Should You Eat a Vegan Diet?
There’s growing interest in vegan eating plans for several reasons, including better health. Should you ditch all animal foods for the sake of your heart?
There are many types of plant-based eating, but veganism is the kind where you avoid meat, poultry, fish, and dairy. According to a recent study, a plant-only diet offers protection against cardiovascular disease, which affects nearly 50% of all adults in the United States.
The research pooled the results of 11 high-quality studies called randomized controlled trials. It found that overweight adults with high blood sugar levels who ate a vegan diet for 12 weeks lost a meaningful amount of weight. They also lowered their blood sugar, total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol (the kind that leads to clogged arteries) levels, compared to those eating a regular diet.
Though experts don’t completely understand the effects of vegan diets on heart health, vegans may eat fewer calories, which helps with weight control. Keeping a healthy weight helps control blood pressure and lowers your risk for high blood sugar levels, which can both lead to heart disease. The absence of fatty meat and added animal fats in a vegan diet may mean they get less saturated fat, which helps to keep total and LDL cholesterol levels in check.
Vegan diets also tend to be higher in fiber, and some studies show that people who eat more fiber have a lower risk for cardiovascular disease. Plant foods are also rich in polyphenols, compounds that help lower the inflammation that can lead to heart disease. In addition, fresh and lightly processed plant foods are naturally low in sodium, and offer minerals like potassium, magnesium, and calcium that help regulate blood pressure.
A vegan diet doesn’t guarantee better heart health, however. It’s possible to avoid animal foods yet still follow a plan that’s low in nutrients – such as protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals – and high in calories and saturated fat. As with any eating style, food choices matter. People who follow a vegan diet but include sugar-sweetened beverages and foods, refined grains, and unhealthy added fats (like coconut oil) on a regular basis are unlikely to get the same results as those who eat these foods sparingly.
Following a vegan diet requires planning. You may also need dietary supplements. For example, vitamin B12, which prevents anemia and nerve damage, is found naturally only in animal foods including eggs, meat, and fish. Vegans need vitamin B12 from dietary supplements and fortified foods, such as cereal. Calcium, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fats are other nutrients that are often in short supply in vegan diets.
While a vegan diet holds promise for preventing heart disease, it’s possible to follow a heart-healthy plant-based eating plan without giving up animal foods. If you’re thinking of trying a vegan diet, or you need help with any eating style, work with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) to personalize an eating plan that meets your needs and accounts for your medical history.
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