Research carried out by the vegan society in 2016 showed that the number of vegans in the UK has risen by 360% over the last 10 years as a record number of people are choosing to avoid food derived from animals. Over 500,000 people aged 15 or over (more than one per cent of the population) have adopted this plant-based way of eating, making this one of the fasted growing lifestyle movements according to the Vegan Society. Most vegans live in urban areas, with almost a quarter residing in London. It still stands that more women are vegan but 37% are still made up of men.
How might a vegan diet improve your health?
Whilst some people choose to go vegan for ethical reasons (environmental damage from methane gases and deforestation, water scarcity and land degradation), others see this is a great way to improve their health. Research has shown that non-meat eaters have healthier lifestyles compared to a typical omnivore diet. Plus, a well-balanced vegan diet is more likely to contain a greater quantity of fibre-rich wholegrain foods and pulses.
It’s also been shown that vegans are more likely to exceed the daily recommended fruit and vegetable intake, which means gleaning a greater quantity of certain key vitamins and phytonutrients that help to protect the body from disease.
It is worth bearing in mind that just because a food is labelled as vegan doesn’t automatically make it healthy. The growing popularity of veganism has led to a vast range of plant-based alternatives which is great but some of these options are high in calories, saturated fat, sugar and salt. Like any diet, vegans should follow the basic principles of healthy eating and checking the label of manufactured foods can help achieve this.
Can a vegan diet help to manage health?
Studies also show associations between meat-free eating and a lower incidence of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes1 and digestive disorders such as constipation2 – although lifestyle plays a key role here and this doesn’t mean following a vegan diet will prevent you from developing these conditions.
Anecdotally, people how have gone vegan report better energy levels and overall wellness but his could in part be to do with the fact that vegans are healthier in general, more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke.
A significant percentage of the population have high cholesterol which is a risk factor for heart disease. The vegan diet includes many foods which have been shown to help reduce cholesterol naturally.
Oats and barley are rich in fibre and in particular a type of soluble fibre known as beta glucan. This type of fibre binds to some of the cholesterol in your digestive tract and triggers the liver to pull LDL (bad) cholesterol from the bloodstream for excretion. The desired amount of beta glucan to get the most effect is 3g per day3and 50g of oats can help you to achieve more than half of this. Oats can be included in the diet as porridge, soaked breakfast oats or used to make healthy snack bars.
Studies have also shown how eating nuts such as almonds can help to reduce cholesterol. Including around 40g per day in place of a high carbohydrate snack has been shown to be effective for reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol4.
Plant sterols are also a good option; these compounds are extracted from plant gums and encourage the body to absorb cholesterol from food and remove it from the body5. Foods with added plant sterols include shots, juices and spreads. Apples, grapes and berries may also help as they contain a fibre known as pectin which can also binds to cholesterol in the gut to prevent its absorption6.
High blood pressure
This risk factor for heart disease is influenced by factors such as stress and diet. The mineral potassium is important for blood pressure as it plays a role in fluid balance within the body . Potassium helps your kidneys to get rid of sodium through your urine easing tension in your blood vessels. Leafy greens include lettuce, rocket, kale, spinach and swiss chard are good plant sources of this mineral.
Olive oil is at the very heart of the cardio-protective Mediterranean diet. This peppery oil contains polyphenols which are powerful antioxidant compounds that fight inflammation and can also help to reduce blood pressure7. Olive oil is included as part of the blood pressure lowering DASH diet which promotes the use of heathy fats in the diet.
While you should be able to get everything you need from a vegan diet iron is one nutrient that can prove tricky especially for women. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey has shown that more than half of all women have low intakes of iron8. Low intakes partnered with women’s menstrual cycle can increase the risk of iron deficiency anaemia which causes symptoms such as tiredness, fatigue and low mood.
Good vegan sources of iron include pulses, nuts, seeds, fortified breakfast cereals, tofu, tempeh, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, molasses and dried spices. You can increase the uptake of iron from plant foods by eating with a source of vitamin C such as fruit juice with your breakfast cereals. Avoiding tea with meals can also help maximise the absorption of iron from your food
While no food is going to cure or treat depression a healthy diet overall will help to support your mental health. Opting for wholegrain carbohydrates such as brown rice, rye bread and wholemeal pasta not only help to balance blood sugar levels but are also linked to the production of serotonin (the feel good hormone) in the brain.
Plant-based foods such as tofu and bananas contain an amino acid called tryptophan which is used to make serotonin in the brain. Anxiety associated with depression can lead to a more rapid depletion of magnesium in the body so including foods such as fark green leafy vegetables, almonds, avocado, beans and pulses.
The vegan diet has been shown to help improve overall health but following this way of eating is certainly not a panacea for disease. Vegans can reduce their risk of many common health conditions by including foods in their diet that can both ensure their nutrient intake and provide a functional benefit for certain diseases.
- Kim, H., Caulfield, L. E., Garcia-Larsen, V., Steffen, L. M., Coresh, J., & Rebholz, C. M. (2019). Plant-Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All-Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle-Aged Adults. Journal of the American Heart Association, 8(16), e012865. https://doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.119.012865
- Sanjoaquin, M. A., Appleby, P. N., Spencer, E. A., & Key, T. J. (2004). Nutrition and lifestyle in relation to bowel movement frequency: a cross-sectional study of 20630 men and women in EPIC-Oxford. Public health nutrition, 7(1), 77–83. https://doi.org/10.1079/phn2003522
- Whitehead, A., Beck, E. J., Tosh, S., & Wolever, T. M. (2014). Cholesterol-lowering effects of oat β-glucan: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 100(6), 1413–1421. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.086108
- Berryman, C. E., West, S. G., Fleming, J. A., Bordi, P. L., & Kris-Etherton, P. M. (2015). Effects of daily almond consumption on cardiometabolic risk and abdominal adiposity in healthy adults with elevated LDL-cholesterol: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Heart Association, 4(1), e000993. https://doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.114.000993
- Ras, R. T., Geleijnse, J. M., & Trautwein, E. A. (2014). LDL-cholesterol-lowering effect of plant sterols and stanols across different dose ranges: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled studies. The British journal of nutrition, 112(2), 214–219. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114514000750
- Koutsos, A., Riccadonna, S., Ulaszewska, M. M., Franceschi, P., Trošt, K., Galvin, A., Braune, T., Fava, F., Perenzoni, D., Mattivi, F., Tuohy, K. M., & Lovegrove, J. A. (2020). Two apples a day lower serum cholesterol and improve cardiometabolic biomarkers in mildly hypercholesterolemic adults: a randomized, controlled, crossover trial. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 111(2), 307–318. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqz282
- George, E. S., Marshall, S., Mayr, H. L., Trakman, G. L., Tatucu-Babet, O. A., Lassemillante, A. M., Bramley, A., Reddy, A. J., Forsyth, A., Tierney, A. C., Thomas, C. J., Itsiopoulos, C., & Marx, W. (2019). The effect of high-polyphenol extra virgin olive oil on cardiovascular risk factors: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 59(17), 2772–2795. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2018.1470491