Health reasons for going vegan. If you want to adopt a diet to improve your health, plant-based is where it’s at! Here are some of the top evidence-based health benefits of a vegan diet.
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The plant-based movement continues to grow at an exponential rate. You’ve probably noticed that there are more vegan food options today than ever. You can find a plant-based substitute for just about any animal product.
When someone decides to go plant-based, it’s usually triggered by at least one of three major inspirations:
- their health
- the environment, and/or
- the animals.
And while going vegan doesn’t automatically give you a pass from all disease, research shows that people who adhere to a predominantly whole foods, plant-based diet have exceptionally healthier – and in many cases, longer – lives, compared to their meat-eating friends.
When I say whole foods, plant-based (WFPB) this means an animal-free diet based on fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. For best health outcomes, this also means minimizing ultra-processed foods and added sugar.
On the other hand, a Western diet (aka the Standard American Diet, or SAD), is characterized by a high intake of added sugar, refined carbohydrates, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. The SAD also tends to be lacking in nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
This article discusses some of the top health reasons for going vegan, which have plenty of scientific evidence behind them.
1. To achieve and maintain a healthy weight
A WFPB diet seems to be the most effective eating pattern for achieving weight loss goals AND keeping off the unwanted pounds. And in such a weight-focused culture, this is among the most popular health reasons for initially going vegan.
Evidence shows that plant-based diets are a viable and appropriate intervention for the treatment of overweight and obesity.
In a 2007 study, researchers compared weight loss effects of a low-fat vegan diet to a National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) diet – which includes lean animal protein sources – for 62 overweight women. The vegan diet saw substantially more weight loss than NCEP at 1 and 2 years after the end of the 14 week intervention.
A 2016 meta-analysis – including 12 randomized, controlled trials involving 1151 subjects participants – found that overweight or obese people who follow vegetarian diets tend to lose more weight than non-vegetarians. A subgroup of people on a vegan diet lost even more weight.
In my opinion, if more people were willing to try a WFPB diet, the fad diet industry would eventually fizzle out.
A well-planned plant-based diet is naturally rich in complex carbs, healthy unsaturated fats, and plant-derived protein. Because plants are literally the only natural food source of fiber, this diet effortlessly meets those needs too.
Put all of these pieces together and you’ve got yourself a nutritious and satiating diet that prevents overeating, tastes good, and is sustainable for more than a millisecond. A recipe for long-term weight management and health.
As for low-carb, keto, high-fat, carnivore, bone broth, juice fast diets for a quick fix that ultimately ends up in regaining? Boy BYE.
2. To improve heart health
Heart disease remains a leading cause of death in the United States and around the world, as the Western diet has crept into nearly every crevasse of the planet.
Decades of science have examined, and debated, how dietary fats play a role in the development of heart disease.
The consensus is that moderate saturated fat isn’t necessarily the enemy. But replacing it with unsaturated (plant) fats and high-quality carbs has a protective effect on the heart worth considering.
Whereas, replacing saturated fat with the types of carbs most people usually eat (e.g., snack foods and white bread) doesn’t do you any good.
Researchers have found that WFPB diets reduce trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), a molecule linked to heart disease. TMAO is produced in your body when you eat carnitine, a non-essential amino acid in meat and seafood. Plants have negligible amounts of TMAO.
More specifically, plant-based eaters make less TMAO from carnitine than omnivores. What does this mean? Presumably, eating meat changes the makeup of your microbiome in a way that makes it pro-inflammatory and raises heart disease risk.
In a 2020 randomized controlled trial (called “SWAP-MEAT”, The Study With Appetizing Plantfood-Meat Eating Alternatives Trial), researchers found that when participants swapped out animal products for plant-based alternatives, their heart disease risk factors improved – including TMAO levels.
Overall, WFPB diets are full of heart-healthy nutrients. Studies show that reducing (or eliminating) animal products also reduces heart disease risk.
3. To improve blood sugar management
While we often blame sweets for type 2 diabetes or uncontrolled high blood sugar, it turns out that high-fat foods like animal products may be more problematic.
When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into glucose molecules. These are sent into your bloodstream, where insulin unlocks receptors so glucose can enter your cells and used them for energy.
But when your bloodstream is full of saturated fat, the receptors get all gummed up. Free radicals disrupt the insulin process. This leaves the glucose in your blood… hence, high blood sugar, and poor insulin sensitivity.
Researchers have concluded that WFPB diets are effective for preventing, managing – and even reversing – type 2 diabetes.
Plant-based diets improve insulin sensitivity and lower fasting glucose levels, largely because of their fiber-rich, low saturated fat, and microbiome-promoting nature.
Furthermore, eating a vegan diet can effectively lower your HgA1c, a biomarker for long-term glucose control, better than omnivorous diets.
4. To reduce your risk for certain cancers
In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared processed meats (e.g. hot dogs, bacon, beef jerky, lunchmeat) to be group 1 carcinogens. This means there is sufficient evidence that they cause cancer in humans.
Yeah, you read that right.
The WHO also categorized red meat (e.g. beef, lamb, pork) as group 2A carcinogens. This means they are probably cancer-causing in humans, though the evidence is more limited for these.
One of the major types of cancer associated with red and processed meat consumption is colorectal cancer.
While the mechanism is unclear, some researchers think this is because cooking meat at high temps produces toxic chemicals called heterocyclicamines.
For instance, in a cohort from the Adventist Health Study-2, dairy consumption was clearly associated with a higher risk for breast cancer. This was even after adjusting for potential confounders like soy milk consumption.
On the other hand, people who adhere to a WFPB diet have overall lower incidence of cancer.
One major reason for this is likely their high-fiber nature. Simply put, fiber keeps your digestive tract clean and helps removes the nasties.
Ever heard that “soy causes cancer”? This is a myth that I’ll explain in detail another time.
As for prostate cancer, lots of lycopene and beta-carotene circulating in the blood lowers risk. You can find these antioxidants in colorful plant foods like tomatoes, peppers, and carrots.
I suggest reading How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger for more info on how a plant-based diet can lower your risk for cancer and other major chronic diseases in Western society.
5. To boost your immune defense
Plants were meant for your immunity. Eating a diet rich in plants is one of the best defenses against illness and age-related disease progression.
These include antioxidants, compounds that protect your cells from oxidative damage that can lead to disease. We’re constantly exposed to harmful substances called free radicals as a side effect of being alive.
Antioxidant-rich foods offer protection from the inside out. In fact, research shows that plant foods are the best sources. Antioxidants taken in supplemental form, like vitamins C and E, however, are not nearly as helpful.
The fiber content of plant foods can also help your body better fight of threats of disease and infection.
Recent studies have even suggested that the benefits of a plant-based diet on the gut microbiome may help provide additional defense against COVID-19. Helping your body fight off novel viruses through food ought to be on everybody’s top health reasons for going vegan, amiright?
6. To reduce inflammation
WFPB diets reduce inflammation throughout the body. Oppositely, the Western diet tends to be high in pro-inflammatory foods that can trigger and worsen inflammatory diseases.
The Western diet is so pro-inflammatory that it birthed the term “metaflammation“. This refers to the chronic metabolic inflammation that results from a nutrient-poor diet, overnutrition, and a sedentary lifestyle.
In a 2015 study, researchers found that a WFPB diet was effective for reducing symptoms of osteoarthritis.
But inflammation doesn’t just affect joints. Widespread inflammation is a root cause of many chronic diseases. For instance, digestive disorders, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer.
Furthermore, a vegan diet has lowered high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) – a biomarker of chronic inflammation – in studies of patients with coronary artery disease.
A 2017 meta-analysis of observational studies found that at least two years of a vegetarian diet resulted in a lower hs-CRP compared to a non-vegetarian diet. As such, the authors concluded that a plant-based diet can be an effective tool for managing chronic inflammation. BAM.
7. To protect your brain health
It turns out that your brain also loves whole plant foods. So much so, that a primarily plant-based diet reduces your risk for common age-related cognitive decline, including memory loss and Alzheimer’s dementia.
In the Rush University Memory and Aging Project, researchers found that when participants strictly followed a plant-based diet with limited meat, dairy, and salt, they had a 53% risk reduction for Alzheimer’s. 53%!
And these individuals had brain function equal to someone 7.5 years younger than them. What’s more, even a slightly lazier adherence to the diet still resulted in a 35% risk reduction.
Plant-based diets also support mental health better than Western diet patterns.
In a 2020 study, the diets and mental health of 435 Iranian women were examined. Researchers found that a healthy plant-based diet was inversely associated with psychological disorders and depression. Crappy diets, on the other hand, fuel crappy mental health.
Overall, evidence shows that meat, eggs, and high-fat dairy foods appear to be the biggest diet contributors to Alzheimer’s risk.
Oppositely, whole plant foods reduce risk. But simply eating them on occasion cannot counteract the effects of the aforementioned animal products.
In other words, swapping to a WFPB diet is your best line of brain defense.
The Alzheimer’s Solution: A Breakthrough Program to Prevent and Reverse the Symptoms of Cognitive Decline at Every Age by Drs. Dean and Ayesha Sherzai is an excellent research-based book on plant-based diets for the brain.
8. To improve reproductive health
Did you know that men who drink a lot of dairy milk in adolescence have a three-fold increased risk for advanced prostate cancer when they get older? Or that women who drink 1+ glasses per day of whole milk have a 3x greater risk for ovarian cancer?
Probably not, but that’s not your fault.
Thanks to the convincing marketing from dairy companies (ahem, “Got Milk?” campaign of the 90s), we all grew up believing that cow’s milk was “nature’s perfect food”. And it is, for baby cows.
All the while, nobody talks about how we don’t still need to be breastfeeding – let alone from another species – when we’re 45. But I digress.
Switching to a vegan diet is also protective for reproduction and sexual health. Meat and dairy-laden diets are linked to speedier loss of fertility and more sexual problems.
The good news is that switching to a WFPB diet can improve many of these issues, like erectile dysfunction in men (which is a risk factor for heart disease later in life). Why? Plants contain compounds that boost arterial nitric oxide (NO) production in your bloodstream, increasing circulation to all the important places.
Additionally, a plant-based diet can help alleviate menstrual cramps and annoying menopause symptoms, like hot flashes and night sweats. This is likely thanks to their phytoestrogen compounds.
For more info on vegan diets and sexual health, check out the book Vegan Sex by Ellen Jaffe Jones and Dr. Joel Kahn.
9. To improve gut health
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is often credited with the statement, “all disease starts in the gut”. And since the state of your gut depends largely on what you’re feeding it… we should probably feed it well, no?
Your gut is teeming with bacteria, but more in a fascinating way than a gross way.
And your unique bacterial balance has an enormous influence on how the rest of your body functions.
In fact, many studies talk about the gut-brain microbiome axis, or the bidirectional communication between your gut and brain at all times.
While it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that your body works as one very complex machine, this is pretty cool.
Studies show that vegans have a very different gut microbiome from omnivores.
Vegan guts have fewer disease-causing organisms (called pathobionts), and more protective species. As such, vegan guts are less inflamed, reflected throughout the rest of the body.
Plus, a Western diet increases risk for and relapse of digestive diseases like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But a plant-based diet offers protective effects by reducing inflammation and rebalancing gut bacteria.
Not to mention, a WFPB diet is chock full of fiber, which promotes bowel regularity and prevents the need for prune juice if you catch my drift.
10. To lengthen your lifespan
Eat more plants, increase your probability of living longer (and with less disease). If that’s not among the top health reasons for going vegan, I don’t know what is.
The Blue Zones are areas around the world in which much of the population regularly live to be older than the global average.
In fact, many Blue Zone inhabitants are part of the centenarian club, meaning they frequently live to be at least 100 years old. And they’re not sitting around rotting. Many of them live well into their nineties physically active and free from diseases that plague the rest of us.
So far, there are 5 major Blue Zones (Loma Linda, CA; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rice; Ikaria, Greece). Here, chronic diseases of the Western culture are much rarer.
The Blue Zones share several major lifestyle commonalities, one of them being a predominantly WFPB diet.
In the Blue Zones, people eat meat, eggs, and fish sparingly if at all, with little to no dairy products. Instead, their diet is based on sweet potatoes, sourdough bread and whole grains, olive oil, beans, nuts, and other whole plant foods.
There’s so much more I could say about the Blue Zones. The rest of the world could learn wonderful lessons about companionship, physical activity, spirituality, and stress management for longevity. But at the very least, their adherence to a WFPB diet should be a convincing area for our self reflection.
The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People is an eye-opening and empowering book about the research on these regions and how to implement it into your own community or household.
There are countless health reasons for going vegan. Whole foods, plant-based is a fantastic diet to improve your health. There are so many evidence-based health benefits of a vegan diet – give it a try!
Tell me: What’s one specific area of your health that you want to improve? What diet changes could you make to achieve this?
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