What benefits can you expect from adopting a healthy vegan or plant-based diet?

by Dr Shireen Kassam

As we approach the New Year and another Veganuary, many people will be considering their diet choices. The New Year is always a time to take on some new healthy habits to improve health and well-being and our diet choice is the single most important predictor of health. With COP26 fresh in our minds, many of us are trying to reduce our personal carbon footprint and a healthy vegan diet is the most impactful action we can take.

Diet change can always be a little daunting but adopting a vegan or healthy plant-based diet has never been easier. With a small amount of planning and preparation, the transition can be simple and straightforward. So once you have made the decision to give a vegan or plant-based diet a try, what health benefits can you expect to see?

1. A plant-based diet makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight.

Maintaining a healthy weight can be challenging, especially over the festive period. Body weight is not only determined by the number of calories we consume, but also by the type of foods we eat. A diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and beans is one of the easiest ways to avoid unwanted weight gain. Studies have shown that people eating the most plant foods have the least weight gain with aging. Vegans are more likely to have a healthy body weight compared to any other diet pattern. In contrast, eating meat and ultraprocessed foods have both been associated with unwanted weight gain. People are often surprised to learn that chicken is one animal ‘food’ most associated with weight gain.

At a very simple level, plant-based foods help maintain a healthy body weight because they have a lower calorie density and higher nutrient content than animal foods, whilst being high in fibre, which helps us to feel full for longer.

2. A plant-based diet maintains healthy blood cholesterol levels.

Heart disease and stroke are some of the commonest chronic conditions in our society, yet 90% of cases could be prevented through the adoption of a healthy diet and lifestyle habits. A key risk factor is blood cholesterol. The higher the blood cholesterol, the higher the risk of these conditions. It’s not just the cholesterol level at one point in time but over our lifespan that is important. The lower we can keep our blood cholesterol, particularly LDL-cholesterol, the better. The main predictor of blood cholesterol levels is saturated fat, therefore, a diet low in saturated fat is key. Replacing saturated fat from animal foods with healthy plant sources of fat has a significant benefit. This is where a healthy vegan diet comes in. When focussing the diet on healthy plant-based foods, blood cholesterol levels are maintained at a low and healthy level. This translates into a significant reduction in the risk of heart disease over the longer term. Studies have shown that a plant-based diet is as effective as medications in lowering blood cholesterol levels.

3. A plant-based diet substantially reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is now at epidemic proportion. 1 in 10 people over the age of 40 years in the UK now have the condition, yet virtually all cases could be prevented or reversed with the adoption of a healthy diet and lifestyle habits. A diet high in animal and processed foods is a key culprit, whilst the closer you get to a plant-based diet the lower your risk. A vegan diet specifically has been associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, in part because of the ability to maintain a healthy body weight. The impact of a plant-based diet is so profound that many international guidelines now recommend a plant-based diet for both prevention and reversal of type 2 diabetes. The reason for this benefit is that a plant-based diet is low in saturated fat and high in fibre, both important factors for preventing the accumulation of fat in our liver and muscle cells and thus preventing insulin resistance.

4. A plant-based diet can reduce the risk and severity of COVID-19

One of the most exciting results to come out of the Zoe COVID symptom study is that our diet choice can impact the chance of contracting the virus and the severity of infection. The researchers analysed diet quality in more than half a million participants from the US and UK. During the follow-up period, 31,815 COVID-19 cases were documented. Those participants consuming a healthy plant-based diet had a 10% reduction in the risk of COVID-19 and a 40% reduction in severity of COVID-19.

5. A plant-based diet can lower your personal carbon footprint

The global food system is responsible for more than 30% of greenhouse gas emissions with more than 50% of these emissions coming from the production and consumption of meat and dairy. Not only that, but our food system is a major driver of water use and pollution, air pollution, land degradation, loss of wildlife and biodiversity, deforestation and ocean destruction. One of the most comprehensive analyses of the global farming system, assessing all aspects of the food chain from ‘farm to fork’, concluded that shifting to a plant-based diet would have the most impact on planetary health than any other driver of climate change. The good news is that the diet that is best for the planet is also best for health with a planet-friendly plant-based diet predicted to cut the risk of dying by up to 60% and the risk of cancer by up to 40%. Pretty remarkable!

6. You will save money

You might be surprised to hear this given that most sources tell us that a vegan diet is too expensive for most people. This might be true if your diet is made up of the newer plant-based meat alternatives such as Beyond Meat, but if you are sticking to a healthy plant-based diet full of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and beans, it turns out that you are more likely to save money. This was put to the test is a large study that assessed the cost of shifting to a more plant-based and sustainable diet. It found that in high income countries, such as the UK, a vegan diet was the most affordable, cutting food costs by about one third.

So all in all, there are many benefits of adopting a healthy vegan or plant-based diet.