Health Benefits Associated with Plant-Based, Vegan Diets

Sunday, January 17, 2021 10:50 AM | Anonymous

Angela Iovine, Pace University

The new year is upon us, which means that many people will be attempting new year’s resolutions.  While usually 92% of people fail to achieve their resolutions, with most being abandoned by mid-February, 2021 may be different.1,2  After a difficult 2020, the new year brings hope of a fresh start.  We have seen improvements in the medical treatment of COVID-19 and the production of an effective vaccine.  During the pandemic, many people adopted unhealthy habits, such as sitting for long periods, abandoning gyms, drinking excessively, and falling into unhealthy eating patterns.  The advancement of the calendar year may be the impetus for change that many need.2

            Adopting a plant-based vegan diet is becoming an increasingly popular new year’s resolution.  , A nonprofit group called Veganuary began in 2014 and capitalizes on the desire for change this time of year.  Its goal is to inspire people to try a vegan eating pattern during the month of January and throughout the year.  Participants can sign up on the organization’s website to be provided with vegan meal plans, recipes, and tips via email.  It also sends out information about nutrition, the impact of adopting a vegan diet on the environment and animal welfare, as well as news updates and offers.  Since its inception, more than one million people have signed up to take Veganuary’s one-month challenge.  Globally, more than 400,000 people signed up last year.  It is estimated that ten times as many people participate than sign up on the website.3  Other platforms also exist for taking a “Vegan Challenge”.

            This January, it is estimated that more people than ever will try a vegan diet.3  The coronavirus pandemic is already credited with a spike in plant-based meat substitute purchases in the United States, sales of which have been increasing steadily.  This past year, plant-based meat alternatives have become much more mainstream, appearing in both fast-food and fine-dining restaurants.4  Many makers and distributers of vegan products have gotten on board with Veganuary, offering discounts, new menu items, and marketing campaigns for vegan products during the month of January.5

There are many reasons why a person chooses to try a vegan diet, with optimizing health being the main motivator.6  Studies have shown a myriad of health benefits related to plant-based diets, with most of the scientific community in agreement that eating more plant foods is beneficial to health.  Plant-based vegetarian and vegan diets have been linked to improving cardiovascular health, reducing obesity, and reducing the risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  Research suggests that these eating patterns can reverse atherosclerosis, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of heart attack by 40% and the risk of stroke by 29%.  Risk for developing metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes is reduced by 50%.  Plant-based vegetarian and vegan diets are also associated with reduced all-cause mortality.7 

Improving diet quality can also positively impact cancer risk.  Research suggests that food choices contribute to about 33% of all cancer cases, and that 30-40% of all cancers are preventable with appropriate physical activity, a healthy diet, and an appropriate body weight.8,9  High-fiber, low-fat diets tend to be cancer protective, especially against colon, stomach, and breast cancers.  Plant foods, which are excellent sources of fiber and generally low in fat, are more cancer protective than animal products, such as dairy, eggs, and meat, which do not contain fiber and tend to be higher in fat.  The average American generally falls short of the daily fiber recommendation by 20-30g per day and overconsumes fat.  Red and processed meat have been labeled as carcinogens by the World Health Organization, and the consumption of meat and milk has been linked to ovarian and prostate cancers.9

A host of cancer-fighting phytochemicals and antioxidants are found in plant foods, including carotenoids, beta-carotene, flavones, indoles, vitamin C, and vitamin E.  Research shows that vegetarians have a lower risk for all cancers than people who eat meat, and that vegans have the lowest risk of all groups.8,9  A meta-analysis concluded that vegetarians have an 8% reduced risk for all cancer while vegans have a 15% reduced risk.10  The efficacy of plant-based vegan and vegetarian diets is also being explored in relation to cancer-related outcomes and cancer recurrence in cancer survivors.11  Research has shown that vegan diets can improve tumor markers and slow tumor growth in patients with prostate cancer.8

Plant-based diets that limit animal products also play a role in preventing cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.  This is possibly due in part to the reduced risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease associated with this dietary pattern, as these conditions increase the risk of developing dementia.  Higher intake of saturated fats, animal protein, and refined sugars are associated with increased risk, whereas higher intake of plant foods, such as beans and nuts, as associated with reduced risk.  The Mediterranean diet has been extensively studied in regards to dementia prevention, and has been found effective in reducing cognitive decline.12  The link between vegan diets and dementia remains an area of ongoing research.

Following a plant-based vegan diet has become a popular weight-loss trend.  Studies suggest that this may be an effective strategy for losing weight and maintaining a healthy body weight, even without caloric restriction.13  This may be due to the elimination of less-healthy foods, the increase in fiber intake leading to increased satiety, and the fact that whole plant foods tend to be lower in calories than animal-derived foods.  A study that randomized participants into an omnivore group and four different plant-based diet groups (vegan, vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, and semi-vegetarian) found that diet adherence and acceptability was similar across all groups; however, the vegan and vegetarian groups lost the most weight.14

            But how necessary is it to follow a strict vegan diet if one’s sole motivation is for its health benefits?  This is a complex question that is not succinctly answered.  However, it is true that there can be a stark difference between a vegan diet that focuses on whole foods and one that includes many processed foods.  For example, white rice and brown rice have different nutrient profiles, as do a baked potato, potato chips, and French fries.  It is possible to follow a nutrient-poor vegan diet.  It is also possible to follow a nutrient-rich, plant-based, non-vegan diet.  A plant-based diet limits animal foods, but it does not eliminate them.  The Mediterranean diet, which has been found to have many positive health implications, is an example of a plant-based diet.  Those who follow this eating pattern generally limit animal products but may occasionally consume them.

The quality of the foods chosen in a diet is an important consideration when discussing the diet’s healthfulness.  With more processed vegan foods appearing on the supermarket shelf daily, it may become more difficult for people to achieve the health benefits associated with this eating pattern.  The key is to focus on whole foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans, to find proven nutrient powerhouses that contribute to better health.

1.         Krockow EM. How to Build Healthier Habits Today. Psychology Today Web site. Published April 26, 2019. Accessed January 7, 2020.

2.         Krockow EM. Why Now is the Time for a Fresh Start. Psychology Today Web site. Published December 26, 2020. Accessed January 7, 2020.

3.         Veganuary 2021 Anticipating Record Sign-ups as Pandemic and Environmental Concerns Grow. Veganuary Web site. Published December 1, 2020. Accessed January 7, 2020.

4.         Nierenber A. Plant-Based ‘Meats’ Catch On in the Pandemic. The New York Times Web site. Published May 22, 2020. Updated May 24, 2020. Accessed January 7, 2021.

5.         What We Do. Veganuary Web site. Accessed January 7, 2021.

6.         Hopwood CJ, Bleidorn W, Schwaba T, Chen S. Health, environmental, and animal rights motives for vegetarian eating. PLoS One. 2020;15(4):e0230609.

7.         Kahleova H, Levin S, Barnard N. Cardio-Metabolic Benefits of Plant-Based Diets. Nutrients. 2017;9(8).

8.         Gray A, Dang BN, Moore TB, Clemens R, Pressman P. A review of nutrition and dietary interventions in oncology. SAGE Open Med. 2020;8:2050312120926877.

9.         Medicine PCfR. Foods for Cancer Prevention Fact Sheet. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine Web site. Accessed January 7, 2021.

10.       Dinu M, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A, Sofi F. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017;57(17):3640-3649.

11.        Molina-Montes E, Salamanca-Fernández E, Garcia-Villanova B, Sánchez MJ. The Impact of Plant-Based Dietary Patterns on Cancer-Related Outcomes: A Rapid Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2020;12(7).

12.       Pistollato F, Iglesias RC, Ruiz R, et al. Nutritional patterns associated with the maintenance of neurocognitive functions and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease: A focus on human studies. Pharmacol Res. 2018;131:32-43.

13.       Barnard ND, Levin SM, Yokoyama Y. A systematic review and meta-analysis of changes in body weight in clinical trials of vegetarian diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015;115(6):954-969.

14.       Moore WJ, McGrievy ME, Turner-McGrievy GM. Dietary adherence and acceptability of five different diets, including vegan and vegetarian diets, for weight loss: The New DIETs study. Eat Behav. 2015;19:33-38.

©Westchester Rockland Dietetic Association 2020-2021

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software