by Jack Norris, RD
Vegan Diets: Health Benefits
A vegan diet can provide many health benefits. Vegans have:
- Half the rate of high blood pressure (1, 2)
- Half the risk of type-2 diabetes (3, 15)
- A 15–20% lower risk of cancer (4, 5)
- Significantly lower cholesterol levels (6)
Even though there are numerous benefits, in order to thrive, vegans should be aware of the nutrition issues below.
Calories, Protein, and Fat
It’s important to include some high-calorie, high-protein foods in order to feel satisfied.
Simply removing animal products from a typical American diet is going to leave you with mostly low-calorie foods such as salads, vegetables, and fruit. Eating only these foods could quickly leave you feeling hungry and weak, and thinking a vegan diet is a real challenge.
While severe protein deficiency is nothing to worry about, not eating some high-protein plant foods could leave you craving animal products or feeling fatigued—see Story from a Once-Failing, Now-Thriving Vegan.
Legumes (beans, peanuts, peas, lentils, and soy), seitan, and quinoa are the best sources of protein for vegans. Include a few servings of these foods each day—maybe even each meal.
People tend to think of animal products, and especially meat, as “protein,” but many are 50% fat. A very low-fat, plant-based diet might improve someone’s health in the short term, especially if they have high cholesterol, but it might not be ideal for longer periods. If you’re avoiding all added fats and you start to crave animal products, it might be time to increase the plant fats.
In fact, research has consistently shown that eating nuts—which are high in fat—improves markers for heart disease (7).
Although the research is still preliminary, it appears that some people don’t have the genetics to do well on a high carbohydrate diet (8). For such people, an eco-Atkins diet, high in plant proteins such as soy meats, legumes, and seitan, might be a better choice (9).
Finally, if you find yourself craving animal products, it could be because you have a strong preference for the taste of glutamate, also known as umami. Plant foods high in umami are ripe tomatoes, tamari, miso, sauerkraut, dried sea vegetables, marmite, nutritional yeast, olives, balsamic vinegar, and mushrooms. Roasting, caramelizing, browning, and grilling increase umami by freeing glutamate from proteins (10).
Don’t Overdo the Oxalate
Some plant foods are high in oxalate and spinach is extremely high. For most vegans, oxalate won’t be a problem, but if you decide to start juicing or blending your greens, make sure you don’t consistently use large amounts of the high oxalate greens—spinach, swiss chard, and beet greens—doing so can sometimes result in a kidney stone. See Oxalate for more info.
In rare cases, some vegans might not get enough fat or calories to produce adequate amounts of steroid hormones, which are made from cholesterol.
Two studies have shown vegans to have sex hormones on par with meat eaters (11, 12), but one report showed vegan women to have lower levels of estrogen (13).
A few anecdotal reports provide some evidence that low cholesterol might be a problem for some vegans—see Bonzai Aphrodite’s story of regaining her health as a vegan, Facing Failing Health As A Vegan. In such cases, increasing saturated fat, such as by adding some coconut oil, could increase a depressed libido or resume menstruation.
Vitamins and Minerals: For the Long Haul
Although a vitamin or mineral deficiency is very unlikely to occur in only a few weeks or months as a vegan, there are some nutrients you need to pay attention to if you want to thrive over the long term. For each nutrient listed below, we provide the precise requirements and common sources in our article, Daily Needs.
Vitamin B12 in vegan diets has been a source of controversy and myths (14). Although it rarely happens quickly, if you don’t get a reliable source of vitamin B12 through fortified foods or supplements, the chances are high that you will eventually find your health suffering.
The need for calcium on vegan diets has also been surrounded by misleading claims with many vegan advocates saying that animal protein, including milk, is the main cause of osteoporosis in Western countries. Following this logic, it would make sense that vegans don’t need to worry about osteoporosis since we don’t eat animal protein.
The research actually shows that vegans, like nonvegans, should try to meet the same calcium recommendations as the greater population. Vegan diets tend to contain much less calcium than other diets, so we must make an effort to include good sources on a daily basis.
More often than not, vegans who come to me with severe fatigue are suffering from vitamin D deficiency. This isn’t just a vegan problem as many people develop vitamin D deficiency, partially as a result of avoiding the sun. But vegans are at a slight disadvantage, on average, because we get less vitamin D in our diets. Make sure that you have a reliable source of vitamin D.
Iron is found in a wide range of plant foods and vegans tend to have iron intakes comparable to meat-eaters.
However, plant iron isn’t as easily absorbed as iron from meat and a small percentage of women develop iron-deficiency anemia after becoming vegetarian.
If you think you’re at risk: Make sure to include a good source of vitamin C at meals—it binds with iron creating a more easily absorbed complex. Avoid coffee and tea at meals as they decrease iron absorption.
Iodine is important for thyroid health, but it’s a nutrient that most vegans rarely think about. Iodine is found inconsistently in plant foods depending on the iodine content of the soil. The food supply in many countries has traditionally been depleted of iodine, and iodized salt fortification programs have solved iodine deficiency in many of them. You should make sure you have a source of iodine either from iodized salt or a multivitamin or supplement containing potassium iodide. Too much iodine can be harmful so don’t take much more than the RDA of 150 µg (micrograms) per day. If you normally eat seaweed, you probably don’t need an iodine supplement but because iodine can be highly variable in seaweed, we don’t recommend adding it to your diet for iodine.
Omega-3 fats are important for the long-term health of the heart and brain. Vegans should make sure they’re getting enough omega-3s—walnuts, canola oil, flaxseeds, and DHA supplements are the most common sources.
There are many sources of vitamin A for vegans—especially orange vegetables—but you shouldn’t leave getting enough to chance. See your options in the picture below and eat one or two sources every day.
An average vegan diet will meet or come close to the RDA for zinc, but some people might fall a bit short. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include catching frequent colds or developing cracks at the corners of your mouth. Supplement with 50–100% of the RDA if you suspect a deficiency.
To see general meal plans that a vegan might follow to meet nutrient needs, check out:
Vegan for Life
Interested in the finer points of vegan nutrition? Vegan for Life will answer your questions and provide you with a science-based background.
Good luck—and may you thrive on a vegan diet!
Last updated January 2018
1. Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets: what do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases? Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;89(5):1607S-1612S. Epub 2009 Mar 25. Review. Erratum in: Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jul;90(1):248.
2. Appleby PN, Davey GK, Key TJ. Hypertension and blood pressure among meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians and vegans in EPIC-Oxford. Public Health Nutr. 2002 Oct;5(5):645-54.
3. Tonstad S, Stewart K, Oda K, Batech M, Herring RP, Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets and incidence of diabetes in the Adventist Health Study-2. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2013 Apr;23(4):292-9.
4. Key TJ, Appleby PN, Crowe FL, Bradbury KE, Schmidt JA, Travis RC. Cancer in British vegetarians: updated analyses of 4998 incident cancers in a cohort of 32,491 meat eaters, 8612 fish eaters, 18,298 vegetarians, and 2246 vegans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jun 4.
5. Tantamango-Bartley Y, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Fan J, Fraser G. Vegetarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2012 Nov 20.
6. Bradbury KE, Crowe FL, Appleby PN, Schmidt JA, Travis RC, Key TJ. Serum concentrations of cholesterol, apolipoprotein A-I and apolipoprotein B in a total of 1694 meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014 Feb;68(2):178-83.
7. Sabaté J, Ang Y. Nuts and health outcomes: new epidemiologic evidence. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;89(5):1643S-1648S.
8. Dieting by DNA? Popular diets work best by genotype, research shows.
9. Jenkins DJ, Wong JM, Kendall CW, Esfahani A, Ng VW, Leong TC, Faulkner DA, Vidgen E, Greaves KA, Paul G, Singer W. The effect of a plant-based low-carbohydrate (“Eco-Atkins”) diet on body weight and blood lipid concentrations in hyperlipidemic subjects. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Jun 8;169(11):1046-54.
10. Is Umami a Secret Ingredient of Vegan Activism?
11. Thomas HV, Davey GK, Key TJ. Oestradiol and sex hormone-binding globulin in premenopausal and post-menopausal meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Br J Cancer. 1999 Jul;80(9):1470-5.
12. Key TJ, Roe L, Thorogood M, Moore JW, Clark GM, Wang DY. Testosterone, sex hormone-binding globulin, calculated free testosterone, and oestradiol in male vegans and omnivores. Br J Nutr. 1990 Jul;64(1):111-9.
13. Goldin BR, Gorbach SL. Effect of diet on the plasma levels, metabolism, and excretion of estrogens. Am J Clin Nutr. 1988 Sep;48(3 Suppl):787-90. Review.
14. Vitamin B12: Are You Getting It?
15. Papier K, Appleby PN, Fensom GK, et al. Vegetarian diets and risk of hospitalisation or death with diabetes in British adults: results from the EPIC-Oxford study. Nutr Diabetes. 2019 Feb 25;9(1):7.
16 thoughts on “Tips for New Vegans”
Hello, thank you for pointing out that iron from plants is less easily absorbed than the iron from animals. Personally, I’ve found that your recommendation to get plenty of vitamin C, both through supplements and through foods (and I do do both), is very helpful for iron absorption and for other reasons, too.
While I wholeheartedly agree with you that iron deficiency can be a problem for women, I’m inclined to believe that it can be a problem for men, too. If a man is craving pizza (peperoni, tomatoes) or meat-based burgers, or liver (lots of iron there), my first thought would be that he may want to check his iron levels.
Men can be deficient in iron, too.
It’s a sad thing when someone gives up on plant-based because they can’t figure out why they’re not feeling their best; the information you provide here is so valuable!
What if I don’t like beans
Hi Anita – There are other legumes (peanuts, peas, lentils, soy foods such as tofu and tempeh, and vegan meats made from peas and soy) and other vegan foods (seitan, quinoa) that are rich in protein. So, you don’t have to eat beans as a vegan. However, they are super nutritious, affordable and versatile so you might consider trying them in different forms and prepared in different ways (such as refried beans, hummus, bean dip, etc.).
I give my kids algae oil for DHA/EPA. I have been told (on a vegan Facebook page) there are studies that show algae oil and it’s link to MS, ALS and other neuro-degenerative diseases. That algae produces BMAA (BMAA causes protein unfolding in the brain leading to neuro diseases.) and microcystins are in algae oil, which are especially harmful to children. They said it’s not just blue-green algae that is unsafe, It’s with all algae oils and supplements as there is immense opportunity for contamination even if a “safe” species of algae is used – the one we use is Schizochytrium sp.
I’m just trying to find out more information as I’m now worried about using algae oil and I don’t know of any other dietary sources of DHA/EPA?
Here is the study…
> and it’s link to MS, ALS and other neuro-degenerative diseases.
Are you saying that the study you linked to, Detection of Cyanotoxins in Algae Dietary Supplements, shows this link? That study doesn’t show such a link and while it’s possible I’ve missed it, I’m not aware of any research showing such a link.
However, at VeganHealth.org, we don’t consider DHA or EPA supplements necessary for children, other than for pre-term infants. If parents ensure a regular source of alpha-linolenic acid (see Daily Needs) for kids, they generally shouldn’t need algal oil supplements. If someone prefers that their children have a direct source of DHA and is concerned about contamination, I’d suggest contacting some of the companies (or looking at their websites) to see if they test for toxins to their satisfaction.
I was interested in the comment asking about BMAA and microcystins in algae supplements. According to the abstract Jodie Courtney linked to, the article appeared to be about Spirulina supplements exclusively. Spriulina is a blue-green algae, but unlike some other blue-green algae, it is not toxic. It seems like the problem is that the Spirulina algae, when grown in wild, natural environments, may become intermixed with other wild, toxic blue-green algae. The abstract said, in part, “These products generally contain non-toxic cyanobacteria, but the methods of cultivation in natural waters without appropriate quality controls allow contamination by toxin producer species present in the natural environment.” My understanding of the abstract is that Spriulina is a blue-green algae and when grown in open natural environments, the product may become contaminated with other, unsafe blue-green algae.
On the other hand, it is my understanding that Schizochytrium grown for harvesting its high-DHA oil is grown in a highly controlled environment in steel tanks. I have not seen any company claiming to grow Schizochytrium in any other way.
I don’t know why someone on the Facebook group would make a link between a blue-green algae grown in a wild environment and a Schizochytrium algae species grown in a highly controlled environment.
BMAA stands for beta-N-methlamino-l-alanine. I tried to search for this term along with Schizochytrium, but the results that came up were all about BMAA in blue-green algae exclusively. It appears to me that BMAA and microcystins occur in blue-green algae, and when contamination occurs, it is because of the presence of these toxic algae. I would think that if a manufacturer took measures to avoid this contamination, the toxins would not be present?
I am new to the vegan diet and am concerned about the anti nutrients found in vegetables, legumes, grains and nuts. I don’t know the best resource that addresses this issue that can allay my fears with embarking on this way of eating. Can you advise?
Hi Susan – As long as you’re following the recommendations on our Daily Needs page, you shouldn’t need to worry about so-called “anti nutrients.” We have an article on oxalate and you can find info about phytate in our iron article and zinc article
I have the old edition of Vegan for Life and I’ve just noticed that there’s a new (2020) one – is there much difference between the two? I’m not sure whether to buy the new one.
We added a lot of information to the new edition so you might want to compare the table of contents to see if any of the new information interests you. There wasn’t anything in the old edition that I would consider so outdated that it would make a difference to your health if you continue to follow it, but we tweaked a few things for the second edition.
I was told to take fish oil for brain health and would like to find a good, organic vegan alternative. Can you help?
You can find dietary supplements with algae-derived EPA and DHA. Make sure the capsule is not gelatin as that is not vegan.
What about the issue of having too low HDL cholesterol? Will olive oil or another fat help with this?
You should talk to your doctor about whether your personal HDL levels are of concern and what to do with respect to them, but in general people should focus on eating a well-balanced diet as shown in the Plant Plate (theveganrd.com/vegan-nutrition-101/food-guide-for-vegans/) and exercising, but not purposefully adding extra oils or fats in order to raise HDL levels.
And where are the article about cats vegan diet at the new version of site? )’: It’s very usefull and I recommend it to other(((
Sorry for offtop.