vegan diet

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.

vegan diet hummus

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.

Tags

dietary, vegan, vegetarian

More news

  • Pek Har Yee

    I am vegetarian since 2000 and I did it entirely for animal rights. I turned vegan recently as soon as I learned about the cruelty towards cows and chickens for milk and eggs.We all have different reasons to justify what we eat, meat eaters have their own but I just wish that we minimize unnecessary sufferings (we don’t need dairy in everything we eat) and we should not waste animals’ sacrifices that they did not consent. Peace out.

  • Danae

    For me it was the converse: I did it for ethical reasons. Then I learned about the environmental. The health benefits are just added.

  • Matt

    As a Vegan, I think this is a very fair and honest wrap up. Too often vegans want to say that veganism is the solution to everything, and this passage I think says it correctly: ‘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.’

    Especially now that there are more and more vegan options, there are more unhealthy vegan options, like fast food, desserts, etc… but yeah, totally easy to be vegan and easier to be healthy as a vegan in my opinion (but you must get your B12).

  • Aaron Lee

    Five from five vegans that I know do it only for ethical reasons. One of the five *believes* it is healthier, but that is not a driver of her behaviour….her veganism is solely the ethical aspect.

    Either way, nobody can judge how many people do it for ethical reasons, based on “who they know”.

    But the term “vegan” was coined to describe a lifestyle based on ethical choices, not health choices.

    Also, if you look through every vegan group on Facebook, I think you will find from the conversations that the majority of participants chose the lifestyle for ethical reasons.

  • Marta Wetmore

    I think that in the last few years there has been a movement to separate vegan and plant based lifestyles. The overlap of the lifestyles has lead to confusion, necessitating the distinct terms. Plant-based individuals eat a vegan diet, but focus on the health aspects instead of the ethics. They may use fur and leather, etc… Vegans often ignore the nutrition aspect (coke and french fries are vegan…but certainly not healthy). Though both eat the same foods, they certainly have different conversations at the table, lol!

  • Marco Temes

    I am a vegan, well not yet, although i am vegetarian, and it has been because the animals , simple as, i must say , i feel better, physically, mentally and spiritually, look forward to became vegan.!

  • Amie Meeks

    I’d rather get my vitamins and minerals from the source not from a pharmaceutical company. I don’t want man made products in my system: pill forms of minerals and vitamins or processed foods ( soy which is linked to sooooo many health issues) I eat meat, I eat veggies. I get both from either my own garden which I only use water ( no miracle grow, no pesticides or herbicides) I get my meat either from the farmers market or I only buy meat that comes from compassion farms. I feel that some vegans are very aggressive and it has become more like a religion than a lifestyle.

  • Amie Meeks

    Meat and dairy are NOT unhealthy. If you are getting unprocessed meat and antibiotic free dairy. It is great for your health. We have been eating like that for thousands of years. Our bodies are designed to digest these things. You have to put man made chemicals into your system to get all the vitamins and minerals you lack because of a vegan diet…Yep that sounds healthy o.O If you were having issues with skin and stuff you are just hiding the issue by cutting out foods instead of getting to the root of the problem.

  • Amie Meeks

    Nothing you have to take a pill or get injections. soy is horrible for you. Causes heart issues and cancer.

  • Rebecca Vee

    You’re mistaken. Our bodies might have adapted, but they certainly were NOT designed to digest these things. If you follow anthropology or biology at all, you’ll see that everything from our gut flora, to stomach enzymes, and even our teeth show that we are not designed to digest these things, nor have we been eating them for “thousands of years.” Historically speaking, a diet consisting of meat and dairy has only been a part of a Western diet for the past 150 to 200 years, at best. In many parts of the world, these foods are not consumed and in places where you find an increase in a Westernized diet, you also find an increase in diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and heart disease. The numbers don’t lie. Neither does science. But the USDA does.

  • Rebecca Vee

    The diet does not require supplements. I guarantee most vegans following a Whole Foods, plant-based diet are not deficient or lacking in anything. I have had routine blood work every year for my insurance. They test it all. Year after year, my bloodworm is impeccable. Same with my daughter and husband. All vegan. Do your research and fact check before you post nonsense.

  • Rebecca Vee

    Then you were nit doing it right. You don’t have to be cautious. You don’t have to supplement really. Just follow a whole foods plant based diet.

  • Rebecca Vee

    Realkt, no oil is healthy. Coconut oil has many benefits for you, but it is not healthy, nor is it a whole food.

  • Rebecca Vee

    It’s not drivel. It’s absolute truth. High carb from natural plant sources. Not processed carbs. That is not debatable.

  • Rebecca Vee

    I’ve read peer reviewed articles and journals that state the opposite, Little Owl.

  • Rebecca Vee

    I would love to hear the results of your lab work, oh dismisser of qualitative data.

  • Jonathan Stinson

    Not every medication is great for the health, I agree on that. But vitamins are just vitamins, they are pills right, but they are just vitamins, and it’s the same as eating food containing those vitamins.

    The article concludes that vegan diet are not especially healthier. That’s the research on nutrition accomplished by those who go vegan that makes vegans more educated and therefore healthier. In other words, vegan diet = omni diet if you are careful about what you eat, what are you even arguing about ?

    Furthermore, most vegans go vegan because they don’t want animals to suffer, not especially for their health, so that’s it. Whether you want to go vegan to support animals or think it’s too difficult and time-consuming of a decision (having to take B12 pills, make research not to be deficient, etc) is up to personal choice.

    What I can assure you is that humans are not made to eat meat, and can very well be healthy, and even healthy athletes without it. We do eat a lot of meat and diary products in western countries by tradition, but it’s not the case everywhere in the world, it’s just TRADITION, and you always have the choice.

    Now neither choice is bad. One is just better for the planet and the animals, but requires some time discovering new ingredients and recipes, and putting up new habits. While the other one is easier since most of us were raised this way.

    Now you seemed to care about those issues since I’ve seen in your comments that you care about the provenance of your meat, and that’s very respectable.

    And don’t pay attention to agressive vegans. Every ideology has its own fanatics, and it’s easy to understand why so many vegans are really involved in their fight for animals since most people don’t even care and eat whatever is given to them.

    Cheers.

  • Paul Waite

    talk about fact checking!!! we have been drinking milk from Cows in Western society for over 7000 years and humans have been eating meat for over 2 million.

  • I would also note you can become a nutritionist through a 6 week course. A dietitian, a science degree, takes three years. I would be cautious putting too much weight into the thoughts of nutritionists. With all due respect.

  • Amie Meeks

    So explain why we don’t have multiple stomach like other plant eaters, or teeth designed like other plant eaters? We are omnivores we eat both plant and meat.

  • Grace

    Amie, the American Cancer Society classifies soy as a healthy food. The studies done on soy and isoflavones were done on rats, not humans. Human process these isoflavones differently and they are not bad for our body.

  • Grace

    Meat and dairy ARE unhealthy. The American Heart Association and many other groups associate the vegan diet with less risk of disease and death. Dairy is full of cholesterol and saturated fat, and our bodies do not know how to correctly process lactose, as we stop producing lactase after being weaned off of our mother’s breast milk. Meat has been proven to be carcinogenic and unhealthy numerous times. It is completely unhealthy and there are much better sources of protein, vitamins, and minerals out there.

  • michael

    I also didn’t like those sentences
    “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. ”

    Malnutrition is probably as common, or more common, in non-vegan diets. Most Westerners die from diseases caused by the Western high meat diet: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. A large percentage of cases would not occur on a vegan diet. While mentioning that a vegan diet needs to be careful about some things, it should be mentioned that a non-vegan diet has great dangers, and this is inherent in the saturated fat and carcinogens contained in a meat eating diet. Perhaps naturally raised meat is somewhat better, but I haven’t seen convincing data yet. If it weren’t tradition, a meat eating diet would probably be seen as possibly dangerous.
    Calcium: yes the diet should be balanced, this one is more abundant in dairy. However dairy has other health problems, and not only the fat. Vitamin D can be lacking in either diet, and supplementation may be best for anyone on either diet type. Studies haven’t actually found more iron deficiency in plant based diets, and high iron levels, especially from heme iron, is associated with more heart disease risk and some cancers. B12: perhaps we no longer eat as much dirt, bugs, and feces as we evolved to, so a cheap pill once or twice a week can take care of that. Omega 3’s: I think this may be so necessary to correct the lipid balance in a meat /dairy /processed oil based diet. If fat sources were only unprocessed vegetables and nuts, I don’t know if we’d need more omega 3 fat to balance out the other lipids.

  • whyteball26

    Article was good up until the fourth paragraph until nonsense and generalisation began. It makes no difference a persons classification ( paleo, vegan etc) it always comes back to how and what the person eats. By the way, hospitals aren’t full of vegans and vegetarians – just thought i would let you know.

  • Matthew Kirwan

    Doubling down on drivel is still drivel, imbecile.

  • I think you should check your facts. Running on the evidence of one is not good science.

    “A is only found in animal foods. It’s a myth that plant foods are high in this nutrient. Instead, fruits and vegetables are high in a family of phytonutrients called carotenoids. The body must synthesise three of these compounds—beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin—to vitamin A. Despite in humans, this conversion is quite inefficient, with about 10 to 20 molecules of carotenoids needed to make one of vitamin A. Alternatively, 80% or more bio-available vitamin A from animal sources is absorbed, whereby only 3% or less of carotenoids from plant foods are absorbed.”

    A vegan diet will be low in Vitamin A, it is basic nutritional science and supported by our understanding of biological synthesis processes.

    Compounding the problem of efficient A synthesis is according to a study, in the vicinity of 45% of adults are unable to convert carotenoids into Retinol A

    In conclusion, obtaining enough Vitamin A in a vegan diet is either extremely difficult to downright impossible without supplementing the diet with Vitamin A supplements.

    A vegan diet is low in Vitamin B-12 – for children subjected to parents dietary decisions this can have a real impact on brain development.

    Recent studies highlighted that in the vicinity of 68% of vegetarians and 83% of vegans are deficient in B12 compared to 5% of omnivores. Now I am all for people to have the right to make their own decisions about their health and diet; but what happens when children are forced to partake of their parent’s beliefs?

    One of the biggest problems with nutrient deficiencies when a child is it can impede crucial processes. Children brought up on a vegan diet showed deficiencies in B12 many years after animal products were introduced to their diet. One of the studies showed a worrying impact on cognitive ability.

    Another concern is many vegan websites say it is perfectly possible to gain the dietary intake of B12 through fortified cereal and fermented plant products, for instance, brewers yeast, fermented soy and spirulina. They do not contain a true B12 rather a B12 analogue called cobamides. Adding insult to injury, these analogues block the intake of, and increase the need for true B12. [3]

    In short, it is virtually impossible to gain enough B12 from a vegan diet without the need of dietary supplements. The downside of lacking B12 is profound and research highlighting early learning disorders in children of vegan parents is very worrying.

  • Jimmy Bell

    The problem with soy in the US is that the unfermented kind is infested with GMOs so the risks unfortunately outweigh the rewards. That’s where the hearrt issues and cancer come from.

  • vegan activist

    vegan diet is non-GMO, when most vegans get their soy products they check for non-GMO.

  • philipp

    The weakness in your argument lies in the fact, that no one buys 100% organic animal products. There is the tasty burger on the go, the restaurant, the party, even the super market with cheaper meat and milk products… So organic may be healthy, but vegan would be healthier, cause people buy organic once in a while, but for example meat is so expensive organic that no one buys that regular to get their 100+ grams of meat each day that every doctor recomends (like in the 60s the package of cigarettes a day)

  • philipp

    The weakness in your argument lies in the fact, that no one buys 100% organic animal products. There is the tasty burger on the go, the restaurant, the party, even the super market with cheaper meat and milk products… So organic may be healthy, but vegan would be healthier, cause people buy organic once in a while, but for example meat is so expensive organic that no one buys that regular to get their 100+ grams of meat each day that every doctor recomends (like in the 60s the package of cigarettes a day)

  • philipp

    So the beef fed with a lot more soy than you could ever eat must be super-heart-issue-and-cancer-maker.

  • philipp

    So the beef fed with a lot more soy than you could ever eat must be super-heart-issue-and-cancer-maker.

  • John Spooks

    Actually not true, soy is bad for males for examples due to the presence of a female like hormone in soy. So where do you get that information? Soy is not that healthy at all.

  • slow_learner

    Totally careless!

  • Stranger Things Have Happened

    Those people are following plant-based diets. They’re not vegan, though it seems fashionable to use the word now. Plant-based diets are great, but there’s more to veganism and the definition shouldn’t be confused or diluted. Veganism is first and foremost about animal justice. It doesn’t have anything to do with health. If those people still fund animal exploitation in any way (products with animal ingredients and/or tested on animals); animals in entertainment (zoos, circuses, film, animal racing etc.); clothing (leather, wool, silk, fur); animals in the pet trade… that’s the opposite of veganism. People need to know the difference so that they know where to improve, instead of thinking that “diet” is the beginning and the end of it.

  • Stranger Things Have Happened

    Exactly Marta ☺

  • RUTH

    I cannot see where it warns of meat dairy and eggs being bad for health. Why? I have been a healthy vegan for almost 5 years now and I’m nearly 62. I make sure I educate myself in food nutrition, before I became vegan my health was poor due to a poor diet. The curriculum in education for primary children about animal exploits by the big influential profit making industries such as the meat dairy and eggs should be introduced in all schools. Children deserve the right to know the truth about the evil and barbaric facts that are hidden from us. I wish that I’d have been taught animal ethics at school. Animals are here for their own reasons just like us they are NOT here for our selfish pleasures and greed.

  • RUTH

    John. You can get B12 in yeast flaxes and yeast extracts. Natural B12 comes from the soil in the earth.

  • Claudette Frid

    OMG Grace are you seriously saying Soy causes heart issues and cancer??? Lol lol lol lol

  • John

    We don’t really get much nutritional value from dairy products, milk is designed for baby calves. It’s baby calf growth milk, not human growth milk. If you do your research you’ll find out that our bodies really don’t get much nutritional value from milk, not even it’s calcium. We aren’t baby calves so how can we get it’s benefits? The only thing we’ll probably get from it is a big gut for a stomach.
    Plus we’re in 2017, why do we still thing like cavemen? We all know the animals are slaughtered in a none humane way, the human body doesn’t need animal products to live. Yet some people’s stomachs are stronger than their minds.

  • John

    Soy is 10x healthier than milk, do your research first

  • John

    You mean the hormones injected into cows? That then get milked and drank by other men? Which is worse?

  • John

    Vegan products are mostly GMO free, never seen something that’s vegan that doesn’t say GMO free

  • John Spooks

    you do realize it is different, right? The hormones cows get (if they get any) are mostly lost during the proces from cow to meat. The soy however contains hormones itself (produces itself) and you do eat a large part of that.
    BTW: I am not defending meat in general here, I am just saying that soy is not that healthy as always stated. Especially as a male you have to be attentive on not eating too much of it.

  • Sarah

    I am tired of hearing how it’s harder to get certain nutrients from a vegan diet. I agree with B12, but there are just as many meat eaters who are B12 deficient. It’s extremely common! In terms of iron, I have been vegan for 3 years, and no issues. Yet I know several people who eat meat that are anemic! Calcium thing is BS. Osteoporosis doesn’t exist in third world countries where meat and dairy are rarely or never consumed. Only exist in countries where animal products are a large part of peoples diets. The only proper source of vitamin D is from the sun. Eat leafy greens and sit out in the sun and you are fine! High levels of zinc are in nuts; yet another problem solved! Lastly, flax seeds have high levels or omega 3 fatty acids and so do avocados. Both foods are readily available, and flax is used as an egg substitute for vegan baking, so easy to fit into your diet. Sick of this ridiculous misinformation, especially from supposed “professionals”!

  • Legal Help

    FALSE. ANIMALS that the majority of animal eaters consume get their protein FROM plants, as a matter of FACT all protein comes from plants. Animal milk depletes human bones of calcium versus adding calcium to bones this is why the US, the biggest consumer of cows milk in the WOLRD has the highest percentage of osteoporosis. You CAN get adequate nutrients from a plant based diet. Most Americans animal eaters and non lack Vitamin D.

  • Legal Help

    INCORRECT eating dead ANIMALS and animal milk IS unhealthy, unnatural, and unnecessary. Research.

  • Dale Miller

    Whether we get it from supplements, soy, or animal products, B12 comes from micro organisms from nutrient rich soil…the earth. Problem is most vegetables we ALL count on comes from nutrient “dead” soil.

  • Sara

    This article is sooooo discourage for people who decide to give a try for a vegan diet. How can you even say that ANIMAL product are better and more healthier safer for us?? You just eat plans, beans everything BUT animal product which we don’t even need. You sound like those other people who are
    sponsored by the government and the big companies who claim that meat and dairy is important to consume. I was always a big fan of this Jamie Oliver website but after reading this article ….

  • Jessica Todd

    Hi John – this is actually not true. On all counts. Hormones are most definitely in the meat that we eat. Soy actually doesn’t contain the hormones you think it does, they contain ones that act a bit like female hormones. In the few studies that have been done there has been no link found between these soy hormones and fertility problems in men. It unfortunately happens to be a story reported in the media and not scientifically backed.

  • NonsensicalVG

    “I guess smoking doesnt cause cancer either it just uppes the risk which means nothing…”
    I’m replying very late, and I’m not exactly trying to be a smartass, but smoking does only increase the risk.

  • John Spooks

    I just checked the literature and you are right. There are only a few documented cases of males having problems due to excessive soy intake. It is indeed a rare side effect and nothing general. You are right!

  • Predator

    What about pesticides that they put in your veggies? what about all the GMO fruits and vegetable? Chemicals to make it grow faster stronger and better. Honestly think people are ruining earth. Vegan or not vegan you should know what you are eating and what impact your leaving on earth. Trying to eat as healthy as you can, and not bashing on either side.

  • Cheryl

    Annie only ruminants have multiple stomachs. Horses and rabbits do not. Our teeth are designed to eat plants, not meat! Do you really think we have teeth like tigers? Our teeth look more like horses or a chimpanzees. Chimps eat mainly a vegan diet.

  • Cheryl

    Well said Grace!

  • Cheryl

    Well written Michael 🙂

  • Cheryl

    I gave up drinking dairy milk at home recently and I have the added bonus of ridding myself of the eczema that used to irritate me on the back of my knee for many years. I wished I had given up so much sooner now.

  • Cheryl

    Most of the vitamins and pills sold in pharmacies are sold to OMNIVORES!!

  • Cheryl

    You should use the reference from where you quoted your text from.

  • Cheryl

    I eat a mostly vegan diet and I have never been shown to be deficient in Vitamin A. My meat eating friends however have been deficient in iron. I have not.

  • Sarah Bradbury

    Microbes in the environment. You ingest them as bacteria on raw foods or in your meat from animals eating plants with the microbes on them. Animals do not produce it. It’s best to take a multivitamin either way you eat.