Following a vegan diet for the month of January- known widely as “Veganuary”- has been gaining popularity as a way for people to improve their health and benefit the environment. Whilst a vegan diet can have nutritional and health benefits, it’s important to understand some of the risks, and recognise that it may not be the right choice for everyone.
One of the main benefits of a vegan diet is that it can lower the risk of heart disease. Studies have shown that people who follow a vegan diet have lower levels of LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and body mass index (BMI), all of which are risk factors for heart disease. Additionally, a vegan diet is typically high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, which are all nutrient-dense foods that provide essential vitamins and minerals.
However, a vegan diet can also have some drawbacks, particularly when it comes to getting enough of certain nutrients. For example, vegans may be at risk of deficiencies in vitamin B12, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids, which are most often found in animal and dairy products. It is important to have a well-planned vegan diet to cover these deficiencies with the help of supplements and fortified foods. It’s also important to remember that not all vegan food is created equal, and processed vegan foods, like any kind of processed food, can be high in sugar, saturated fat and salt.
We know that making small lifestyle changes that improve health over the longer-term are more sustainable, and so moving from a diet that includes meat and dairy to an exclusively vegan diet straight away might be difficult to sustain. This is commonly seen in fad dieting, where making sudden drastic changes to our diet can be too restrictive and lead us to “fall off the wagon”. It’s also worth considering that it might take time to learn how to prepare and cook vegan meals. If you are interested in incorporating more plant-based meals into your diet, it can be helpful to do this gradually.
A vegan diet is often considered environmentally friendly, as it can reduce the demand for meat, which is a resource-intensive industry. Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and water pollution. Additionally, growing crops for animal feed requires a large amount of land and water. By not consuming meat and other animal products, we require less land, water, and other resources to sustain our diet, and that helps to reduce the environmental impact of food production. However, it’s not only about cutting out animal products; it’s important to consider other factors such as how the food is grown, how it was transported, and how much packaging it used. It is more environmentally friendly to choose foods that are grown locally and in season, as well as avoiding processed and packaged foods.
In terms of cost, some people may find that a vegan diet can save them money, as plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are often less expensive than animal-based foods like meat, eggs and dairy. However, it’s worth noting that some vegan foods can be more expensive, especially those that are processed or packaged. Again, opting for local and seasonal produce is likely to be kinder to your wallet.
Whilst following a vegan diet can offer a number of health benefits, it’s important to be mindful we’re getting all the nutrients our bodies need and that we’re not at risk of deficiency. Veganuary is a great way to incorporate more plant-based meals into our diet, but consideration should be given to the sustainability of an all-or-nothing approach. And finally, care should always be taken in selecting the right types of food, vegan or otherwise, to both benefit the environment and keep costs down. For more information on important nutrients for vegetarians and vegans have a look at our factsheet Important Nutrients for Vegetarians and Vegans.
Melina et al. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet (2016) Available at: https://www.jandonline.org/article/S2212-2672(16)31192-3/fulltext
British Nutrition Foundation. Healthy Eating for Vegans and Vegetarians (2018) Available at: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/putting-it-into-practice/plant-based-diets/healthy-eating-for-vegetarians-and-vegans/
Craig et al. The Safe and Effective Use of Plant-Based Diets with Guidelines for Health Professionals. Nutrients (2021) Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/13/11/4144