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Benefits Of A Vegetarian Or Vegan Diet

Moving to a vegetarian or vegan diet can have a positive impact on your health as well as the environment.

Veggie burger

Many of us are beginning to cut back on the amount of meat we consume, excluding it completely or even becoming a vegan. Whether for health reasons, animal welfare concerns, wanting to reduce our impact on the planet, or all of the above.

According to the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK quadrupled between 2014 and 2019 [1] and in 2018 more vegan products were launched in the UK than any other nation [2].

In addition, another study found that 1 in 3 Britons have stopped or reduced their meat consumption [3].

Another survey into UK diet trends in 2020 found that 7% of the UK population were vegetarian, 4% were pescatarians (fish only) and 2% were vegans.  It also estimated that 12 million Britons will be going meat-free by the of 2020 [4].

With such a big shift towards plant-based diets, we take a look at the benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets.

Table Of Contents

What’s The Difference Between A Vegetarian And Vegan Diet?

A vegetarian diet mainly excludes fish and meat products but can include products from animals such as dairy and eggs. 

A vegan diet not only excludes fish and meat products, but also excludes products from animals.  Many vegans also source vegan and ethically produced products such as clothing, cosmetics, toiletries, and household products that have not been made from animals, contain animal by-products or have harmed animals in the process.

Health Benefits Of Vegetarian And Vegan Diets

A well-balanced vegetarian or vegan diet incorporates a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, lentils, peas, beans, soya products, tofu, wholegrains, seeds, and nuts. A vegetarian diet will also include cheese, milk, and eggs.

Both diets are rich in fibre and depending on the options and quantity of dairy and non-dairy alternatives that are consumed, they can be low in fat too.

However, caution must be taken to not eat too much processed vegetarian or vegan foods such as ready meals. Research has found foods such as veggie burgers can be full of preservatives, and high in salt and sugar [5].  So, as with any diet, it’s always best to cook from scratch.

Some studies have found that individuals who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet compared to those who eat animal products may have a lower risk of developing:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes

However, other lifestyle factors need to be taken into consideration when it comes to preventing these types of diseases, as a plant-based diet alone will not prevent individuals developing these types of diseases, particular in cases where it’s hereditary.

Heart Disease

Foods such as meat and dairy can be high in fat and some foods such as shellfish contain cholesterol, so a vegetarian or vegan diet is more likely to be lower in cholesterol than a diet with a high proportion of meat and/or dairy. However, even on a vegetarian or vegan diet you should ensure your intake of saturated fats, salt and sugar are low.

A study into the effects of vegetarian diets on blood lipids [6] found that plant-based diets effectively lower blood concentrations of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol and could be an effective nonpharmaceutical solution to managing high total cholesterol levels. However, this would only be a solution for those who do not have any other underlying causes of high cholesterol, such as familial hypercholesterolaemia which is a hereditary condition which causes very high cholesterol levels.

Other research has found that people who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet are at a 16% lower risk of having a heart attack, stroke or heart failure, and have a 32% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease [7].

High Blood Pressure

A study into high blood pressure amongst meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians and vegans found that non-meat eaters, particularly vegans, have a lower prevalence of high blood pressure than meat eaters [8].

Type 2 Diabetes

A study into plant-based diets and the impact on diabetes found that elements of a vegetarian or vegan diet that consists of ‘legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and nuts, with limited or no intake of refined foods and animal products - are highly beneficial in preventing and treating type 2 diabetes' [10].

In patients with diabetes, a plant-based diet also helps address the other health issues they suffer such as heart disease, obesity, and inflammation.

Other research has found that a vegan diet could cut your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 23% [11].

Following a diet high in plant-based foods, low in saturated fats, salt and sugar and reducing your intake of red meat to once or twice a week (if you don't want to go full veggie) all as part of a healthy lifestyle will contribute to better health outcomes. As with any type of diet, cooking from scratch is better, and even vegetarian and vegan pre-prepared meals can still be high in fat, salt and sugar.

Environmental Benefits Of A Vegetarian Or Vegan Diet

More and more evidence is now emerging that identifies the impact a meat eating diet has on the planet.

A study by Oxford University in 2018 [13] found that swapping a meat-eating diet for a plant-based diet was one of the biggest ways to reduce our impact on the planet.

The study found that high impact beef producers created 105kg of CO2 equivalents – 12 times higher than low impact beef producers - and uses 370m2 of land per 100 grams of protein – 50 times greater than low impact beef producers.

In contrast, low impact beans, peas and other plant-based proteins created just 0.3kg of CO2 equivalents (this included all packaging, processing, and transportation) and uses a meagre 1m2 of land per 100 grams of protein.

In addition, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions is generated by animal agriculture, more than that created by all transportation combined [14]. Not only that, but livestock and their by-products account for 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

David Attenborough’s documentary Extinction also highlighted the need for more of us to adopt a meat free diet as our planet simply cannot sustain the billions of meat eaters.

However, when moving to a plant-based diet, it is still better to eat seasonally and aim to buy local produce, or produce that doesn’t have a high carbon footprint. Some plant-based foods such as the production of almond milk can contribute to Co2 emissions. And soya production contributes to the destruction of rainforests. So do your research and ensure you are purchasing products that use sustainable methods of production.

How To Get Started On A Vegetarian Or Vegan Diet

Vegetarians and vegans are more susceptible to deficiencies, particularly protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin B12. So before you make the switch, it's important to understand what food groups you need to be incorporating into your diet to replace the current animal based sources.

Protein

We need to consume approximately 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. So, switching from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet can be challenging at first if you do not know good sources of plant-based protein. These include:

  • Soya
  • Tofu
  • Chickpeas
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Lentils
  • Quinoa

Read more in our blog ‘How Do You Get Enough Protein On A Vegan Diet’.

Iron

Ensuring your plant-based diet includes plenty of whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and green leafy vegetables will provide enough iron to prevent iron deficiency anaemia. In fact, as long as your diet includes these food groups you are at no higher risk of iron deficiency than meat eaters.

Calcium

Adults need around 700mg of calcium per day, so it’s important to ensure you are still getting enough calcium if you are cutting out dairy products. Post-menopausal women or individuals that are highly active should look to increase their calcium intake to 1,000-1,300mg a day.

Research has shown that vegans tend to have a lower bone mineral density and are prone to calcium deficiency.

To ensure you are getting enough calcium on a vegan diet ensure you include:

  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Soya beans
  • Tofu
  • Nuts

If you are switching to a vegetarian diet, then dairy and fish will ensure you are getting enough calcium.

Read our blog on ‘How To Get Enough Calcium On A Vegan Diet’.

Vitamin B12

Finally, vegans and vegetarians can be at greater risk of vitamin B12 deficiency due to meat and dairy being the main sources of B12.

Vegans can ensure they are getting enough B12 by eating milk alternatives, vegan spreads, yeast extracts and foods fortified with B12. The Vegan Society also suggests vegans consider taking a B12 supplement of at least 10 micrograms a day.

Our article on ‘How To Avoid Deficiencies On A Vegan Diet’ provides more guidance.

Know Your Levels Of Vitamins And Minerals

It’s important to know your levels of these key nutrients before you change your diet, so you understand if you are deficient already and can track any changes over time once you’ve been on your new diet for 3 months or more.

Checking ferritin, vitamin D and vitamin B12 along with calcium will help you stay healthy as you make the move to a more plant-based diet.

Conclusion

There are potential health benefits from vegetarian and vegan diets in otherwise healthy individuals as part of an overall healthy lifestyle including reducing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. However, changing to a plant-based diet needs to be done carefully to avoid nutritional deficiencies particular iron, B12 and calcium.

Although changing to a plant-based diet can have positive impacts on our planet, some plant-based food sources can be just as harmful to our planet as animal production.

Changing to a plant-based diet can be daunting, so do your research first and make small steps by introducing meat free days rather than switching immediately.  It will also be kinder on your digestive system which can get upset if you suddenly introduce a higher amount of fibre to your diet, for example.

Avoid nutritional deficiencies by understanding your current levels of ferritin, vitamin D and B12 and retest 3 – 4 months after you’ve changed your diet to make sure you are getting the right level of vitamins and minerals.

Recipes To Get You Started

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A vegan diet can have many health benefits, however if not planned correctly it can increase the risk of nutrient deficiencies. Our vegan blood test will highlight if your body may be lacking key nutrients.
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References

  1. https://www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics

  2. https://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/veganuary-uk-overtakes-germany-as-worlds-leader-for-vegan-food-launches

  3. https://www.waitrose.com/content/dam/waitrose/Inspiration/Waitrose&PartnersFoodandDrinkReport2018.pdf

  4. https://www.finder.com/uk/uk-diet-trends

  5. https://www.insider.com/vegetarian-vegan-food-unhealthy-2018

  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4845138/

  7. http://www.sci-news.com/medicine/healthy-plant-based-diets-heart-disease-risks-07476.html

  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12372158/

  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4699995/

  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466941/

  11. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2738784

  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3565018/

  13. https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2018-06-01-new-estimates-environmental-cost-food#

  14. https://www.cowspiracy.com/facts

  15. Fresàn, U and Sabaté, J. (2019). Vegetarian Diets: Planetary Health and Its Alignment with Human Health

  16. Johnson, G, R. (2020). UK Diet Trends 2020

  17. Melina, V et al. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet: 116(12), pp 1970-1980.

  18. Selinger, E et al. (2019). Vitamin B12 Deficiency is Prevalent Among Czech Vegans Who Do Not Use Vitamin B12 Supplements. Nutrients: 11.

  19. Springmann, M et al. (2016). Analysis and Valuation of the Health and Climate Change Co-benefits of Dietary Change. PNAS.

  20. The Vegan Society. (2020). Statistics.

Medically Reviewed
Renee McGreggor
Performance Dietician
This article has been medically reviewed by Performance Dietician Renee McGregor
Renee is a registered dietician with 20 years’ experience working in clinical and performance nutrition. She is the author of best-selling books ‘Training Food’, the ‘Fast Fuel’ series and ‘Orthorexia, When Healthy Eating Goes Bad’. Renee is regularly called upon as an expert contributor to many national publications, as well as radio and TV, including Newsnight and BBC 5 Live. As well as being the nutritional lead for Forth, Renee works with a number of national governing bodies, including Scottish Gymnastics, The GB 24 hour Running Squad and The England Ballet company.

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