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Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?

Complete Guide (Including Deficiencies)

Is a Vegan Diet Healthy? 

In my opinion, this is quite a difficult question to answer.

It seems to be the main question people are asking and searching for online and it’s not surprising; there’s a lot of confusing and biased information out there.

I guess a better way to phrase it is, “Can veganism be a healthy diet?”

In this article I’ll show why this question isn’t as black and white as it might seem and also give guidance (tips) to people who are vegan or who are considering going vegan. This will focus on which vitamins and minerals that you are most likely to be lacking from and how to get these in your diet.

I was quite nervous when thinking about addressing vegan diets as there’s a lot of emotional context that goes with it. I want to make sure people understand this article isn’t discussing veganism as a whole.

Veganism is not just about diet. It’s a philosophy that believes animals should not in anyway be exploited to make products, clothes etc. I am only discussing the diet aspect of veganism in this article and whether it’s healthy.

After that caveat padding, I will now get on with it!

What constitutes health is very complicated and, as there are many causes of mortality, to link diet and health can be very complex. Unfortunately, there are a lot of studies that combine vegan and vegetarian diets (I have done my best to single out the vegan studies). There are also no studies that look at populations where omnivores share similar genetic profiles, similar lifestyle patterns and similar social and environmental factors with a significant number of vegans (okay maybe a little more caveat padding).

I have tried to include some of the best and biggest studies I could find.

Research

I’ve linked to all the studies I used in the side bar and have summed up my findings in the chart below. These are the possible pros (positive findings) and cons (negative findings) of following a vegan diet.

I listed all these not as a point-scoring exercise, but to show the complexity of both sides. I think it illustrates the fact that rating and defining “health” is quite complicated. Also, this list does not include everything or all of the information out there.

So coming back to the question, ‘Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?’, yes, although not inherently. It can be, if you eat a wide variety of foods and, importantly, healthy foods. You can eat bad food on any diet, making it unhealthy.

I looked on Google Trends when researching vegan diets and I was amazed to see what vegan search topics were growing in popularity. Coming out on top were things like ‘vegan KFC burger’ and ‘Greggs vegan steak slices’ (see chart below).

Obviously these are considered unhealthy foods. There’s a big movement in the vegan junk food market, so there must be a demand. 

I do believe you can be healthy on a vegan diet. Although, you have to be more aware of foods and their contents, especially as you are cutting out a whole food group. We all (not just vegan diet followers) have to consider our diets more and make sure we are getting a good variety of nutrients to cover any possible deficiencies.

I have made a list of things that you want to consider if you are vegan or considering becoming a vegan. These should help limit problems and limit any deficiencies that may develop.

Considerations If You’re Vegan

I would recommend that you write these down somewhere so that you can check them off each day/week to make sure you are including them in your diet. This doesn’t cover every single nutrient and vitamin but does cover ones that vegans tend to be deficient in.

Vitamin B12

B12 deficiency rates seem to vary from 0-86% in vegans when looking at most studies. Many products including cereals, spreads and yeast extracts, are fortified with B12, so check the labels. A good guide is to get it from a few different sources.

  • Two daily servings of fortified foods, providing 1.5 to 2.5 micrograms with each
  • One daily supplement of at least 25 micrograms
  • One supplement of 1,000 micrograms twice weekly.

Iron

Food can contain iron in two forms: haem iron and non-haem iron.

Vegan foods only contain the latter, which is less easily absorbed by the body. Try combing iron with vitamin C, this will increase the iron absorption. Avoid tea and coffee with meals as this lowers iron uptake. A few examples are:

  • Porridge with ground linseed and raisins, and served with orange juice
  • Eat a kiwifruit after a lentil curry
  • Add broccoli to a tofu stir-fry
  • Add pepper to a bean chilli

Other sources of iron include lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereal.

Omega-3

Supplementation with omega-3 fats from micro-algae may be a particularly important consideration for infants and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, due to the role of omega-3 fats in brain health (remember to speak to your GP first).

  • Consider using rapeseed oil as your main cooking oil
  • Make sure that your daily diet includes good sources of ALA, such as chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds and walnuts.

Choline

The recommended daily intake for choline is 550mg for men and 425mg for women. Here are some examples of amounts and foods that contain choline.

Half a cup of shiitake mushrooms (contains 58 milligrams of choline), two tablespoons of peanut butter (11 milligrams), one cup of chopped broccoli (62 milligrams), one cup of soy milk (57 milligrams), one cup of tofu (70 milligrams).

So that’s 258milligrams, halfway there for an average-sized man. And these are plant-based foods with some of the highest content of choline. This shows the importance of a good varied diet. I have linked to a good article here on different ways and meals to get more choline.

I understand people who are vegan for ethical reasons and I can really sympathise with these people. I think we all need to eat less meat. Personally, I have started doing meat-free Mondays and reducing my overall meat consumption.

A diet consisting of high levels of meat has been linked to adverse health problems. I personally focus on eating a whole food, mainly plant-based, diet.

Ultimately, the only healthy diet is a healthy diet. You could eat only Oreo cookies and the KFC vegan burgers and you would technically be vegan — but that wouldn’t mean you were healthy.  I hope you found this helpful, take care.

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