As a registered nutritionist, the question “Is the vegan diet healthy?” is one I get all the time, especially at this time of year.
Frustratingly, the answer is that it depends as much on what you eat as with any other diet. Someone living purely on ready salted crisps or chips, for example, would be technically following a vegan diet, but it would in no way be healthy.
However, research shows that there are potential benefits to a vegan diet. A recent study indicated that the average vegan diet is higher in vitamin C and fibre, and lower in saturated fat than one containing meat. In addition, statistics show that vegans have a lower BMI (height-to-weight ratio) than meat eaters – in other words, they are skinnier.
You see, a diet without any meat or dairy products is likely to contain a lot less saturated fat, which is related to increased cholesterol levels and increased risk of heart disease. We also know that fat contains more calories per gram than other foods, and so vegans may consume fewer calories as a result. Finally, a vegan diet is generally thought to contain more cereals, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds than a non-vegan diet.
Sounds great right? Not quite. In terms of micronutrients, a vegan diet is actually more susceptible to being nutritionally poor. A vegan diet is naturally low in calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore, if you follow a vegan diet it is essential that you get enough of these nutrients through specific vegan food sources – and may even need to take additional supplements. We have many recipes suitable for vegans that can help, just check out our vegan section. In our features we also have this traditional hummus recipe, which contains tahini – a good source of calcium, zinc and iron, which are all micronutrients hard to get a hold of on a vegan diet.
So there you have it: going vegan does not necessarily mean you are going to be healthier. In fact, I think that much of the improvement in diets among vegans is a result of education rather than going meat free. In other words, if someone chooses to go vegan they are more likely to care about what they are eating and therefore are more likely to educate themselves on the types of foods they should and should not be eating.
Many people see the word vegan on the label and they assume it must be super healthy – wrong. Even if it’s vegan, it’s just as important to look at the ingredients list and the nutrition information to see how much fat, sugar and salt something contains. Coconut oil is hugely popular in vegan baking and its health benefits are shouted about all over the place. However, as a registered nutritionist, I am a stickler for evidence, and no regulated claims have been passed for coconut oil, indicating there is no significant evidence to support the alleged benefits. In fact, it is actually very high in saturated fat. This is not to say you shouldn’t use it or it can’t be healthy in small amounts, but too much of it could be detrimental.
On the other hand, this is not to say that non-vegan products can’t be healthier; vegan desserts, for example, absolutely have the opportunity to be a lot healthier than conventional baking because bakers have to come up with inventive ways of substituting out the butter and cream. One of my favourite super-quick ways of making chocolate mousse is by mixing ripe avocados with cocoa powder and maple syrup, or any other sweetener like agave nectar – in fact we have a recipe for it here. It is still a bit naughty, but by using the avocado instead of the butter and cream you are swapping the bad fats for good ones.
One of the people who changed my admittedly old-school perceptions of vegan diets was Jamie’s friend Tim Shieff, a world-class free runner and athlete. As someone who is a bit of a gym bunny, I found it hard to believe that someone could be toned and strong without meat, but he well and truly proved me wrong. He educated me about why he chose to be vegan and how it helped him, and I have to admit it he makes a good argument. To see Tim Shieff cooking up some vegan burgers, see below.
Veganism has gained in popularity and, as I say, although this does not necessarily mean a healthier diet, I think it is a great thing. I am not a vegan but I do think that meat has become far too available, and far too prominent in our diet. If you look at the “eat well” plate, you will see that less than 15% of our diet should be made up of protein. So why have we got things like chicken nugget snack boxes coming on to the market?
If you do decide to follow a vegan diet, apply all the same principles that you would to any healthy balanced diet: eat plenty of different fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, pulses, and limit sugary and fatty foods to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients that a vegan diet can lack. For information about a healthy balanced diet, please see Jamie’s ten tips to a healthy lifestyle.
*The following comments from the author were added on 3 November 2014*
- This feature in no way condemns a vegan diet – if anything it promotes it. We believe that meat has become far too prominent in non-vegan diets, hence why we are increasing our amount of lovely vegan and vegetarian recipes on the site.
- These features are written to be as accessible as possible, so although I’m totally willing to talk in detail about the science behind the claims made and the references I have used, in the interests of keeping things simple this is not what I will use this space is for. We can provide references on request.
- This article is meant to show people that, although there are definitely potential health benefits to a vegan diet, you will not necessarily be healthier simply from eating vegan foods – it still depends on what you eat. It was also meant to make those on a vegan diet aware of possible vulnerabilities in their diet – I’m not saying vegans will have deficiencies, but they may be more susceptible.
- One of the other responses that also came up a number of times was the debate around saturated fats and whether they are actually detrimental to your health. I have been talking to the UK’s leading lipid experts and put together a separate feature on this because it’s such a big topic. It will go up in the next few weeks.