Interested in learning more about the health benefits of vegan/vegetarian diets? Taylor Wolfram is a Chicago-based dietitian, a great friend of mine and a very committed vegan. She really lives her values and loves spreading information about the benefits of being a vegetarian or vegan. Whatever diet you follow, it is important to consider the amount of plant-based foods you are eating and the positive outcomes that come from adopting some vegetarian/vegan practices, even if you don’t classify yourself as such. Read on to learn more about the research on the health benefits of vegan/vegetarian diets from a very qualified expert!
You’ve likely heard that vegans and vegetarians tend to be healthier than their meat-eating counterparts. In fact, many people are attracted to plant-based diets for their wonderful health benefits including weight loss and lower cholesterol and blood pressure. While this doesn’t mean that vegans and vegetarians are automatically immune from chronic diseases, on the whole, plant-eaters tend to be at a lower risk for a host of health ailments.
Much of the research on vegan and vegetarian health comes from large population studies of Seventh Day Adventists. This population is largely herbivorous in accordance with their religious beliefs. In fact, one of the “Blue Zones” of the world, an area where people live much longer than others, is Loma Linda, California, home to thousands of Seventh Day Adventists.
A 2014 study that pooled three large Adventist cohort studies for a total of over 100,000 people people found that indeed, vegans and vegetarians have much lower disease risk than the general population. What’s more interesting is that as consumption of animal products decreased (i.e. from lacto-ovo vegetarian to vegan), so did disease risk. It appears that the more plant-centered the diet, the lower the disease risk. Risk for obesity, hypertension, diabetes and metabolic syndrome are all significantly lower for vegans and vegetarians. They are also at a decreased risk for cancer, heart disease mortality and all-cause mortality. In addition, vegetarians tend to have longer life expectancy than non-vegetarians.
So why is this the case? While we can’t point to a specific cause and effect yet, we do know some things. Research shows that vegetarians consume more vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and soy products than non-vegetarians. We also know that these foods are health protective due to their abundance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytosterols, antioxidants and other phytochemicals.
Vegetarians consume no meat and they also consume less dairy, eggs, added fat, sweets, snack foods and sugar-sweetened beverages than non-vegetarians. Many of these foods contain fats and sugars known to be linked to disease. In short, vegetarians tend to eat more of the health-promoting foods and less of the foods that contribute to health issues. Life expectancy studies show that along with a vegetarian diet, lower body weight, no smoking and regular physical activity are important factors for longevity.
While there is no single perfect diet, vegans can be unhealthy and meat-eaters can be healthy, eating a plant-based diet is one way to boost your intake of disease-protective nutrients. Aim to make each meal loaded with colorful vegetables and fruits, hearty whole grains, and protein-packed legumes. Make water your main beverage of choice and choose calcium-rich foods from each of the food groups (hint: calcium is all over the plant kingdom!). Keep your portions in check, enjoy alcohol in moderation and be sure to exercise daily.
Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN is a vegan registered dietitian nutritionist based in Chicago, Illinois. She uses a total mind + body approach to health and wellness including nutrition, fitness and mindfulness. You can read more from Taylor at her blog Whole Green Wellness and also World of Vegan. Connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest.