Vegan diets are known to help people lose weight.

However, they offer an array of additional health benefits.

For starters, a vegan diet may help you maintain a healthy heart.

What’s more, this diet may offer some protection against type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

Here are 6 science-based benefits of vegan diets.

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Photography by Aya Brackett

1. A vegan diet is richer in certain nutrients

If you switch to a vegan diet from a typical Western diet, you’ll eliminate meat and animal products.

This will inevitably lead you to rely more heavily on other foods. In the case of a whole-foods vegan diet, replacements take the form of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds.

Since these foods make up a larger proportion of a vegan diet than a typical Western diet, they can contribute to a higher daily intake of certain beneficial nutrients.

Several studies have reported that vegan diets tend to provide more fiber, antioxidants, and beneficial plant compounds. They also appear to be richer in potassium, magnesium, folate, and vitamins A, C, and E (1, 2, 3).

Vegan diets even appear to be higher in iron, though the form of iron that plants provide is not as bioavailable as the form found in animal foods (1, 3).

However, not all vegan diets are created equal.

For instance, poorly planned vegan diets may not provide sufficient amounts of essential fatty acids, vitamin B12, niacin, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin D, calcium, iodine, selenium, or zinc (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

That’s why it’s essential to choose whole plant foods and fortified foods. You may need to consider supplements for nutrients such as vitamins B12 and D, zinc, and calcium, since these may be lacking in a vegan diet.

Summary

While whole-food vegan diets are generally higher in certain nutrients, poorly planned vegan diets may lead to deficiencies of several key nutrients.

2. It can help you lose excess weight

An increasing number of people are turning to plant-based diets in hopes of shedding excess weight. This may be for good reason.

Many observational studies suggest that vegans tend to be thinner and have lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than nonvegans (6).

In addition, several randomized controlled studies — the gold standard in scientific research — report that vegan diets are more effective for weight loss than the diets they are compared with (7, 8, 9, 10).

What’s more, a small study comparing the weight loss effects of five different diets concluded that vegetarian and vegan diets were just as well-accepted as semivegetarian and standard Western diets (11).

Even when they weren’t following their diets perfectly, the participants in the vegetarian and vegan groups still lost slightly more weight than those on a standard Western diet (11).

Summary

Vegan diets naturally tend to reduce your calorie intake. This makes them effective at promoting weight loss without the need to actively focus on cutting calories.

3. It appears to lower blood sugar levels and improve kidney function

Going vegan may also provide benefits for type 2 diabetes and declining kidney function.

Indeed, vegans tend to have lower blood sugar levels and higher insulin sensitivity and may have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes (12, 13, 14, 15, 16).

Studies even report that vegan diets lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes more than the diets from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and the National Cholesterol Education Program (17, 18).

In one 2009 study, 43% of participants following a vegan diet were able to reduce their dosage of blood sugar-lowering medication, compared with only 26% of participants who followed an ADA-recommended diet (17).

Research also suggests that people with diabetes who substitute plant protein for meat may reduce their risk of poor kidney function, but more research is needed on this topic (19, 20).

What’s more, several studies report that a vegan diet may be able to relieve symptoms of systemic distal polyneuropathy, a condition in people with diabetes that causes sharp, burning pain (21, 22).

Summary

Vegan diets may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. They are also particularly effective at reducing blood sugar levels and may help prevent further medical issues from developing.

4. A vegan diet may protect against certain cancers

According to the World Health Organization, about one-third of all cancers can be prevented by factors within your control, including diet (23).

For instance, eating legumes regularly may reduce your risk of colorectal cancer by 9–18% (24).

Research also suggests that eating at least 7 portions of fresh fruits and vegetables per day may lower your risk of dying from cancer by up to 15% (25, 26).

Vegans generally eat considerably more legumes, fruits, and vegetables than nonvegans. This may explain why a review of 96 studies found that vegans may benefit from a 15% lower risk of developing or dying from cancer (10).

What’s more, vegan diets generally contain more soy products, which may offer some protection against breast cancer (27, 28).

Avoiding certain animal products may also help reduce the risk of prostate, breast, and colon cancers.

That may be because vegan diets are devoid of smoked or processed meats and meats cooked at high temperatures, which are thought to promote certain types of cancers (29, 30, 31, 32).

Vegans also avoid dairy products, which some studies suggest may slightly increase the risk of prostate cancer (33).

On the other hand, there is evidence that dairy may help reduce the risk of other cancers, such as colorectal cancer. Therefore, it’s likely that avoiding dairy is not the factor that lowers vegans’ overall risk of cancer (34, 35).

It’s important to note that these studies are observational. They make it impossible to pinpoint the exact reason vegans have a lower risk of cancer.

However, until researchers know more, it seems wise to focus on increasing the amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes you eat each day while limiting your consumption of processed, smoked, and overcooked meats.

Summary

Certain aspects of the vegan diet may offer protection against prostate, breast, and colon cancers.

5. It’s linked to a lower risk of heart disease

Eating fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, and fiber is linked to a lower risk of heart disease (36, 37, 38).

Well-planned vegan diets generally include all these foods in large amounts.

Observational studies comparing vegans with vegetarians and the general population report that vegans may benefit from up to a 75% lower risk of developing high blood pressure (39).

Vegans may also have up to a 42% lower risk of dying from heart disease (39, 40).

What’s more, several randomized controlled studies report that vegan diets are much more effective at reducing blood sugar, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and total cholesterol levels than the diets they are compared with (12, 13, 41).

This may be particularly beneficial to heart health, since reducing high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels may reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 46% (42).

Compared with the general population, vegans also tend to consume more whole grains and nuts, both of which are good for your heart (43, 44).

Summary

Vegan diets may benefit heart health by significantly reducing the risk factors that contribute to heart disease.

6. A vegan diet can reduce pain from arthritis

A few studies have reported that a vegan diet has positive effects in people with different types of arthritis.

One study randomly assigned 40 people with arthritis to either continue eating their omnivorous diet or switch to a whole-food, plant-based vegan diet for 6 weeks (45).

Those on the vegan diet reported higher energy levels and better general functioning than those who didn’t change their diet (45).

Several other studies suggest a vegan diet can help improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, including pain, joint swelling, and morning stiffness (46, 47).

The vegan diet’s higher antioxidant, probiotic, and fiber content, as well as its lack of certain trigger foods, may be responsible for these benefits (46, 47).

Summary

Vegan diets based on probiotic-rich whole foods may significantly decrease symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

The bottom line

Vegan diets may provide an array of health benefits.

For the most part, researchers do not yet understand exactly what causes these benefits.

That said, until further research emerges, it can only benefit you to increase the amount of nutrient-rich, whole plant foods in your diet.