Last Updated: December 15, 2020 | Dr. Ana Coito, PhD, CAS
Vegan and plant-based diets have become increasingly popular around the world for their health, moral and environmental benefits. In the typical vegan and plant-based diet, all forms of animal products are eliminated, including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and honey.
Based on studies commissioned by the global EAT-Lancet Commission, vegan and vegetarian diets are one of the most, if not the most, environmentally sustainable diets due to their positive effects on land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water consumption. (1)
Plant-based diets can also be very nutritious and hold many health benefits. A universally healthy diet includes adequate consumption of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, all of which are staples of a healthy vegan diet. While following a plant-based diet can yield many benefits, it is very important to understand how to build a well-planned vegan diet that includes the right mix of nutrients to get the most out of this great diet.
In the sections below, I will walk you through some of the science-based benefits of the vegan diet, and then important guidelines to consider as you begin your path towards a healthy vegan diet.
Science-Based Benefits of the Vegan Diet
People who follow vegan diets tend to have lower body mass indexes (BMI) than people on other diets. Research has also shown that vegan diets are more effective for weight loss than other diets (2). As animal products are generally high in calories, replacing them with low calorie plant-based foods can help people manage their weight. However, I want to note that eating processed, plant-based foods with sugar, refined flours (hello wheat pasta and bread), hydrogenated oils, etc. can also lead to weight gain. This might explain why some people who follow a vegan diet still have trouble managing their weight.
What is interesting is that there are also studies that show a vegan diet may help weight loss by boosting metabolism, in addition to lower calorie consumption. A study published in 2015 found that healthy vegetable fats can increase energy expenditure at rest (3). This means that a vegan or plant-based diet may help your body burn more calories while during the entire day, making it easier for you to manage your weight.
Studies have shown that plant-based diets lower blood pressure (4), which is a major risk factor for heart disease. In fact, a large study published in 2019 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that a higher intake of plant-based foods and lower intake of animal foods was associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and death in adults (5).
3.Blood Sugar Levels and Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
A vegan diet can lead to lower blood sugar levels, insulin resistance and risk of developing type 2 diabetes (6, 7). In 2019, a large review including 307,099 participants from 9 different studies found that a vegan diet including healthy plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts) can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and may be beneficial for the primary prevention of type 2 diabetes (8).
4.Plant-Based Diets and Cancer Prevention
Several studies have found that vegan diets are associated with a lower risk of cancer (9-11). This may be because vegans tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, which contain fiber, antioxidants and other phytonutrients, that have been shown to be protective against cancer (12). A vegan diet also promotes a healthy weight, which has been shown to result in lower risk of cancer. Lastly, the vegan diet eliminates all animal-based products, including red and processed meats, which many studies have found to increase the risks for several types of cancer.
5.Reduce Symptoms of Inflammatory Diseases
Vegan diets based on whole foods that are rich in probiotics and free of gluten have been shown in several studies to reduce the symptoms of different types of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (13-15).
Guidelines For a Healthy Vegan Diet
There is more to a healthy vegan diet than simply eschewing animal products. Below are some important tips and guidelines to consider in a healthy vegan diet.
Following a vegan diet takes planning and more careful attention to ensure all nutrient requirements are met. Take a moment every week to plan your healthy vegan meals and snacks.
2.Important Food Categories
A healthy vegan diet should regularly include one or more foods from each of several important food categories.
If you have a sweet tooth, consider healthy sweet options such as dried fruits, e.g., dates, figs, raisins, and apricots.
3.Foods to avoid
4.Important Nutrients and Vitamins
Most people consume their daily value of vitamin B12 from animal products. Vitamin B12 is a critical vitamin involved in DNA repair, brain health, among other body functions. Thus, for people on a vegan diet, it is crucial that you consume enough vitamin B12, and you should make it a point to ensure you are getting your daily value.
To make sure your body is getting enough vitamin B12, take a vitamin B12 supplement daily or consume fortified foods.
The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) is 0.8g of protein per kg (0.36g per pound) of body weight. Said differently, for every 100lbs of body weight, you will need to consume at least 36g of protein per day. On a vegan diet, getting all the protein and essential amino acids is more challenging than in an omnivorous or even vegetarian diet.
To ensure that you are consuming enough protein in a vegan diet, include a source of legumes, whole grains, nuts and/or seeds (see the list above) in each meal. Legumes typically contain the highest amount of protein, so I recommend including legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas, soy) in each meal over other protein sources. Apart from soy, however, legumes are not “complete proteins”, meaning they do not contain all essential amino acids. Whole grains, like rice, spelt or millet, contain the other amino acids that legumes lack, so a healthy vegan diet should include a combination of both legume and whole grains. Legumes and the whole grains do not need to be consumed in the same meal, but you should try to consume servings of both every day.
Omega-3 (DHA and EPA)
If you are eating a healthy vegan diet that includes nuts and seeds, you are likely getting plenty of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3. However, our bodies also need two other types of omega-3, DHA and EPA, which are present in oily fish and certain algae. DHA is crucial for brain health and EPA for counteracting inflammation.
While ALA omega-3 can be converted to EPA and DHA, the conversation rate is in general very low. Therefore, it is important to include a good source of both EPA and DHA in a vegan diet. A good quality algal oil is a great option.
Iron, calcium, and zinc
Iron, zinc, and calcium are minerals that are more difficult to get in a vegan diet.
Plant foods rich in iron, calcium and zinc are legumes, seeds, nuts, whole grains, and dark green vegetables. However, these foods also contain phytic acid which inhibits the absorption of these minerals. One option to enhance their bioavailability is to sprout or ferment these foods (16).
Avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals, as these drinks may block the absorption of these minerals.
Combine iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C for enhanced iron absorption.
Another option is to consume fortified foods. There are many plant-based milks fortified with calcium (just try to avoid milks that contain added sugar or artificial additives).
Vitamin D deficiency is common worldwide, but a vegan diet can make you more susceptible. In the summer, try to expose your body to the sun during noon hours (when the UVB are the strongest). In the winter, the UVB rays are not strong enough, and thus, a vitamin D3 supplement should be taken.
Because the daily value of iodine is typically consumed from fish and seafood, vegan diets tend to be deficient in iodine. However, some seaweed, such as nori and kelp, also contain a large amount of iodine. Thus, making sure you include some iodine-rich algae in your daily diet. You can, for example, sprinkle a teaspoon of nori flakes over your salad or soup. Always check on the package for the recommended daily dose, as consuming too much seaweed, and thus iodine, is not desirable either.
5.Listen to Your Body
If you are not feeling well (e.g., body aches, headaches, weight gain, weight loss, bloat, tiredness, etc.), make sure you are not missing any of the major food groups or other critical nutrients in your diet. It is even more important to carefully observe how your body reacting if you are just beginning your transition to a vegan or plant-based diet. If your body continues to react negatively, you should consult a doctor or nutritionist for assistance.
How To Get Started
Hopefully, I haven’t scared you away yet! The truth is, while a vegan diet can be incredibly healthy and rewarding, it also takes more preparation and thoughtfulness than a traditional diet. Whether you are a practicing vegan or someone looking to embark upon the journey, you should carefully review the guidelines above to ensure that you are getting the most out of your diet.
If you are beginning your transition to a vegan diet, there is nothing wrong with easing your way in. In fact, I view this as both a safer and more successful approach. During this transition, you should stay attuned to the way your body is reacting to your diet change and adjust accordingly.
Researching and cooking vegan meals that meet all the dietary guidelines above can be difficult to master. There are plenty of great forums and resources dedicated to plant-based diets. Meal prep plans are a great, beginner-friendly way to ease into a vegan diet; for experienced vegans, these plans may help break the monotony of your go-to recipes. If you decide to go that route, I will strongly recommend plans like Green Chef which are designed with vegans in mind. These plans tend to build the nutrient profiles of their meal plans without relying on other non-vegan meals to balance out any missing nutrients.
The vegan diet can be very healthy, when guidelines are followed correctly.
Stay away from fast-food, highly processed vegan options. Instead, base your diet on nutrient-rich whole plant foods. These have been shown to induce healthy weight, protect the heart, prevent type 2 diabetes, prevent cancer, and improve inflammatory conditions.
Remember to pay special attention to certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, protein, omega-3, iron, zinc, calcium, and iodine.
Listen to your body. If you experience negative reactions, consult with a nutritionist or doctor.