Once the sole province of hippies, the vegan diet has become increasingly popular and increasingly mainstream over the last decade or so. No wonder, given the increased exposure it has received, such as the high-profile documentary What the Health, which claimed going vegan can help you lose weight, improve your heart health, and even decrease your risk of developing cancer.
In addition to hoping to improve health by following a vegan diet, many people decided to abstain from consuming animal products for ethical or environmental reasons.
Whatever your reason for choosing to follow a vegan diet, it's important to be aware that eating exclusively plant food can put you at increased risk of certain nutritional deficiencies. Even if you've looked into the best sources of vegan protein, you may not be taking in all the essential amino acids that your body needs. To ensure you get a steady supply of essential amino acids in the proper ratios for optimal health, you'll need to eat a variety of vegan protein sources or round out your intake with a high-quality supplement.
Read on to learn the basic tenets of veganism, seven health benefits associated with the vegan diet, and how to avoid nutrient deficiencies while abstaining from all types of animal proteins and other animal-derived foods.
According to search data from Google Trends, worldwide interest in veganism has increased dramatically between 2004 and 2019. It seems that interest may be far from peaking, too. In 2014, a mere 1% of Americans identified themselves as vegans, but by 2017, that number had shot up to 6%, per a report from GlobalData.
While a number of different dietary approaches have been collected under the umbrella of veganism, a simple definition provided by the Vegan Society, one of the most established organizations devoted to this lifestyle, goes as follows: "a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose."
A central component of veganism is eating a diet devoid of all animal foods as well as foods derived from animals. This includes not only meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy, but also honey and other products made by bees as well as products made using animal-based ingredients such as gelatin.
7 Health Benefits of a Vegan Diet
Proponents of a vegan diet often reference the many health benefits associated with this eating approach. And, indeed, studies have shown that eating a vegan diet can be an effective way to lose weight, balance blood sugar levels, safeguard the health of your heart, and even lower your risk of cancer, among other compelling benefits.
It's important to note, however, that the majority of the studies demonstrating these benefits are observational. Because so many factors influence our health, that makes it challenging to ascertain whether the observed benefits stem from the vegan diet alone or in conjunction with other elements of a person's overall lifestyle.
In order for researchers to make more definitive statements about the health benefits of a vegan diet, they will need to conduct randomized, controlled studies. That said, existing evidence indicates that if you go vegan, you may experience the following seven health benefits.
1. Facilitation of Healthy Weight Loss
According to an observational study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vegans tend to be thinner than both vegetarians and omnivores. One proposed reason for this is that vegans eat less saturated fat as well as more dietary fiber. It's also possible that the correlation between vegan meals and a lower body mass index (BMI) can be explained (at least in part) by healthier lifestyle choices like more physical activity.
Encouragingly, data from several randomized, controlled studies indicates that eating a vegan diet does facilitate weight loss more effectively than a variety of other diets. These studies controlled for the kind of external factors, like physical activity, mentioned above.
A 6-month, 5-arm, randomized controlled trial looked at the effects of different types of low-fat, low-glycemic index diets: "vegan, vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, or omnivorous." None of the five diets emphasized caloric restriction. The authors concluded that "vegan diets may result in greater weight loss" than the other four.
When compared to a conventional low-fat diet, a low-fat vegan diet also showed more significant weight loss, according to a study published in Preventative Medicine. Yet another study evaluated the weight-loss benefits of a plant-based vegan diet, a no-added-fat diet, and the American Heart Association (AHA) diet and found that following a plant-based diet led to beneficial changes to body mass index, mid-arm circumference, and waist circumference.
And findings published in Obesity, a peer-reviewed journal, assessed how a vegan diet compared to the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) diet on weight loss as well as weight-loss maintenance. Individuals in the vegan group lost more weight than those in the NCEP group at both the 1-year and 2-year mark.
Even when compared to a low-calorie diet, a vegan diet was discovered to result in significantly more weight loss, per the results of a randomized study published in Nutrition Research. One possibility for why that might be is that a vegan diet leads to a higher dietary fiber intake, which can help you feel naturally fuller and unconsciously eat fewer calories.
2. Stabilized Blood Sugar Levels
A growing pile of research indicates that following a vegan diet can help stabilize blood sugar levels. This can be particularly crucial for those with an elevated risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
According to a study published in Diabetes Care, the journal of the American Diabetic Association, "Prevalence of type 2 diabetes increased from 2.9% in vegans to 7.6% in nonvegetarians."
A separate study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that vegans have higher insulin sensitivity and lower rates of diseases associated with insulin resistance than omnivores do. The authors of the study matched participants with control subjects based on race, age, sex, body mass index, physical activity, and energy intake. They found that vegans had "significantly higher glucose disposal" than control subjects did.
Based on the results of a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, following a vegan diet can lead to significant changes to Hb A1c, a measurement of the glycosylation of hemoglobin which can be used to give an average of blood sugar levels over the last 3 months. Participants adhering to a vegan diet saw average changes to Hb A1c of about -0.40 compared to 0.01 for the conventional diet.
3. Decreased Risk of High Blood Pressure and Heart Disease
Solid evidence shows that individuals who eat a vegan diet have significantly lower risks of developing both high blood pressure and heart disease—75% and 42% respectively, according to observational studies published in Nutrients and the Permanente Journal.
These findings are bolstered by those of randomized, controlled studies showing significant reductions to both low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol as well as total cholesterol.
According to a multicenter, randomized, controlled study conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, following a vegan diet can lead to beneficial changes in terms of mean body weight, Hb A1c, and both LDL and total cholesterol. Total and LDL cholesterol fell by 13.7 and 13.0 mg/dl for participants who ate a vegan diet compared to a mere 1.3 and 1.7 mg/dl for participants in the control group.
Furthermore, a systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Heart Association examined the effect of a vegan diet on blood lipid concentrations, meaning total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and triglycerides. The meta-analysis showed that vegan diets produce significantly lowered blood concentrations of total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and non-high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. The authors concluded that a vegan diet could be "a useful nonpharmaceutical means of managing dyslipidemia, especially hypercholesterolemia."
4. Reduced Symptoms of Arthritis
Compelling evidence indicates that eating a vegan diet can result in meaningful reductions to distressing arthritis symptoms such as joint pain, swelling, and stiffness.
Researchers from the Department of Internal Medicine at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine set out to evaluate the effectiveness of a whole foods, plant-based vegan diet on symptoms of osteoarthritis. The results of the randomized study showed that eating a vegan diet can result in significant improvements to energy levels and physical functioning.
Plus, a study published in the British Journal of Rheumatology found that eating a vegan diet (specifically, a raw vegan diet) produced impressive results on rheumatic symptoms both on subjective measures as well as disease activity measures.
5. Improved Kidney Function
Some research points to replacing animal proteins with plant-based proteins as a means of improving kidney function.
A study published in the Journal of Renal Nutrition looked at how plant-based protein consumption influences kidney-related biomarkers. The authors found eating plant-based protein lead to significant reductions to urinary urea nitrogen, proteinuria, blood sodium, and serum phosphorus compared with eating animal protein. A separate study published in Diabetes Care yielded similar results.
This may be, according to researchers at the University of Kentucky, because substituting plant-based protein for animal protein "results in less hyperfiltration and glomerular hypertension with resulting protection from diabetic nephropathy." Research so far has concentrated on soy protein, which contains specific peptides, amino acids, and isoflavones thought to be beneficial for kidney function.
6. Lower Odds of Developing Alzheimer's Disease
Though no randomized, controlled trials have been conducted to date, observational studies have revealed the possibility that eating a vegan diet may lower a person's odds of developing Alzheimer's disease.
One of the first studies to look for a connection between animal product consumption and dementia was published in Neuroepidemiology in 1993. The authors matched participants based on age, sex, and zip code. They found that matched subjects who ate meat (including poultry and fish) were more than twice as likely to develop dementia as their vegetarian counterparts.
A more recent article published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2016 pulled from relevant journal literature as well as the results of a ecological study using Alzheimer's disease prevalence from 10 countries (Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Egypt, India, Mongolia, Nigeria, Republic of Korea, Sri Lanka, and the United States) along with dietary supply data from 5, 10, and 15 years before the prevalence data. The authors found that animal products received 5 years before had the strongest correlations with increased prevalence of Alzheimer's. They concluded: "Reducing meat consumption could significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease."
7. Lessened Chance of Developing or Dying from Cancer
Though more research must be done before firm conclusions can be drawn, a 2017 systematic review with meta-analysis of nearly 100 studies examining how following a vegan diet influences a person's overall risk of several potentially fatal diseases, including cancer, turned up highly encouraging results.
The analysis showed "a significant reduced risk of incidence" for all kinds of cancer— a 15% lower risk.
Avoiding Nutrient Deficiencies on a Vegan Diet
Those who choose to follow a vegan diet often face questions about potential nutrient deficiencies, many of which center on the assumption that there are few good sources of protein available to vegans. The truth is, whether or not you eat animal products, your health will suffer if you over-consume processed foods and under-consume nutritious whole foods. And anyone who cuts entire food groups out of their diet does have an elevated risk of nutrient deficiencies.
Researchers have found that vegans are most likely to have inadequate blood levels of the following seven nutrients:
While it's certainly possible to eat enough protein purely in the form of plant protein, vegans do need to put some thought into the amino acid balance of the proteins they consume (more on that in a later section).
In order to avoid developing a nutrient deficiency, those trying a vegan diet should take care to eat processed vegan foods, including meat substitutes, in moderation and to prioritize nutrient-rich plant foods.
There are also certain tactics you can take to increase your body's absorption of key nutrients. For example, eating iron-rich foods in combination with foods high in vitamin C can boost your body's iron absorption, as can cooking with cast iron pans and not drinking tea or coffee with meals. Plus, fermenting and sprouting foods enhances absorption of both iron and zinc.
An adequate intake of longer-chain omega-3s like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can be particularly challenging. Some evidence indicates that consuming foods high in a different type of omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), can help the body produce EPA and DHA. It's unclear, however, whether that conversion will always suffice to meet your body's needs. For that reason, it can be advisable to take a vegan algae oil supplement containing EPA and DHA.
The Truth About Vegan Protein Sources
When discussing vegan protein sources, it's crucial to delve into the question of complete protein sources. A protein source described as complete contains all nine essential amino acids in properly balanced ratios. All animal proteins are complete proteins, but the same can't be said of all plant proteins. Here are five excellent vegan protein options loaded with amino acids.
There's a reason so many researchers chose soy when investigating the benefits of plant-based protein. Soy provides all the essential amino acids in a reasonably good profile. A cup of soybeans contains 28 grams of protein while a 3-ounce serving of tofu has 6.2 grams of proteins.
Another wonderful source of plant-based protein, this ancient pseudocereal has a comparable amino acid profile to soy. A cup of quinoa provides 8.3 grams of protein.
While lentils are debatably a complete protein, the same can't be said for black beans and other types of legumes. They are high-quality protein sources, however. A cup of beans contains, on average, between 15 and 17 grams of protein.
Nuts also fall short on essential amino acids while providing plenty of protein. An ounce of nuts delivers an average of 4 to 9 grams of protein.
5. Fruits and Vegetables
Fruit and vegetables occupy a central part of a vegan diet, so it’s important to know that some of them can provide more vegan amino acids than others. Plums, raspberries, papaya, grapes, pineapples, apples, oranges, melons, and pomegranates are the best protein-rich fruits you can eat. Among vegetables you have cucumbers, radishes, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, turnips, and spinach. While these foods contain proteins, the proportion of the food source as protein is low.
How to Combine Plant-Based Proteins for Optimal Nutrition
Combining proteins is a good way to nourish your body with essential amino acids, but there are specific rules to follow.
In order to take in all nine essential amino acids in the appropriate profile to fully stimulate protein synthesis, the complementary proteins must be eaten at the same time so that levels of all amino acids rise simultaneously.
The proteins must also have truly complementary profiles of essential amino acids to be effective. Unfortunately, most plant-based proteins are limited by the availability of lysine, and finding combinations that truly allow for a complete spectrum of essential amino acids to be ingested at the same time can be challenging. Luckily, there are alternatives to make sure you don’t miss those essential amino acids that are so important for virtually every biological process in your body.
How Essential Amino Acids Support Optimal Vegan Health
Many vegans can benefit from incorporating an essential amino acid supplement (vegan, of course) into their diet. Adding an essential amino acid supplement to a vegan diet will significantly improve the ratio of essential amino acids to nonessential amino acids.
The best amino acid supplement maintains an optimal balance of essential amino acids in the blood to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and reduce muscle protein breakdown. To maximize the the physiological effectiveness of the dietary protein intake, be sure to take your essential amino acid supplement with your meals. Dosages will depend on how far short your diet falls of the goal intake of high-quality protein.