Are you thinking about embracing a vegan lifestyle? The popularity of vegan diets has been increasing in recent years. Six percent of Americans currently identify as vegan—an increase from just one percent in 2014. These days, with specialty diets such as paleo, keto, and vegan becoming more mainstream, it’s easier than ever to follow a diet that may have seemed overly restrictive in the past.
When looking at the health benefits of a vegan diet, it’s important to clarify what that diet actually looks like. There is a lot of room for variation in the vegan diet—technically, you could eat nothing but French fries and be vegan, but you wouldn’t be healthy.
For our purposes, a vegan diet is composed of a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with plant-based sources of protein. This way of eating is often referred to as a whole-foods, plant-based diet.
To experience the health benefits of a vegan diet, minimize your consumption of sugar and processed foods, and eat plenty of healthy whole foods, including plant-based fats such as nuts, seeds, olives, avocados, and coconut products.
Evidence-based health benefits of a vegan diet
If you’re interested in losing weight, reducing your risk of health conditions such as heart disease and cancer, improving your digestive health, or improving your body’s response to insulin, take a look at these evidence-based benefits of a vegan diet.
1. Weight loss
Many people turn to a vegan diet if they’re trying to lose excess weight, and for good reason. A review of more than 90 nutritional studies found that vegans have significantly lower body mass indexes. One study of five different diets (vegan, vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, and omnivore) found that participants who followed a vegan or vegetarian diet lost significantly more weight after six months.
One reason for the success of vegan diets at driving weight loss is that whole fruits and vegetables are highly anti-inflammatory. Chronic, low-grade inflammation is associated with many diseases, and it also leads to weight gain. Chronic inflammation disrupts many processes throughout the body, including those that control the metabolism.
Conventional nutritional wisdom tells us that counting calories is the key to weight loss, but this is an oversimplified approach. Many things affect how our bodies actually use those calories, including inflammation, hormone imbalances, stress levels, and sleep. Reducing systemic inflammation, therefore, is a key step in helping your body function at an optimal level and maintain a healthy weight.
To get the most anti-inflammatory benefits from your vegan diet, make sure you eat plenty of foods such as leafy greens, berries, cruciferous vegetables, olive oil, avocados, tomatoes, and spices such as turmeric. Even dark chocolate is anti-inflammatory—just make sure you choose chocolate that is low in sugar and contains at least 70% cocoa.
2. Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
A vegan diet can also have a huge impact on your blood sugar levels and your body’s response to insulin, which in turn lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes—along with obesity, heart disease, cancer, and even acne —is known as a “disease of civilization.” These conditions are seen at much higher rates in parts of the world where people tend to eat the standard Western diet—a diet high in red meat, dairy products, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and sugar.
Studies show that vegans tend to have lower blood sugar levels, greater insulin sensitivity, and up to a 78% lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance can also drive weight gain, so improved insulin sensitivity can further help you manage your weight.
3. Lower risk of cancer
Cancer is another disease of civilization that can be caused by lifestyle factors, including diet.
A study in England found that higher consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of death from all causes, as well as a lower risk of dying of cancer.
Vegetables offered the most protective benefits compared to canned and frozen fruit. To experience the full health benefits of a vegan diet, make sure your diet includes plenty of non-starchy vegetables and fresh fruit.
Removing meat from the diet may also help protect against cancer, as some methods of meat preparation—such as grilling, barbecuing, and smoking—have been associated with a higher risk of cancer.
4. Lower risk of heart disease
Studies show that vegans also have a lower risk of heart disease. Even when compared to vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs, vegans had lower rates of obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and death from heart disease.
Additional studies confirm that vegan diets can improve risk factors of heart disease such as total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, body weight, and glycemic control.
Inflammation is also a major contributor to heart disease, so it makes sense that anti-inflammatory vegan diets would help lower the risk of heart disease. Keep in mind that sugar consumption is linked to both heart disease and inflammation, so limit your intake of high-sugar processed foods and beverages to keep your heart healthy.
5. Improved arthritis symptoms
Studies have shown that vegan diets have led to numerous positive effects for people with arthritis. In a study of 40 people with osteoarthritis, those who followed a whole-foods, plant-based diet for six weeks experienced significantly less pain after just two weeks on the diet.
Researchers noted that the removal of pro-inflammatory animal foods from the diet was likely responsible for the lower pain scores.
They also noted that consumption of animal foods leads to increased intestinal permeability—a condition commonly referred to as leaky gut. Leaky gut can cause bacteria from the digestive tract to enter the bloodstream, causing further inflammation, cellular damage, and a variety of symptoms such as digestive issues, food sensitivities, autoimmune responses, and general aches and pains. By removing animal products from their diet, study participants on the vegan diet were able to further reduce inflammation and autoimmune symptoms associated with leaky gut.
6. Improved gut health
Did you know that your gut health is closely linked to overall health and wellness? Poor gut health is linked to obvious symptoms such as digestive issues, but it’s also linked to a weaker immune system, weight gain, and anxiety and depression.
Given that a plant-based diet can improve intestinal permeability, it’s no surprise that it can lead to other health benefits that stem from having a healthy digestive system.
Plant-based diets are associated with healthy levels of gut bacteria, which also help reduce inflammation and decrease the risk of heart disease. A healthy gut microbiome can further help control blood sugar levels, strengthen the immune system, improve mood, and improve sleep.
Considerations of a vegan diet
While a vegan diet can offer many benefits, it is not without risks. Vegan diets can be lacking in essential nutrients that are usually found in animal foods, including essential fatty acids, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, iodine, and zinc.
Make sure you are supplementing with these nutrients if necessary. Omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained from walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, and algae supplements.
Also, make sure you’re getting enough protein. Quinoa, legumes, nuts, and seeds are some plant-based protein sources. Your best bet before making any drastic change in your diet is to consult professional medical advice.
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