In my dietary practice I see more and more people who have switched to veganism for various reasons, including religious and ethical considerations, environmental impact, and health benefits. It seems that pretty much everybody knows that eating plants is healthy. But “healthy” is a very general word. In this article we will have a look at the aspects of health, and how vegan diets influence them.
A plant-based diet is an adequate food strategy
Just three decades ago, most nutrition experts were sceptical of the vegan diet. Recently, however, they have changed their view and consider veganism to be an adequate food strategy. This is the result of many studies on vegetarian and vegan diets over the past 30 years.
The World Health Organization currently recommends the following:
“Eat a nutritious diet based on a variety of foods that come primarily from plants, not animals.”
The official positions of national associations of dietitians today are also unequivocally positive about vegetarian diets. For example, here’s what the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states:
“Well-planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthy, complete, and can prevent and treat some diseases. These diets are suitable for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. These diets are also suitable for athletes.”
The benefits of vegan diets
- Reduced risk of being overweight and obese
People on a vegan/vegetarian diet generally have a healthier weight than omnivores (people who eat everything). This is due to the significantly higher amount of fiber in the diet of vegetarians. Fiber makes you full faster. As a result, you become saturated and do not overeat.
People who eat primarily plant-based foods, tend to make healthier choices than people who eat everything. For example, they exercise regularly, do not smoke and hardly drink alcohol.
- Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
A very large-scale systematic study (2017) concludes that a vegetarian diet based on plant foods is most beneficial for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes (DM2). Type 2 diabetes is also known as a lifestyle disease. As with type 1 diabetes, DM2 involves a disruption of insulin metabolism. But this disruption is due to wrong eating patterns and being overweight, and not to a wrong immune response of your body. DM type 2 is therefore theoretically reversible.
- Improves blood lipids, including cholesterol
Plant-based diets effectively lower blood levels of unwanted lipids (fat particles) in the blood, of which cholesterol is probably the most well-known (here we talk primarily about total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol). Therefore, scientists say such diets are a useful non-pharmaceutical means of preventing dyslipidaemia, particularly hypercholesterolemia.
4. Reduces risk of high blood pressure
People on plant-based diets have a much smaller risk of hypertension (high blood pressure). This is not surprising at all, because, in addition to being overweight, a diet high in saturated fats is the culprit in terms of high blood pressure. Saturated fats are bad for your health. And they are mainly found in animal products, such as dairy and fatty meats.
- Reduces risk of heart disease
People who eat (mainly) plant-based foods have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. This makes perfect sense. Being overweight, having high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes (so everything described above) – are all factors that increase the risk of heart disease.
- Reduces risk of certain cancers
Vegans are 15% less likely to get cancer.
There is also strong evidence that eating foods containing dietary fiber protects you against colon cancer, while eating red meat and processed meat actually increases the risk of colon cancer.
- It’s better for the environment
Out health depends straightworward on the health of our planet.
Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than animal-based diets because they use fewer natural resources and cause much less environmental damage.
The production of different foods can have very different environmental impacts. There is a wide variation in the ecological footprint of animal products, with meat from ruminants being more harmful to the environment than other products such as white meat or eggs. The environmental degradation, due to the emission of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and the use of the earth’s resources, such as water and land, is significantly lower in the production of plant-based food than that of animal-based foods. How much lower is difficult to calculate because, as already mentioned, different foods (both animal and plant) have different environmental effects. It is estimated that vegan diets are at least 50% less harmful to the environment.
A “nice” example. To produce the same amount of protein from tofu (soybeans) compared to beef protein:
- eight times less water is needed,
- greenhouse gas emissions are 25 times lower,
- 74 times less land is needed.
In an ideal world, we would all be vegans. But we’re not there yet. As you might know, I’m a big supporter of a vegan diet, but I also know that it’s a step too far for most people. My belief is therefore not that we should all stop eating animal foods. But I am convinced that everyone can try to eat significantly less animal-derived foods. If you are not a vegan yet, you might want to set a goal for yourself. For instance, start eating vegan food just one day per week. Substituting just one meat-based dish with a vegan dish has an enormous environmental and health impact. If you are looking for inspiration, scroll through the Recipes page or download a vegan meal plan.