Vegan eating seems to have grown significantly in popularity over the last few years. The Vegan Society reports that veganism quadrupled between 2012-2017. While it may be true that the vegan lifestyle can be viewed as trendy, there is also a wide array of health benefits to vegan eating.
Improved Heart Health
Vegan diets are often high in the intake of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and fiber and these foods are linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Observational studies that looked at vegans and vegetarians as compared to the general population reported that vegans may benefit from up to a 75% lower risk of developing high blood pressure and a 42% lower risk of dying from heart disease (Le & Sabate, 2014).
Decreased Risk of Diabetes
As type 2 diabetes seems to impact larger numbers of people each year, it is encouraging to note the potential benefits of vegan eating with regard to type 2 diabetes. On average, vegans tend to have lower blood sugar levels and up to a 50-78% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Some studies have reported vegan diets as more effective at lowering blood sugar levels in diabetics than diets promoted by the American Diabetes Association and American Heart Association, among others (Petra, 2016).
Decreased Cancer Risk
Vegan diets are often thought to offer enhanced protection against various types of cancer due to the elimination of animal products and the increase in fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Consuming at least seven portions of fresh fruits and vegetables daily is noted to reduce the risk of dying from cancer by up to 15%, while regularly eating legumes can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by approximately 9-18% (Davies, 2015). Additionally, eliminating processed meats, meats cooked at high temperatures, and dairy products are thought to be linked to a reduced risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancers (Dinu, 2016).
Enhanced Kidney Function
Studies suggest that diabetics who swap meat protein for plant protein may be able to reduce the risk of poor kidney function. A 2008 study by JW Anderson noted the beneficial effects of soy protein, often found in vegan meat substitutes, for renal function.
The study concluded that soy protein, in place of meat protein, resulted in less hyperfiltration in diabetic patients and reduced urine albumin excretion (Anderson, 2008). Additionally, longitudinal soy protein intake was determined to greatly impact kidney-related biomarkers among type 2 diabetes patients with nephropathy (Azadbakht & Esmaizadeh, 2009).
Reduction in Pain Associated with Chronic Pain Conditions
There have been studies that suggest a vegan diet is linked to a reduction in pain experienced by those with chronic or inflammatory pain conditions such as arthritis or fibromyalgia. In two studies, one conducted by the Department of Medicine at Turku University Central Hospital in Finland and the other conducted by the Department of Physiology at the University of Kuopio in Finland, the effects of a raw food vegan diet on rheumatoid arthritis were observed. Both studies revealed that the vegan participants saw more significant improvement in symptoms of joint swelling, stiffness, and pain (Petre, 2016).
Promotes Weight Loss
Vegan diets tend to naturally possess fewer calories than non-vegan diets, thus the decrease in calories tends to result in significant weight loss. A number of observational studies have shown that vegans tend to have lower body mass indexes than non-vegans.
Not only that but several randomized controlled studies, considered to be the gold standard in scientific research, reported that vegan diets were more effective weight-loss diets than other diets they were compared to, including calorie-restricted diets (Turner-McGrievey et. al., 2015).
One study, in particular, showed that vegan diet participants lost approximately 9.3 more pounds than those on a control diet over an 18-week period (Mishra et. al., 2013).
Improved Bone Health
Vegan diets boast a wide array of foods that naturally possess calcium, vitamin d, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin k, all of which are vital vitamins needed for strong and healthy bones. Foods possessing these vitamins include kale, turnip greens, spinach, figs, and black-eyed peas among others.
Vegan diets generally contain adequate amounts of these vitamins without the health risks of animal fats. Plus, vegans are shown to be able to absorb calcium more efficiently than those eating omnivorous diets (Felman, 2017).
Improved Gut Health
Evidence suggests that a vegan diet may make the process of getting the probiotics and probiotics needed to maintain a healthy gut a bit more efficient and effective. A report published in the journal Nutrients in 2014 noted that the gut of vegans is unique in that it has a reduced amount of pathobionts and a larger quantity of protective species. This equated to protective health effects for vegans such as blood sugar control and improvements in body composition (Glick-Bauer, 2014).
Increase in Intake of Antioxidants and Enzymes
The diet of vegans often includes an abundant amount of fresh produce. These foods offer numerous antioxidants which are essential to fighting off free radicals. Additionally, since many vegans often eat produce in its raw state, enzymes that are normally broken down when cooked remain intact and thus boost the vital enzyme content (Levy, 2017).
Decreased Environmental Impact
A final and often overlooked benefit of vegan eating is the decreased impact it has on the environment. According to the findings of the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forestry and other land use each year primarily due to the cultivation of livestock and deforestation.
Consuming less factory-farm animal products and turning to more sustainable, plant-based options works to address issues related to carbon emissions, toxic waste runoff, and hormones/antibiotics used in the livestock and dairy industries (Levy, 2017).
Vegan eating may not be for everyone, but various research and studies appear to confirm that the lifestyle can be beneficial for those who make the decision to adopt it. Those looking to make a switch should consult their doctor or a trained healthcare professional to discuss personal benefits and potential risks before a final decision is made.