Are vegans healthier than meat-eaters?

A vegan diet may be a gateway to a healthier life, but the benefits of a plant-based diet could depend on the foods you choose.

It’s argued that an all-plant diet cuts the risk of diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer and heart disease, and is a better environmental option.

But does that mean going vegan is your healthiest diet option? Not necessarily.

A 2017 study found the ­­­­­heart-boosting benefits of a plant-based diet did not depend on eliminating all animal prod­­­­­­ucts.

The study examined dietary data from 209,000 adults over two decades, and compared heart disease rates across three plant-based diet categories:

  • An overall plant-based diet with reduced animal-based food (dairy and meat) intake;
  • A “healthful” plant-based diet focused on healthy plant foods like whole grains, nuts, legumes, fruit and vegetables and reducing less-healthy plant-based and animal foods; and
  • An “unhealthful” plant-based diet with fruit juices, refined grains like pasta and processed cereals, potatoes including chips, and reduced animal and healthy plant food intake.

It found that those on the “healthful” diet had the lowest rate of heart disease and were leaner and more active, while those in the “unhealthful” group had a substantially higher risk of heart disease.

Lead researcher Dr Ambika Satija told Harvard Health Publishing: “For heart health protection, your diet needs to focus on the quality of plant foods, and it’s possible to benefit by reducing your consumption of animal foods without completely eliminating them from your diet.”

Why vegans need to make smart food choices

Dietitians Association of Australia spokeswoman Milly Smith says those on a vegan diet still need to make good food choices.

“A vegan diet can be very healthy, but any eating pattern can be unhealthy if it’s not planned correctly,” she says.

“When we’re not appropriately substituting animal products, we risk not meeting the requirement for certain nutrients, particularly protein, zinc, iron, Omega 3, calcium and vitamin B12 and D.”

Tips for a healthy vegan diet

Milly recommends including legumes and dairy alternatives fortified with calcium in a vegan diet, and seeking advice from a dietitian to ensure dietary needs are met.

“Be mindful that with different ages and different genders, our requirements will vary,” she said.

Eliminating meat may reduce saturated fat intake, but Milly warns saturated fats are also present in vegan-friendly options such as chips or certain pastries and cakes.

Some processed plant-based meat alternatives also contain high salt and fat content, she says.

“If you want to cut your meat intake, that’s great, but make sure you’re substituting it well and be mindful of all those other areas of your diet.”

Where to get more information about healthy vegan diets:

Written by Jamie Duncan.