What you need to know about veganism
It’s hard not to notice the increasing popularity of vegan products in the UK; from almond ‘milk’ to cashew ‘cheese’, the supermarkets are responding to an unprecedented increase in demand. In 2016 The Vegan Society and Vegan Life Magazine commissioned research that estimated there are currently over half a million vegans in Britain, which is a significant increase on the 150,000 estimated in 2006, making veganism one of Britain’s fastest growing lifestyle movements. This research also showed that 42% of vegans are aged 15 to 34 compared to just 14% who are over 65, suggesting the trend of growth is likely to increase.
Reasons for going vegan vary depending on the individual, but typically relate to sustainability, health, and animal welfare. A shift towards positive portrayal in the media has undoubtedly contributed to more widespread popularity; including documentaries on the realities and consequences of animal agriculture; high-profile athletes following a plant-based diet; and vegan blogs and recipes on social media.
Is it healthier to be vegan?
High meat intake has been extensively linked to increased risk of non-communicable diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancers, and diabetes. The International Agency for Research on Cancer recently reclassified processed meat as Group 1 (carcinogenic) and red meat as Group 2A (probably carcinogenic) cancer risks. Furthermore, a review of the evidence concluded the highest intakes of processed meat are associated with a 32% increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Independent of total red meat consumption, high-temperature cooking methods, especially barbecuing, can further increase cancer and type 2 diabetes risk among regular meat eaters. A separate review found that eating processed meat was associated with a 42% higher risk of cardiovascular disease and a 19% higher risk of type 2 diabetes, however the researchers did not find a higher risk among individuals eating unprocessed red meat, highlighting an important distinction (more information on this research can be found here)
What role does dairy play?
The evidence for the association between dietary intake of dairy products and disease risk is mixed and inconclusive, most likely due to the variation between products. For example, consumption of high-fat dairy and cheese has been shown to reduce incidence of type 2 diabetes. Similarly, a review of the evidence has concluded that some dairy products, such as yogurt, may play a role in the prevention of type 2 diabetes. Overall, evidence based on national diet surveys does not suggest a link between dairy and obesity and high blood pressure, and even suggests that when consumed in the context of a healthy diet, it is inversely associated with obesity risk.
Is protein a concern?
Discussions surrounding vegan diets often involve protein, however this should not be a concern with western plant-based diets, with the exception of high level athletes. UK adults consume on average 70% more protein than required, with vegans also consuming above the recommended amount. Varied and properly planned vegetarian and vegan diets are shown to be healthy, effective for weight loss, provide good maintenance of blood glucose levels. This results in metabolic and cardiovascular benefits including reversing atherosclerosis and decreasing cholesterol and blood pressure. Plant-based diets are observed to reduce the risk of developing metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes by approximately 50% (full paper can be found here) which points to the use of plant-based diets as a means of prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease.
What about possible deficiencies?
The average vegan diet benefits from increased vitamin C and fibre, and reduced saturated fat when compared to the average meat containing diet. Typically, vegans also have a lower BMI, likely due to the reduction in saturated fat and the consumption of less energy-dense foods, which also translates to reduced cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease risk. Unsurprisingly, vegan diets contain significantly more fruits and vegetables, which are typically lacking in a western diet. However, a diet that excludes animal products has the potential to be deficient in calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, omega-3, and vitamin B12. When purchasing dairy-free products, selecting fortified options can help to avoid these deficiencies. Similarly, tahini, a popular product in vegan dishes, is a good source of zinc, iron, and calcium.
The evidence for plant-based diets is compelling, but achieving total adherence to a plant-based diet on a population level is unrealistic and perhaps unnecessary. A significant reduction in the consumption of meat products combined with increased consumption of plant-based foods, particularly fruit and vegetables, is likely to yield the positive benefits of a plant-based diet, whilst also reducing the likelihood of deficiencies. The largest impact is likely to not come from the relatively small number of strict vegans, but the much larger section of the population who are willing to make considerable steps towards a more plant-based diet.
The NHS acknowledges that vegan diets are suitable for all individuals other than children under the age of two, though good understanding of dietary requirements is needed. For older children and pregnant or breastfeeding women, care needs to be taken to ensure the necessary requirements for energy, calcium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D are met (a list of plant-based sources can be found here). When plant-based diets are both well planned and varied, they have the potential for extensive benefits in terms of both health and sustainability.
This post was written by Katie Patrick, Katie has recently graduated with a MSc in Nutrition and hopes to help make evidence-based science linking diet and health accessible for all, therefore allowing people to make informed healthy choices. She is also a big believer in balance, moderation, and having an overall positive relationship with food.