Whether for philosophical or health reasons, some people are opting to stop consuming animals and are adopting a vegan diet. This approach to eating eschews all animal products, including meat, fish, milk, eggs and even honey.
Making the switch can be a challenge for people who are accustomed to incorporating dairy and meat in their diet, but it could offer some health benefits. It might even change your body in certain ways.
But how it might change depends on what you were eating before, says Dena Champion, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus says.
“The term ‘vegan’ as it pertains to diet only means that one does not eat any animal products. It doesn’t inherently equal healthy, but it can be a healthy diet,” especially if you’re coming from a less healthful way of eating, she explains.
“If you’re already eating a diet heavy in plants with minimal animal products, you may see very few changes,” Champion says. But, “if you go from eating a diet heavy in animal meat and dairy and change to a diet consisting of high amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” you may see changes in several areas, including:
educed Body Weight
“Eliminating any major food group, in this case animal proteins, can cause a calorie deficit,” says Kailey Proctor, an oncology dietitian with the Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California.
Many Americans consume a diet that’s heavy in processed, high-fat meats, which also tend to be high in calories and saturated fat. Removing those animal proteins can mean a reduction in calories, Proctor explains.
Instead of high-fat and calorie-dense proteins like bacon and beef, vegans get their protein from plant-based sources such as:
- Soy milk.
“This can lead to weight loss, and considering that two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, this can have a positive impact on body composition and health markers,” such as blood pressure and triglyceride (a type of fat) levels in the blood , Proctor says.
The vegan diet tied for second place in U.S. News and World Report’s 2020 Best Weight-Loss Diets ranking. How much weight you’ll lose in the first month depends on what you were eating before, how much you weighed to begin with, your age, gender and other factors.
mproved Heart and Vascular Health
“Diets high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can lower triglycerides and cholesterol thereby reducing the risk of heart disease,” Procter says. Plant-based protein sources such as tofu and tempeh have no cholesterol – cholesterol is a fatty substance that only comes from animal products. It can build up in the vascular system, leading to blockages that could trigger heart attacks or strokes. Eliminating animal products removes cholesterol from the diet, which could reduce your risk of heart disease.
What’s more, a vegan diet tends to be lower in sodium than some other types of diets because most fruits and vegetables are low in sodium. Because sodium can increase blood pressure levels, lowering your consumption of salt and sodium may also contribute to better heart and vascular health.
mproved Blood Sugar Control
Because being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for developing diabetes, losing weight can lower that risk. One study published in the journal Nutrients in 2018, for example, followed overweight people with no history of diabetes after they switched to a vegan diet for 16 weeks. Those people saw improvements in insulin sensitivity and better function of the pancreatic cells responsible for producing and releasing insulin. This led to improvements in blood sugar levels.
If you already have diabetes, a vegan diet might be a good option for better controlling this chronic disease. Plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean diet have long been associated with improved blood sugar control and lower insulin resistance.
A 2018 review study in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care noted that people who followed a plant-based diet experienced significant improvements in blood sugar control when compared to people who didn’t follow a plant-based diet. Some were even able to eliminate their need for medications to control diabetes and high blood pressure.
Other research has suggested that a vegan diet may reduce A1C levels, which is a measure of blood sugar levels over time.
Fruits and vegetables contain certain compounds called phytonutrients that have an anti-inflammatory effect on cells. Also called antioxidants, these compounds can help reduce the joint pain, swelling and tenderness associated with arthritis and other chronic conditions of the joints.
In addition, if you’re overweight, losing weight can help reduce stress on achy joints in the lower body. The hips, knees and ankles, bear the weight of the whole body, so weighing less means less pressure – in some cases, a lot less pressure – on the arthritic joint.
A study published in Arthritis & Rheumatism found that for every pound lost by an overweight or obese adult with knee osteoarthritis, the person experiences 4 pounds of reduced pressure on the knees. In other words, losing just 10 pounds relieves 40 pounds of pressure on the knees.
Because a healthy vegan diet emphasizes consumption of high-fiber foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains, that can lead to better gut health and regularity.
High-fiber, whole grain foods contain prebiotics, which are natural, non-digestible compounds that help support the growth of helpful bacteria in the gut – i.e., you need prebiotics to form probiotics, which are those beneficial bacteria.
Probiotics are found in live cultures, such a sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha. Yogurt and kefir are also good sources of probiotics but are derived from animals, so would be considered off limits on a vegan diet.
When you’re consuming prebiotics and probiotics in adequate amounts, that can help regulate gut health, which science is increasingly learning can contribute to overall good health. High fiber foods also add bulk to the stool, which can make for better regularity and improved gastrointestinal health.
There’s also the potential to reduce your risk of developing cancer, Proctor says. “Vegan diets, when planned correctly, are also very high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These plant-based foods have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer due to their high antioxidant and phytonutrient content.”
Covering Your Nutritional Bases
Ultimately whether you adopt a vegan diet or move to a more plant-centric way of eating is a personal decision, but one that might be a smart move, Proctor says. “I think everyone can benefit from eating more plant-based foods, which is the foundation of a vegan diet.”
Champion agrees. “Many Americans eat way too few plants and way too many animal products. Switching to a healthful vegan diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can be beneficial to just about anyone.”
That said, it’s important to make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of certain nutrients that may be more difficult to get when following a strict vegan diet, Proctor says.
“The term ‘vegan’ doesn’t exactly mean healthy,” Proctor cautions. “You can have a vegan cookie,” for example, “but at the end of the day, it’s still a cookie.”
Same thing with “potato chips and noodles,” Champion says, which may well be vegan, “but if someone only eats those two foods, they will certainly lack vitamins, minerals and protein in their diet.” Similarly, she adds, “a vegan doughnut is not necessarily a healthier option than a non-vegan doughnut. I mention this because I often seen patients making this mistake. It’s fine to eat a vegan pastry, but don’t expect that it’s healthy just because it doesn’t contain any animal products.”
As with any other type of diet, the emphasis should always be on consuming whole, fresh foods as much as possible. Read labels on any prepared or processed foods so you know what you’re eating.
And Champion recommends transitioning to a vegan lifestyle slowly. “It can feel really overwhelming to go from eating animal products at every meal to eliminating them all overnight. Allow yourself time to find recipes and make a plan. Reach out to a registered dietitian for help if you feel lost.”
Proctor also recommends “combining protein sources to make complete sources of protein.” For example, combining rice and beans, or peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread can provide the full complement of amino acids your body needs to keep muscles strong.
Similarly, look to support adequate protein intake by adding soy foods including tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk and soy nuts.
You also need to be sure you’re getting enough vitamin B12, which can be problematic for people who follow a vegan diet because vitamin B12 “is only found in animal proteins,” Proctor explains. “While I promote foods first and supplements as a backup policy, vegans will need to take a B12 supplement. Vitamin B12 plays a role in red blood cell production, synthesis of DNA and RNA as well as keeping our nervous system healthy.”
In addition, if you’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis, Proctor notes that you may need to boost the protein in your diet. “From a cancer perspective, we tend to recommend a high protein diet so patients can maintain and preserve their lean body mass to prevent excessive fatigue they may encounter from cancer treatment.”
This is possible on a vegan diet, but it means you’ll have to plan carefully, and “it may become increasingly difficult to get in enough calories and complete protein as treatment progresses.” She also notes that “the emphasis on fruits and vegetables may increase certain symptoms from treatment such as nausea, early satiety and diarrhea, causing the patient to lose weight, which is what we don’t want for patients on active treatment.”
In all cases, it’s best to speak with your doctor and work with a registered dietitian to devise a healthy eating plan that’s tailored to your unique needs and health goals.