Is Vegan Healthy?

by Lisa Simon

It has been clear for some time that the best diet for both human and planetary health is one without animal products, but is a vegan diet inherently healthy?

Plant-based vs. vegan

First of all, it is important to distinguish between a vegan diet and a plant-based diet. The former is a diet devoid of all animal products, however being vegan does not just mean avoiding meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and other animal derived components of food and drinks; it also means avoiding any form of animal exploitation, including not wearing leather, wool or silk and choosing cruelty free cosmetics. Someone who is plant-based on the other hand, may not necessarily avoid all dietary animal products, or non-food items linked to animal exploitation. Those who consider themselves vegan are predominantly concerned with animal welfare and the environment, although health may also be a motivation. Those who consider themselves plant-based may be more concerned with the health benefits of such a diet. However, it is possible to be both vegan and plant-based, where animal welfare, planetary health, and human health are all motivating factors.

Be aware of processed food

There can be differences between the standard vegan diet and a plant-based diet, with the former not necessarily being the healthiest way of eating. The reason for this is that there is a huge, growing market for vegan food and while this is positive, unfortunately, a large section of it tends to be processed, including meat substitutes and ‘veganised’ versions of foods such as pies, pizzas, quiches, and desserts. This means that although the health damaging components of animal derived foods are not contained in such products, they can be high in saturated fat, salt and added sugar, all of which are associated with poorer health outcomes. They may also be low in fibre and certain micronutrients.

Healthy whole food plant-based diet

A plant-based diet, particularly a whole food plant-based diet, is centred around wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables and minimally processed plant proteins. It is low in saturated fat, salt and added sugar, and packed with fibre, micronutrients, healthful plant chemicals, and antioxidants.

‘Eat the rainbow’ – healthy vegan diet tips

It is entirely possible to follow a healthy vegan diet by being mindful of the following:

  • Follow the 80/20 rule, keeping processed foods as an occasional choice, rather than as a regular component of your diet
  • Ensure that you include a source of wholegrains with every meal. This includes oats, whole wheat pasta, brown/black/red rice, quinoa, freekeh, wholemeal couscous and wholemeal bread/pitta/wraps
  • Try to choose minimally processed forms of protein such as tofu and tempeh, and include a variety of others such as chickpeas, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds
  • ‘Eat the rainbow’ – fill half of your plate with as many different colourful vegetables as you can, including daily servings of leafy green veg. This can include rocket, broccoli, kale and spinach
  • Practice mindful eating. Try to sit at a table, put your phone in a different room and avoid reading or watching television at the same time. If you can, eat with your family or partner to enjoy eating as a social experience

By following the above principles and consuming predominantly whole plant foods, a vegan diet can be the healthiest diet not just for humans, but for the animals and also for the planet.