Is the Vegan Diet Good for Gut Health?

The vegan diet becomes increasingly popular every year. In fact, it quadrupled between 2014 and 2019. In 2014, there were 150,000 vegans, yet in 2019, it skyrocketed to 600,000.1

This is over 1% of the population of the UK, making it one of the most popular diets of current times. Veganism isn’t limited to the UK; Israel currently has the most vegans in the world - landing at 5-8% of the entire population.2

Veganism isn’t actually a new phenomenon. Although the term “veganism” was coined in 1944, the concept of veganism stems back way further - to Ancient India and Eastern Mediterranean.3

So, what is the Vegan Diet?

Veganism isn’t just limited to diet; it can be a lifestyle. It is defined as “the practice of not eating or using any animal products”.4 Veganism does not have to be strict but often is within the community.

It can be changed to include “avoid where possible” to be a more lenient way of life, but strict veganism means to “avoid at all cost”. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, and sometimes honey are all excluded from a vegan diet.

Which Ingredients aren’t Vegan?

There are some hidden animal by-products in foods that you need to look out for to follow a vegan diet.

Some additives, including E120, E322, E422, E 471, E542, E631, E901 and E904, are derived from animal products.  Gelatine is a thickening agent made from cows' and pigs' skin, bones and connective tissues. Isinglass is similar to gelatin and is derived from fish bladders.5

Cochineal and carmine are ground insects that are used to dye food a red colour. The female lac insect secretes Shellac. Castoreum is a natural flavouring derived from the secretions of beavers’ anal scent glands.5

Omega-3 fatty acids mostly come from fish, although Omega-3 derived from algae are vegan, so it’s essential to check the source of the Omega-3. Vitamin D3 is derived from fish oil or found within sheep’s wool. Whey, casein and lactose are all derived from dairy.5

Is the Vegan Diet Good for You?

The answer to this is a complex one. Although the vegan diet can be healthy for some, it takes a lot of planning to ensure you meet health requirements when consuming any limiting diet.

Benefits of the Vegan Diet

As a vegan, you will likely consume far more plant products - and more diversity within the plant products you are consuming than the average person. Plant diversity can increase the diversity of the gut microbiome, which is essential for good gut health.

Plant foods are rich in nutrients, vitamins, antioxidants and minerals. Consuming a wide variety of these feeds the good bacteria in the gut with the nutrients they need to thrive and multiply. The gut microbiome has trillions of bacteria, and the excellent need to be stronger than the bad to maintain balance.6

Fruit and veg also contain lots of fibre. Fibre is non-digestible by the body, meaning it arrives at the good bacteria relatively intact, making it an excellent food source for them.7 If good bacteria aren’t fed, they can feast on the intestinal lining leading to inflammation and even leaky gut.

Eating animal products can increase your risk of certain diseases and impact your gut bacteria. Some animals are raised on antibiotics, which can then be consumed by humans who eat their meat.

Antibiotics kill all bacteria they come into contact with, including good bacteria, which can cause dysbiosis (an imbalance) of the gut microbiome. Those that avoid animal products eliminate this risk of consuming antibiotics unknowingly, which is a bonus for their gut microbiome.

Although the chances of consuming antibiotics through meat are low, the risk is still there.8 Antibiotic use has decreased significantly in recent years; dropping by 82% between 2012 and 2018.9

Weight loss can be a side effect of the vegan diet due to plant foods often being much lower in calories. This can benefit veganism for those with excess weight that they want to lose for health reasons.

Although there is controversy surrounding this point and many varying opinions, veganism can be seen as far more sustainable for our planet than consuming animal products. Another obvious benefit for some is that no animals are harmed directly by consuming their meat or products.

This statement can also be controversial, as some say that it is still harmful to choose to eat vegan as animals not needed will be slaughtered, and this way, pointlessly. The counter to this argument is that fewer animals will be bred for human consumption in the future, saving future lives.

The arguments on both sides of veganism can be strong, and those who argue on either side usually have powerful beliefs. This can benefit some choosing to be vegan; a ready-made community with shared ideas is waiting for you.

Drawbacks of the Vegan Diet

Of course, as with any limited diet, you restrict your food choices significantly. Although this is fine for some, it can lead to disordered eating and food anxiety in some people. It’s essential to be aware of this risk, whatever restrictive diet you choose, as it can be tough to cope with these issues once they arise.

Protein is much harder to get from plant-based foods. Although there is a protein source in some, the quantity of protein per weight is much less. Foods like lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, tofu and some vegetables are protein sources - you need to eat a lot of them to meet health requirements.10

As vegans are often limited with protein sources, legumes become a significant source of protein for them. Unfortunately, anti-nutrients lectins and phytates are present in the protein within legumes, meaning the absorption of essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals can be prohibited.11

Not absorbing the nutrients from the food you consume can be detrimental to your gut health - leading to intestinal permeability, which is a cause of leaky gut. When your intestinal lining is compromised, undigested food particles, toxic waste products and bacteria can leak into the bloodstream, causing health issues and illness.11

B12 deficiency is a massive concern for people who eat a vegan lifestyle. Many people have a B12 deficiency as it’s pretty hard to get even with a diverse diet, but it is even more prevalent in veganism.

You can take a B12 supplement to combat this or ensure you eat a range of B12-rich vegan foods. It is added to some vegan foods, so it is always worth checking the labels of vegan foods to see if they have added B12. 

Vegan foods that imitate meat and dairy products can often be deficient in nutritional value and highly processed, full of fats and sugars. Although this is also true for processed animal products, it is helpful to avoid consuming too much processed food. The fact that it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy, and that's important to keep in mind. 

Conclusion

No diet is inherently bad or inherently good; you need to put in the work to make it a healthy choice. Eating vegan doesn’t mean you are making healthy choices if you choose processed foods, high saturated fat, and high sugar products.

If you plan well and include a diverse range of nutrients in your diet, you can reap the benefits of veganism while avoiding some risks. Taking supplements for vitamins that are hard to get the correct amount of is a good idea to keep as healthy as possible.

As always, we recommend speaking to your healthcare provider before making any changes to your diet. 

References → 1

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