The benefits of veganism will largely depend on the person and how they approach it, but the right plant-based diet can provide some significant health benefits. This may be a surprising fact to many people since there is such an abundance of misinformation and outright propaganda distributed about veganism being in some way inherently unhealthy.

The National Health Service and The American Dietetic Association state that well-planned plant-based diets are nutritionally adequate and healthy for all stages of life, including infancy. A growing body of research also suggests that a plant-based diet appears to be useful for increasing the intake of protective nutrients and phytochemicals, and for minimizing the intake of dietary factors implicated in several chronic diseases. In general, vegans also have lower serum cholesterol and blood pressure, they have reduced rates of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and a substantially lower risk of cancer. Even when compared with other vegetarian diets, plant-based diets tend to contain less saturated fat and cholesterol and more dietary fiber.

These positive health outcomes may be because vegans generally consume higher quantities of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, soy, and nuts, which are rich in fiber, folic acid, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, which are associated with lower blood cholesterol concentrations, a lower incidence of stroke, and a lower risk of mortality from stroke and ischemic heart disease. It may also be because vegans do not consume dietary cholesterol, which is a key factor in many diseases since dietary cholesterol is exclusively found in animal products.

Despite these potential benefits, you should remember that ‘plant-based diet’ is just an umbrella term for any diet that does not include animal products. Two individuals who are eating plant-based diets could have radically different diets, with different health outcomes. A plant-based diet can be dominated by highly processed foods, or it can be made up of whole foods – that is entirely up to you.

If you do want to ensure good health outcomes while consuming a plant-based diet, there are some factors that you should be aware of. The primary concern about vegan diets tends to be protein, and while it is easy to get enough protein as a vegan, it is something you should plan for, particularly if you are physically active, dieting, or trying to build muscle. There are plenty of good vegan options (I have a list of a few particularly good ones here); it is just a case of re-learning what a high-protein meal looks like.

Another common concern is calcium, which again is largely unfounded. Cow’s milk is
advertised as being high in calcium primarily because it is usually fortified with it, but vegan products like almond, oat, and soy milk are fortified in the same way, in equal and often greater quantities. Aside from these products, dark leafy greens pack plenty of calcium to meet your needs.

Daily requirements for adults are around 1000mg, but this is easily reached through plant sources. Collard greens, for example, are 260mg per cup, spinach is 250mg, bean sprouts are 320mg, and bok choy is 330mg per cup. A single cup of fortified cereals with a cup of plant milk can meet your entire daily requirements all on its own in some cases, and 4 or 5 oz of fermented soy products like tofu come in at around half that. Calcium is present in a variety of plant foods, meaning that meeting your requirements is achievable without much conscious effort.

After these, iron is often cited as a concern, particularly so for women. Adult men require around 8mg per day, and women around 18mg. Plenty of plant foods are very high in iron, for example, half a cup of tofu carries 6.6mg, one cup of soybeans is 8.8mg, a cup of white beans is 7.8mg, a cup of lentils is 8.8mg, and spinach is 6.4 mg per cup. If you are consuming a diet primarily built around plants, even if frozen or canned, you should reach this amount just by enjoying a varied diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.

On top of this, many faux meat products are fortified with iron, as are various cereals and plant milks. If you track your daily iron intake using any nutrition app, it will likely show you that you already get enough. However, if you don’t, then incorporating plant foods that are high in iron should be relatively easy for most people. Note that if you are already anemic, are on your period, or are pregnant, you should pay particularly close attention to iron and get check-ups regularly.

Omega 3 is often mentioned as something that vegans can’t obtain, and many people point to how many vegans are deficient in Omega 3 as a way to attack veganism. The issue with this logic is that it assumes Omega 3 is a vegan problem when it is more of a flaw of modern diets in general. Studies on this are sparse, but most estimate that 60% of Americans are deficient in Omega, and others put the number as high as 90%. None of this means that it isn’t possible to get enough of this as a vegan; the recommended daily of Omega 3 is 1.6g per day for adult men and 1.1g per day for healthy adult women. This amount can easily be obtained with a small handful of just about any nut or seed. Beans, legumes, and wheat germ are also high in Omega 3.

B12 is brought up more often by people who are a little more knowledgeable about veganism and where the main nutritional difficulties lie. It is also another vitamin a high proportion of the general population is deficient in. B12 is produced by a microbe that primarily exists in soil; we once obtained this from all vegetables naturally, but modern hygiene and intensive farming practices mean that the usable amount of vitamin B12 in our diets is now much lower. We recently discovered a type of kelp that is high in B12, but there are no widely available plant foods that naturally contain enough B12. Fortunately, most plant milk, specialist products like nutritional yeast, and faux meat products are fortified with high levels of B12.

Even though it is more than possible to achieve a full and balanced diet as a vegan, it is a good idea to take a supplement just to be safe. Specialist vegan multivitamins are common in many supermarkets and health stores, and widely available online. It may also be a good idea to supplement Omega 3 (algae/flax-seed oil-derived vitamins are the best vegan source) and possibly iron if you don’t feel like you eat enough greens, but it isn’t necessary for good health.

As a general rule, supplements should not be used in place of plant-based sources for any of these vitamins, they are meant to supplement a healthy diet and provide extra intake of nutrients you may have fallen short on throughout the day. If you have any specific dietary requirements and need more support in catering a vegan diet to your needs, setting up an appointment with a nutritionist would be ideal.

It is worth mentioning that General Practitioners usually receive very little training on plant-based nutrition, so take any advice that you ‘need to eat x animal product’ with a pinch of salt. Beef is not a nutrient, and cheese is not a vitamin. If you develop a deficiency, you need to know what that vitamin is, not necessarily where they think you need to eat to get it. Again, there is no vitamin, nutrient, or mineral that you cannot obtain on a plant-based diet.

You may experience some sickness at the beginning of your plant-based diet, often manifesting with mild flu-like symptoms. This does not mean you have a deficiency, it is just the result of a radical change in diet. If you develop a deficiency, this doesn’t mean that a plant-based diet is not nutritionally adequate. It just means that the specific plant-based diet you were eating was not adequate and that you’ll need to tailor it better to ensure that you are getting more of whatever you were lacking.