A vegan or plant-based diet excludes all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. When people follow it correctly, a vegan diet can be highly nutritious, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and aid weight loss.
Increasing numbers of people are moving toward vegan diets due to health, animal welfare, or environmental concerns. A 2018 Gallup poll reports that about 3% of people in the United States are fully vegan and notes that sales of plant-based foods are rising.
Vegan diets tend to be rich in nutrients and low in saturated fats. Research suggests that the diet can improve heart health, protect against cancer, and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
However, people eating only plant-based foods need to be more aware of how to obtain certain nutrients, including iron, calcium, and vitamin B-12, that usually come from an omnivorous diet.
In this article, we take a close look at the vegan diet, including its health benefits and risks, as well as important things to consider before trying it out. We also provide recipe ideas and tips for following a vegan diet.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet involves eating only foods comprising plants. Those who follow this diet avoid all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. Some people also avoid eating honey. For some, being vegan is a dietary choice, while for others, it is a lifestyle choice.
People who choose to live a vegan lifestyle may also avoid clothes, soaps, and other products that use or contain parts of animals, such as leather and animal fur. Some adopt this lifestyle for its environmental benefits as a sustainable diet.
Vegan diets tend to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds. Eating a variety of these foods will provide a wide range of important vitamins, minerals, healthful fats, and protein.
People following this diet should, however, take care to get key nutrients that people usually consume in animal products. These nutrients include iron, protein, calcium, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D.
Vegan vs. vegetarian
The main difference between vegetarians and vegans is that although vegetarians do not eat meat (including cows, pigs, chicken, and fish), they consume dairy products, eggs, or both. The vegan diet excludes all products with animal-based ingredients.
The vegan diet is more restrictive, so people will need to think more about where their nutrients are coming from to ensure that they meet their daily dietary requirements.
Vegan diets can provide all of the nutrients that a person needs, and they can eliminate some of the possible risks that research has associated with harmful animal fats. Research has linked the vegan diet with a range of health benefits, including those below.
Better heart health
Vegan diets can boost heart health in several ways.
Animal products — including meat, cheese, and butter — are the main dietary sources of saturated fats. According to the American Heart Association (AHA)Trusted Source, eating foods that contain these fats raises cholesterol levels. High levels of cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Plant foods are also high in fiber, which the AHATrusted Source link with better heart health. Animal products contain very little or no fiber, while plant-based vegetables and grains are the best sources.
In addition, people on a vegan diet often take in fewer calories than those on a standard Western diet. A moderate calorie intake can lead to a lower body mass index (BMI) and a reduced risk of obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease.
Lower cancer risk
According to a 2017 review, eating a vegan diet may reduce a person’s risk of cancer by 15%. This health benefit may be due to the fact that plant foods are high in fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals — biologically active compounds in plants — that protect against cancers.
Research into the effects of diet on the risk of specific cancers has produced mixed results.
However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer report that red meat is “probably carcinogenic,” noting that research has linked it primarily to colorectal cancer but also to prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer.
The agency also report that processed meat is carcinogenic and may cause colorectal cancer.
Eliminating red and processed meats from the diet removes these possible risks.
People on a vegan diet tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those following other diets.
The researchers behind a 2015 study reported that vegan diets were more effective for weight loss than omnivorous, semi-vegetarian, and pesco-vegetarian diets, as well as being better for providing macronutrients.
Many animal foods are high in fat and calories, so replacing these with low calorie plant-based foods can help people manage their weight.