessary.
2. May support heart health
3. May lower blood pressure and cholesterol
Male vegans appear to enjoy even greater cardiovascular benefits, with notable reductions in a number of cardiac risk factors.
4. May support blood sugar balance
Following a wholefood vegan diet may help those with blood sugar disturbances. People who adopt a vegan diet tend to have higher insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels and as a result a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This is, in part, down to the fact that, by its very nature, a wholefood vegan diet tends to supply plenty of lower glycaemic index (GI) foods which are rich in dietary fibre.
Including wholegrains in the diet helps stabilise blood sugar because the wholegrain helps slow digestion, acting as a physical barrier. On the other hand, refined grains (typically white versions of bread, pasta, rice) and even ‘wholemeal’ products, have been ground or processed, which makes digestion faster and the release of their carb content more rapid. If you want to achieve the blood sugar benefits of a vegan diet, ensure you include plenty of wholegrains in your meals.
5. May reduce the risk of diabetes complications
Vegan diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and higher in protective phyto-nutrients from fruit and vegetables, all of which makes the diet compatible with current dietary guidelines for those with diabetes. However, if you've been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and/or are on medication, speak to your GP or dietitian before making significant changes to your eating habits.
6. May reduce the risk of certain cancers
Reported cancer cases are expected to climb over the next few decades with this increase thought to be, in part, driven by lifestyle factors including obesity, inactivity and diet. Eating more plant-based foods including legumes, fruit and vegetables and cutting your intake of smoked or processed red meats has been shown to reduce cancer risk.
7. May be beneficial for gut health
Your gut microbiome refers to the community of microbes (bacteria, yeast and viruses) that live in your digestive tract. Our understanding of this important microbial community is advancing and we now know that it influences how we think, feel and how healthy we are. Research suggests that by changing the foods we eat, we can very quickly and successfully change our gut microbiome for the better.
Studies show that by eating a varied plant-based diet we can make positive and rapid changes to our gut microbiome, encouraging the beneficial microbes to flourish and increasing the different types of microbes that live there. This is because by eating plenty of plant-based foods which supply different fibres, we feed our gut bacteria allowing them to flourish and increase in number.
The more varied your diet, the more diverse the microbiome, the more adaptable it becomes to fighting disease – this is important because a loss in species diversity is associated with a number of disease outcomes.
8. May be anti-inflammatory
A diet rich in antioxidant-rich whole foods including a varied and plentiful supply of fruit and vegetables combined with fewer trigger foods may decrease inflammatory reactions such as those seen in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
9. May support healthy skin
Epidemiological studies have associated higher intakes of the foods typically found in a vegan diet, such as fruits and vegetables, with positive skin health. These foods are rich in plant defence chemicals called polyphenols as well as key skin-supporting nutrients such as vitamins C and E. Further benefits for skin conditions may be relevant, this includes for acne, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis, as well as skin ageing.
10. High scoring for nutritional quality
Wholefood vegan diets, which include fortified foods, are associated with better health because they are high in dietary fibre, include a plentiful supply of food sources rich in folate, vitamins C and E and the minerals, potassium and magnesium.
The high fruit and veg intake, low levels of sodium (salt) and saturated fat all mean vegan diets tend to score highly in the healthy stakes.
Should I go vegan?
Whether a vegan diet is appropriate for you will depend on your own personal circumstances and your unique genetic profile. With good planning and an understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegan diet, most of us can get all the nutrients we need. An appropriately planned vegan diet offers a number of health benefits but make sure you include key nutrients such as vitamins B12 and D, the bone-building mineral calcium, as well as iron, zinc and long chain omega-3 fatty acids.
If you fail to plan your diet properly or you have a genetic profile that may restrict your absorption of key nutrients, then you are at increased risk of missing out on some essential nutrients.
Interested in adopting more plant-based meals in your diet? Check out our collection of delicious vegan recipes.
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This article was reviewed on 20 June 2023 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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