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.
Excellent post, Ginny! I sort of touched on this subject on my blog today, but it was more directed at raw veganism than health veganism generally. I just know so many vegans who have recently gone raw or are transitioning to raw and their fanatacism and muddled thinking troubles me. Some care about animal rights, some don’t. They all look up to some raw guru who they see as near infallible on health matters.
There are times when I think health exclusive(doesn’t care about animal rights) “vegans” should stop calling themselves “vegans” and call themselves something else. “Strict vegetarian” though is a mouthful, and that is probably why they prefer “vegan”, even if they don’t care for the social movement it implies. I am frankly embarrassed by their extremism and antics; veganism shouldn’t be about extreme health-nuttery.
Those studies you cited are interesting and not surprising to me. A lot of health vegans so over-idealize the diet they set themselves up for deficiencies due to their avoidance of B-12 and other supplements(I speak from experience). I would love to see studies comparing raw vegans with cooked food vegans. I suspect the raw vegans aren’t as healthy as they like to think.
Although I think about animals right, I call myself “Plant based” person.. raw or cooked… I love it all.
Now according to an article I read today, if it is true that it is some animal product in car and bike tires, and use plastic bags time to time, then I do not know any vegans…:(
Hence the reason I can’t label myself a vegan. Vegans are expected to be perfect and the only way to be a perfect vegan is to live in the woods eating berries and tree bark weaving clothes from grape vines.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau has a great short video on how being vegan is not about being perfect https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2cxE29_e8E
Hi, you can see some of this research on Dr. Greger’s site (nutritionfacts.org). For instance, raw vegans get significantly less lycopene in their diet (since cooking tomatoes makes the lycopene more bioavailable).
Watermelon has scads of lycopene! Some studies indicate more than tomatoes even, and it doesn’t require cooking! 🙂 Dig in!
But, I don’t care what they tell you at the University of YouTube–
Bottom line, in my opinion, a number of people who eat vegan diets for health are really motivated by something else. Orthorexia makes people become so choosy they end up cutting out food needed for their basic nutritional needs.
“Orthorexia” is not recognized by the American Psychological Association. It’s also presumptuous to think those eating vegan diets for health don’t really care about their health. I became for vegan for animals but health is a highly motivating factor for me in staying vegan.
This is an emotionally charged subject for me. I was raised in the American southeast, a region of the country not known for its healthy habits. In my family, junk food was not seen as anything to worry about, and by the time I was a high school senior, junk was a significant part of my diet. When I became a vegetarian in college, my love of junk food was unchanged, and my health came to suffer in a major way.
My health has never been ideal, and I don’t know why, but I assume that being 50 pounds overweight and never exercising played a role. Well, as my time as a vegetarian progressed, I became more and more neurotic about my vegetarianism making me sick—I guess my head was filled with all of the common beliefs about vegetarianism being unhealthy and nutritionally inadequate. It was during this period that I suffered a health collapse, and I assumed that my vegetarian diet was to blame. I briefly returned to an Omni diet.
Eventually I did return to a plant-based diet, this time embracing veganism, but my anxiety about the safety of a plant-based diet didn’t go away. I have used that anxiety in positive ways—I read everything I could find on vegan nutrition, and I began to take stock of the nutritional value of the foods I was eating. (To give you an idea of how little I knew before, I was amazed to learn that my 5-night a week habit of sesame tofu was double-fried and therefore unhealthy.)
Maybe it’s because I’m still struggling with my health, or maybe it’s the old saying of “once bitten, twice shy,” but I’m more scared than ever of not getting the proper nutrition. You might say that I micromanage my diet, but that’s only because I don’t know what else to do. Because of my health problems I can’t just whip up any dish that I feel like having—I have to plan my meals very carefully so that I’m well enough to cook when I have to. And I also don’t have the money to run out for fast food when I don’t feel like cooking. So I do worry that, unless I stick to a very strict regimen of carefully chosen foods—I focus heavily on dark green leafies and beans—I won’t get enough of one of those nutrients you never hear about, like selenium or riboflavin.
And related to all of this, my fear is that if I don’t live an all-or-nothing diet of 100% whole-foods, I’ll cram my diet with junk that doesn’t give me the nutrition I need. So, right now at least, it’s a 100% whole-foods diet, give or take some protein powder here and there.
I do follow all the advice you give in your books and on your blog, as best I can—I’m a big believer in supplements, I probably get around 25% of my calories from fat, and probably 90% of the food I eat is cooked and not raw. But I can’t help but worry. If I stick to my meal plan—which I essentially always do, and which does not vary from day to day—I worry that I’m not getting enough variety in my eating. If I deviate from my meal plan, I worry about not getting enough nutrients, but I do try to remind myself that eating in a restaurant once in a blue moon won’t kill me. And I hate to admit it, but I ate a dessert for the first time in months yesterday, and the guilt nearly drove me crazy. (Part of the worry is because of the calories, but at least 1/2 of the guilt is about the fact that dessert is unhealthy and that a low-glycemic diet is recommended for my health problem.)
I know that I sound morbidly anxious, but I consider myself a junk food addict, and anytime I do indulge in a “treat,” I feel like someone in AA, surrounded by a world of drinkers, who slips and has a drink, all because no one else has the problem you have and therefore can’t see the harm in encouraging you to take a drink, relax, and don’t worry so much about things.
I wish so much that I’d been raised on salads, beans, healthy grains, and the like, and that I could just relax and be a healthy person. But that’s not me. I was raised on Burger King and Little Debbie snack cakes. I worry that the more I indulge myself with treats, the more likely it will become that I’ll fall off the wagon and start living on Oreos, French fries, and Daiya pizzas.
Hi Richard – sounds like it’s been a bit of a journey for you! It is harder to eat well when health issues are in the mix, so kudos for your efforts.
If i may offer a suggestion – any chance you could afford to see a dietician who knows their way around a plant based diet? They could look over your meal plan, & perhaps suggest some blood tests for your Dr to do, to make sure you are getting those nutrients.
There are also sites on the net where you can put in the food you eat and see if you are meeting nutritional requirements. Not as good as a trained dietician, but if you’ve the time/energy/patience, that could help you find the gaps on your own. Good luck!
You know, about the fear of getting “proper nutrition” I have this view: Think about how most people eat. When you’re at the supermarket, look at what kind of things people buy & eat. You will realize, it’s often rather unhealthy. But nevertheless, those people are eating like this for decades, and often still get old. Sometimes I see people in their sixties or seventies buying meat, beer, one banana, and chips And they’ve been probably living like that for most of their life. Maybe they don’t have ideal health, but what I’m trying to say is this:
You don’t need the RDA of every nutrient every day. Even if you go 70%, it will not mean, that you will get sick. Thinking that you need all of the nutrients all the time is a fantasy. One example I can think of is the traditional Okinawan diet. Although it’s generally high in nutrients since they’ve been eating a lot of sweet potato, it’s generally rather poor in Vitamin B2 (I cannot remember the exact numbers, it was maybe something like 60-70% of the RDA). Because of this Okinawans were known to have brittle lips, but still, they often got to (very) old age without any major diseases.
If you cannot let go of your food choice anxiety, I would also suggest either a vegan dietician or maybe a (ideally also vegan) psychologist (a vegan one, because otherwise he/she may even think of your veganism as a bad choice…) – the psychologist may help you to determine whether your anxiety is at a “normal level”.
I would also be interested in what kind of health problems you have (of course only if you will comfortable to share…). But anyway, to indulge in (supposedly) unhealthy foods once in a while should not be accompanied by what you describe as “the guilt nearly drove me crazy”, that’s definitely not healthy. And mental health is at least as important as bodily health.
When I took supplements beyond B12 and D, I worried more about being healthy because I was eating many processed foods. Cutting out multivitamins and other supplements has improved my diet by encouraging me to eat lots of dark green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, beans, and other whole plant foods. I also eat nori and wakame seaweed, something I avoided before since multivitamins were a source of iodine. Studies consistently show that food is the best source of nutrients and that multivitamins and other supplements may do more harm than good. Just eat a variety of whole foods in different colors and stick to B12 (and D depending on sunlight where you live) and you’ll be fine.
Richard, I agree with others that it would be great if you could talk with someone about this–ideally someone who deals with issues of anxiety around food.
If you are happy with the way you eat, and it follows my guidelines for meeting nutrient needs, then I think you’re doing okay. If you feel deprived or unhappy about never being able to indulge in something a little less healthy–because you worry that it’s a slippery slope for you–then this would be an area where it is good to get a little guidance.
You are definitely not alone in feeling as you do. I hear often from vegans who feel very anxious about what will happen if they stray even a little bit from a diet of 100% whole plant foods, and it’s one of the reasons I wrote this post.
I. LOVE. YOU.
Just make sure your white sugar isn’t made with bone char 😉
…but isn’t white sugar non-vegan?
Vegans, in addition to being vegetarian, do not use other animal products and by-products such as eggs, dairy products, honey, leather, fur, silk, wool, cosmetics, and soaps derived from animal products.
What Sayward said.
I love this blog and the work that you. I like that its based on sound science, so I hope you’ll take it as a compliment when I point out a flaw in your logic.
You state that health motivated vegans are no healthier than ethically motivated vegans. But you don’t use statistical models that compensate for the health of these individuals before they became vegan.
People who are ethically motivated are going to be slanted towards more healthy individuals. Mostly because being truly sick takes a lot of time and energy and rarely leaves time to contemplate the bigger picture of respect for animals. Also, this population tends to be younger than the health motivated vegans, who often come to plant-foods because they are experiencing heart disease and other degenerative diseases.
If it is true that health motivated vegans are as healthy as ethically motivated vegans, I would say that this is a HUGE success for health orientated vegans.
My own experience tells me that moderation does lead to much healthier vegans. I’m a practitioner, and I sometimes see people who are all raw (in the NJ winter) or who are very restrictive in their eating. They aren’t doing nearly as well as those who come in with a reasonable but not super strict, healthy diet. But also, they tend to have fewer long-term health problems that might lead one to taking drastic steps like going low-fat-all-raw.
I understand what you’re saying and it’s true that you would need to consider this if you were comparing actual health status of the two groups. But I was really just comparing their food habits to show that those who go vegan for health reasons aren’t really choosing diets that are healthier than those who go vegan for ethical reasons. This is just to address the myth that ethical vegans are often “junk food” vegans.
I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life. When I became an ethical vegan I was sure that I would magically become skinny. No such luck. I found Dr. McDougall and lost a good amount of weight. I was never perfect though. I still ate out and had oil from time to time and I was a new vegan so trying new vegan convenience foods excited me (confession – it still does!).
Over the last 7 years I’ve done starch, low fat, taco bell, raw vegan, high protein, gardein everything…..I’m just now settling into a groove.
I eat what I want. If i crave a huge bowl of mangoes and berries I eat it. If I want gardein sliders I have them. Avocado – get in my mouth now. Since I’ve become a little looser with my diet (always vegan…always!) I’ve found myself thinking what sounds good today and what will make me FEEL good today. A lot of times it is simple meals with lots of veggies and starches. Love green juice and smoothies. I don’t cook with much oil because I don’t feel good when I eat it, but when I go out to eat I don’t stress.
I’ve also realized that when I have the food battles with my husband I can easily get him to eat vegan but if I push the no oil thing on him he rebels with cheese pizza! If I make him a veggie burger with a huge salad he is all over it.
Awesome post, thank you! 🙂
This hasn’t been my experience at all. Dr. McDougall gave a talk on how isolated soy protein raised IGF-1 levels twice as much as casein and I’ve seen stories of vegans who came down with cancer and yep, they were downing tons of Cliff bars (made from ISP) and fake meats.
I’ve also seen lots of overweight and unhealthy vegans who eat French fries, soy ice cream, etc.
And I used to be one of them. I was a total junk food vegan. I was healthier than most but not as healthy as I can be when I upgraded my diet by a long shot.
And Dr. Greger, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and Jeff Novick have spoken extensively on the effect olive oil has on the epithelial function of the arteries.
I’ve seen your talks on Youtube (of all places) as well as Brenda’s and Brenda’s talk on her work in the Marshall Islands with diabetics stresses that the biggest change that happened was that the locals started eating Ramen and other junk foods instead of growing their own so I’m surprised to see this article coming from you.
Michele, nowhere in my article did I suggest that it was okay for vegans to eat junk food all the time. I said that indulging in a few unhealthy treats is okay, and I also pointed out that some of the foods that people often think are “junk foods,” like vegetable oils, are actually not.
The research doesn’t support the idea that including some oils in your diet is unhealthy. Research shows that single meals that are very high in fat can damage the epithelial lining of the arteries. Unfortunately, this has been misconstrued by some to mean that you should avoid all high fat foods and oils. This in turn has led to the idea that vegans who include these foods in their diets are “junk food” vegans.That is the type of extreme and scientifically-unsupported viewpoint that I’m addressing.
My understanding (which definitely could be wrong) is that Dr. Esselstyn’s research confirmed the benefits of no oil. I remember he mentioned in his book that those who weren’t improving on his recommended diet (part of his study) were eating some oil.
I’d love to believe what you are saying, because using some oil would make the diet a whole lot more palatable (though would not relieve nutrient concerns).
Thanks for having a great site, either way.
Your comments are the kinds that stretch my incredulity as a vegan for 25 years now.
Dr. Greger, you, Drs. McDougall etc, keeping telling me about all these ‘junk food’ vegans. Where are they? They must be hiding under a bushel because in my 25 years as a vegan I’ve never met one.
And that study that Dr. McDougall refers to, at least the one I’ve seen, suggests soy protein is beneficial to women who are not on HRT for better bone health: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12629084
Yes, protein can increase IGF which does seem to promote cancer, but only if that protein is animal based. Plant protein (including soy) does not raise IGF levels like animal protein: http://nutritionfacts.org/video/protein-intake-and-igf-1-production/
Yes, eating too much soy protein may start to increase IGF, but we don’t know if it’ll have the same deleterious affect as animal protein. But now we’re talking eating more than 5 or so servings of soy per day: http://nutritionfacts.org/video/how-much-soy-is-too-much/
Who does that? On a particularly ‘junk food’ day, I might tap out at 3 servings of soy.
As for Dr. Greger and olive oil, he showed specifically that olive oil had no affect negative affect on cardiovascular risk factors: http://nutritionfacts.org/video/extra-virgin-olive-oil-vs-nuts/
I don’t know how you do it, but you and Jack Norris are a breath of fresh air amongst the hyperbole of exaggerated broscience, half truths and wishful thinking that so many folks seem to cling to regarding ‘clean’ WFPB eating.
I get fed up with it to be honest. Food is more than just nourishment, it’s entertainment and fun and vegan food is the best of all of this. I haven’t met all these junk food vegans that so many people keep swearing are out there. Then again, I haven’t met Santa Claus either.
My suspicion is, that as the science gets better it will become more apparent that the less animal foods eaten the better, such that eating vegan will be seen as the healthiest overall. That day may be quite a ways off. Society, culture as well as vested interests and subconscious biases within researchers and folks generally will hamper this journey for the foreseeable future.
This makes ethical veganism the obvious choice which cannot be countermanded by the teeter totter science of the day.
Here’s how ethical veganism works for those unsure of the underpinning philosophy. If it is agreed that veganism is a healthy way of eating (and it is as the dietetic associations have agreed), then one eats animal products solely for palatable pleasure. But to do this makes one complicit in extreme violence and atrocities caused to sentient beings which cannot be justified by any legitimate means.
Knowing this, if one continues to eat animal products one continues to be complicit in the commitment of violence and cruelty which is either psychopathic or just plain evil.
Do “vegans” who are motivated by health eschew the wearing of products that come from animals even though they’re not entirely motivated by ethics? If not, do they even fit the definition? Sounds more like they’re strict vegetarians.
I appreciate your last post, Ginny. I see that the ultra-low-fat diet reverses heart disease in inoperable patients (e.g. Forks Over Knives and subsequent research).
I have tried, and still try, to have a whole foods, plant-based diet with no refined oils. However, I like bread sometimes, I love pancakes at least 2x per month, I like bought hummus (full of oils), and make a whacky cake when I get the craving. Good to know that I don’t need to feel guilty about eating any of these or the occasional faux meat product. Now, I still have some work to do on eating more greens. It’s not something my tastebuds naturally gravitate too, but I’m working on it, and getting more colors in the diet (not always easy in winter).
Ginny, interesting article. It pretty much goes against the “whole foods mantra” of most health gurus.
I’ve lost track, though. Is your husband still working for the soybean industry?
No, it doesn’t go against the whole foods mantra at all. I recommend a diet based on whole foods as do all responsible nutritionists. However, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t some room in menus for a few of these other foods. And it is likely that those who include these foods in their diet are no less healthy than those who don’t.
And yes, my husband works for the soy industry. His work is primarily related to soy isoflavones which are usually (unfortunately) not found in soy-based veggie meats. So, his work is not related to these products or the companies that make them.
What a passive aggressive comment.
Thank you for this, insightful post once again.
When I buy vegan meats, such as deli slices, I always look at the ingredients. Some use soy protein isolate (like Lightlife) whereas others use tofu (like Tofurky). I choose the one made with a higher percentage of whole ingredients whenever possible.
I would also like to see vegan meat products included in the USDA database for nutrients so they can be accurately compared. Currently, only Morningstar is listed and many of those unfortunately aren’t vegan.
Amen to what you wrote Adrian. And I’m impressed with anyone who’s been vegan for 25 years!
My interpretation of what Ginny is pointing out is that we tend to think in black and white terms which results in distortions of the truth, in this case regarding vegans. Ginny coined “the university of You Tube,” so cleverly capturing the reality of how much conflicting information is available that further adds to misconceptions about the truth. It is indeed a breath of fresh air to be able to read this blog and that of Jack Norris.
Thank you for posting this! I am the convenience food queen. I hate cooking, unless it’s an intimate communal activity or as a thoughtful offering for a special someone. Otherwise, if I can’t cook it in the microwave and in less than 10 minutes, you can forget it. My partner didn’t believe me when I told him this… he about lost his mind when I ate baby carrots and hummus every day for lunch for over 2 months. He can’t abide watching me revel in banal eating habits. He doesn’t get it: If I enjoyed something today, why would that diminish my pleasure at having it tomorrow?
That said, one of my latest loves is pre-packaged veggie meats. I like to chunk and blend one with steamed broccoli for dinner. I’m glad to hear they’re not terrible for me. Again, my partner doesn’t perceive the appeal. I don’t eat them because I’m “craving meat” – I never liked meat or ate it that often – it’s rather that I enjoy the chewy texture.
I adore your blog, and your book. It’s hard to find health professionals where I live who don’t think veganism is some sort of inane youth trend, or worse, some wacky eating disorder; it’s a relief to be able to evaluate my habits with sound information.
I’ve never understood how oils, refined grains, etc aren’t suppose to be junk foods yet when you combine them to create, say, a cookie the combination becomes a junk food. It seems like the real question is, just how much junk can you eat before it becomes a health issue? Are there actual studies on this or is this just speculation?
Thanks for writing this Ginny, I’m vegan for the animals before anything else and it’s so much easier to convince people to give veganism a try when you can point them in the direction of cruelty free alternatives to their favourite foods.
Thank you Ginny! Hope to see you soon. Tushar!
I keep hearing that olive oil impairs endothelial function. Truth is it depends on the polyphenol content of the given oil. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25460732
Don’t believe everything you read!
“Whatever your reason for going vegan, you should eat a healthy diet.”
I am an avid reader of your blog but I do not identify as vegan even though I eat a “vegan” diet. My point is that your blog is also a terrific resource for many who are veganish, “veg”, beegan, ostrovegan, and/or freegan.
[…] diet easier and makes it easier to meet nutrient needs. (4,5). Health-motivated vegans may also be less likely to take appropriate supplements (5). One group of researchers said that “It is possible that health vegans, in pursuit of better […]
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