Has veganism gone mainstream? Fast food restaurants now have vegan burgers on the menu, and businesses are making big bucks from selling vegan alternatives. In 2016, Europe was the largest market in the world for meat substitutes, with Germany the global leader in terms of vegan product development. Many vegans have opted for the diet to protect animals and the environment. However, could there also be health benefits to going vegan?
In fact, there are few studies out there on the health implications of vegan diets. It may well be that healthy vegans are benefiting more from the fact that they are much more conscious of their diet and lifestyle decisions in general – getting more exercise and consuming less alcohol. On the other hand, vegans have to work harder in order to get all the nutrients they need. For example, vitamin B12 occurs almost exclusively in animal products, so the German Nutrition Society advises pregnant women and children not to follow a vegan diet.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Dan, who has been vegan for some time. He feels much healthier, not only physically, but even mentally, than he did when he ate meat and animal products. Is there any science to support the idea that vegan diets might make us healthier?
To get a response, we spoke to Antje Gahl of the German Nutrition Society. What would she say?
It is true that, on the whole, we also recommend a plant-based diet, which has many advantages and which of course can be different: vegetarian or vegan.
If Dan is vegan, he may have some of the benefits of a vegan diet, such as a low Body Mass Index. Many vegans live with a lower body weight as a result of this altered diet because it provides less energy overall. Furthermore, a plant-based diet also has benefits for blood lipid levels and lower blood glucose levels compared to a mixed diet. Eating a mixed diet carries a higher risk for some diseases, such as for cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and also for cancer diseases.
Therefore, I think that a certain optimism is quite appropriate. Also, the vegan diet is overall a lighter, with fewer calories, less energy but very rich in nutrients, because lots of plant foods are consumed. But what the studies have not shown so far is a difference in mortality. Vegans live no longer than the mixed dieters, though the overall lifestyle is crucial.
For another perspective, we also spoke to Louise Davies of the Vegan Society in the UK. What would she say about Dan’s supposed health benefits?
There is absolutely lots of positives about a vegan lifestyle and we know that people are coming to veganism for three key reasons: because they are aware of the environmental benefits; they perceive it to be a healthy choice; and they see it as a way of reducing animal suffering. Those are the three key areas. The health one is really interesting. We are very much an evidence based organisation and there is evidence to say that a vegan diet can reduce the likelihood of some forms of cancer, and it can reduce the chances of diabetes. That’s a well-planned, healthy vegan diet. Just going vegan does not mean you are going to be healthy.
There is not really any broad unanimous support for a vegan diet being a healthier diet. In terms of the scientific evidence it’s the weaker of those three angles. Clearly it’s better for animals. The science around the environmental impact is really strong. You can certainly be healthier on a vegan diet but, like any diet you choose, you have to follow it carefully, follow nutritional advice and make sure you are planning what you are eating.
It’s interesting that Dan is saying he personally feels great. We hear so many anecdotes from people saying: I’ve never had more energy, I just feel much better in myself. I always wonder whether the ‘better in myself’ comes from knowing you aren’t consuming animal products and the ethical concerns around that. Anecdotally there are some really strong examples but it isn’t really scientific evidence that a vegan diet is healthier.
So, I would certainly say to people, if you are interested in the health angle of veganism, check out our website. We are about to launch a campaign on 1st of November which is all about how you can be vegan and thriving. We are going to have a bank of really good nutritionally valuable recipes so we will have lots of resources for people who are coming to veganism for those reason. If you are going to go out and eat Greggs vegan sausage rolls every day and vegan burgers then it probably won’t be the healthiest choice.
Finally, reader Julia is of the opinion that a “healthy diet” means something different for each of us. What may be healthy for one person could be unhealthy for another.
What does Antje Gahl say?
I can certainly agree with Julia’s statement that healthy eating means something different for everyone – we are all individual, we may want to settle for certain nutritional styles nowadays, to be self-optimising, to be individual. Health is a big trend, so vegan diets have become so trendy.
Many people just want to be different, they want to show that they are against factory farming, or in favour of sustainability, or other health aspects. It is certainly not unhealthy in general to eat vegan food. For some risk groups, however, it can actually be unfavourable. For pregnant and breastfeeding women, and also for children throughout their entire childhood, a vegan diet carries certain risks. So, if I they do not take any nutritional supplements, if they do not consume fortified foods, then there are potentially critical nutrients they might miss.
These can be proteins in themselves, but also some vitamins, especially vitamin B12. When a person eats a vegan diet, they have no sources of vitamin B12 because there’s simply not enough in plant-based foods. Anyone who is vegan, therefore, must definitely take vitamin B12, otherwise it can lead to neurological disorders. This is especially important for high-risk groups such as pregnant women, nursing mothers and children. We do not want to ban anyone from eating vegan foods, but just encourage them to keep taking vitamin B12 supplements and selecting nutrient-dense foods to make up enough calcium, zinc, iron and enough protein. If you are unsure, you should also seek advice from a doctor.
Is it safe to be vegan? What’s the state of the science on the health implications of a vegan diet? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts!