When it comes to vegan diets and health, a couple of misconceptions often pop up on blogs and in social media. One is that whole-food plant-based people are healthier than plain old vegans. Related to that is the belief that vegans motivated by ethics choose less healthy diets than those motivated by health.
Is it true? Do ethical vegans care more about animals than their own health? Research—or in some cases, the lack of research—casts some doubt on this.
Obviously, you can be vegan and still eat a pretty junky diet. There is the accidently vegan food as well as junk food developed just for vegans who like a treat. It’s not all that hard to eat a compassionate diet that is hyper-palatable, fun, and totally unhealthy.
And I’m sure there are some vegans who do that. I don’t come across them very often, though, and I’m not sure that it’s all that common. Rather, I think this whole idea of “junk food” vegans arises from a sometimes rigid and often extreme view of what constitutes healthy eating. That is, within some plant-based communities, there is this idea that if you have some Tofurky a few times a week, use olive oil on your salad and choose desserts that are sweetened with sugar rather than pureed dates—well, you’re a “junk food vegan.”
But, I don’t care what they tell you at the University of YouTube—there is no actual evidence that vegans who eat this way are any less healthy than those who avoid these foods like the plague. To the contrary, one study found better bone health among vegetarian women who included veggie meats in their diet (1). And vegan diets high in plant fats seem to promote health as well (2).
Likewise, the evidence does not support the idea that vegans who are motivated by health make better food choices than ethical vegans. In a new study in the journal Appetite, health-motivated vegans ate more fruit and fewer sweets. But they were less likely to take either vitamin B12 or vitamin D supplements. The ethical vegans ate more soyfoods and drank more polyphenol-rich beverages. (Okay, well some of that was red wine. But it also included more healthful beverages like coffee and tea.) There was no significant difference in BMI between the groups (3)
A study from 2013 also found few differences in food behaviors between the health- and ethics-motivated vegans. Health-motivated vegans were more likely to boil/steam foods than stir-fry and more likely to choose low-fat foods. That was about it (4).
I hear pretty often from those who are struggling on their vegan diet—either not feeling well in general, or they have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, or they are trying to reverse a nutrient deficiency. In almost all cases, they are eating what they believe to be an extremely healthy diet. This often means they are avoiding all kinds of things—veggie meats, fats and (often) supplements.
The Boca Burger eaters? They seem to be doing fine. Or at least, they aren’t coming to me with their health problems.
The new Appetite study also found that those who were vegan for ethical reasons seemed to be more likely to stick with veganism (3). Other research suggests the same (5). So does the survey from the Humane Research Council. Whether this is because ethics are a stronger motivator or because it’s simply easier to stay vegan when you allow yourself a few convenience products and treats is something we don’t know.
Whatever your reason for going vegan, you should eat a healthy diet. The evidence does not suggest that ethically-motivated vegans are any less likely to do so than those who go vegan for health reasons. And, yes, you can toss a store-bought veggie sausage on the grill and sneak some white sugar into your brownies and still be a healthy vegan.
Lousuebsakul-Matthews V, Thorpe DL, Knutsen R, Beeson WL, Fraser GE, Knutsen SF. Legumes and meat analogues consumption are associated with hip fracture risk independently of meat intake among Caucasian men and women: the Adventist Health Study-2. Public Health Nutr 2013:1-11.
Jenkins DJ, Wong JM, Kendall CW, Esfahani A, Ng VW, Leong TC, Faulkner DA, Vidgen E, Paul G, Mukherjea R, et al. Effect of a 6-month vegan low-carbohydrate (‘Eco-Atkins’) diet on cardiovascular risk factors and body weight in hyperlipidaemic adults: a randomised controlled trial. BMJ Open 2014;4:e003505.
Radnitz C, Beezhold B, DiMatteo J. Investigation of lifestyle choices of individuals following a vegan diet for health and ethical reasons. Appetite 2015.
Dyett PA, Sabate J, Haddad E, Rajaram S, Shavlik D. Vegan lifestyle behaviors. An exploration of congruence with health-related beliefs and assessed health indices. Appetite 2013.
Hoffman SR, Stallings SF, Bessinger RC, Brooks GT. Differences between health and ethical vegetarians. Strength of conviction, nutrition knowledge, dietary restriction, and duration of adherence. Appetite 2013;65:139-44.