Veganism – a dietary pattern that excludes meat, dairy products and eggs as well as all other animal products – is on the rise. About 5% of Israelis say they are vegan, as do 1% of Germans and about 2% of the UK population. In the US, the proportion has grown from 1% to 2% of the population over the past 15 years, and a big reason for this is purported health benefits of a totally plant-based diet.
“While reduced mortality has not yet been shown for the vegan diet, it is clear that substantial health benefits may accrue to those adhering to it,” wrote the study’s authors, citing studies that suggest vegans have a lower BMI on average than non-vegans, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease and – along with vegetarians – a lower risk of certain cancers.
However, not all vegan foods are healthy, the researchers point out, and many grain-based foods that are high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats also happen to be vegan.
“This raises the question of whether the health advantages of a vegan diet result from just avoiding animal products, or from an overall concern for health that includes choosing nutritious foods and engaging in other health-promoting behaviours,” the researchers wrote, adding that if veganism is linked to other healthy behaviours, these should be accounted for in future studies.
The researchers examined responses to an online survey from 246 US-based vegan participants aged 25-60. They found that 45 cited ‘health’ as the main reason for choosing a vegan diet, while 241 cited ethical concerns.
Those in the health group were found to eat more fruit and fewer sweets than the ethically-driven vegans, while those who cited ethical concerns were likely to have been on the diet for longer.
Those who endorsed ethical reasons reported higher consumption of soy, foods rich in vitamin D, high-polyphenol drinks and vitamin supplements than those endorsing health reasons.
“As these factors may affect outcome in studies investigating the impact of vegan diets on health, they should be taken into account when studying persons following a vegan diet,” the researchers wrote.
Vol. 90, pp. 31-36 doi:10.1016/j.appet.2015.02.026
“Investigation of lifestyle choices of individuals following a vegan diet for health and ethical reasons”
Authors: Cynthia Radnitz, Bonnie Beezhold, Julie DiMatteo