Many Americans suffer from chronic diseases, like heart disease and cancer, and hundreds of thousands of lives are lost each year, but some medical research indicates that eating a plant-based diet can help prevent chronic disease.
People who have vegan diets do so for a number of reasons: they don’t want to harm animals, it’s better for the planet, and they believe that only eating plant-based foods has health advantages. Vegans tend to be thinner than meat-eaters, so they generally don’t have to worry about health problems related to being overweight or obese. Because they don’t eat processed red meat, they might live longer than those who do.
Many vegans—if not most—may be aware of the health risks of obesity and eating processed red meat, but does following a vegan diet decrease the risk of developing specific life-threatening diseases? Fortunately, there is some research showing that a vegan diet could reduce such risks.
1. Heart Disease
Heart disease is the no.1 cause of death for Americans—about 600,000 die each year from it. High cholesterol is one of the problems associated with heart disease, and there is evidence that a vegan diet can reduce cholesterol levels. A study of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans measured their serum (blood) total, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and apolipoproteins A-I and B. Of the four groups studied, vegans had the lowest serum total cholesterol and apolipoprotein B concentrations. (Apolipoprotein B concentration is thought currently to possibly be a better predictor of heart disease than LDL levels.)
Also, a vegan diet was found to be effective in lowering low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, in a meta-analysis of twenty-seven randomized controlled and observational trials.
Hyperlipidemia is a state when blood lipids or lipoproteins are too elevated, and those lipids can include cholesterol. Overweight hyperlipidemic men and postmenopausal women enrolled in a Canadian research study were put on a vegan diet for six months and the researchers found this diet had advantages for the lowering of lipids and improving heart disease risk factors.
There were related cardiovascular benefits for 30 children ages 9-18 who were put on a plant-based diet or one from the American Heart Association. This study’s researchers concluded there were benefits for reducing cardiovascular disease risk factors, because children on the plant-based diet had reductions in total cholesterol, LDL, weight, systolic blood pressure, insulin, and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein.
High blood pressure is another problem linked to heart disease, and again there is some evidence a vegan diet could be helpful.
Vegans were found to have lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, as well as a lower prevalence of hypertension in a research study of 11,000 British participants aged 20-78.
Male meat eaters, male vegans, fish eaters, vegetarians and female meat eaters, and female vegans were included in the study.
There is also some evidence that a vegan diet may have some general advantages for heart health. Data from a study of over 150,000 participants was analyzed and the researchers wrote that vegan diets appeared to provide more protection from cardiovascular mortality, hypertension, and obesity than lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets.
Similarly, researchers who studied 1,615 participants found that a low-fat, vegan diet using starches eaten for one week reduced biomarkers that are used to predict cardiovascular disease risks. Measurements of blood pressure, weight, lipids, blood sugar, and cardiovascular disease risk were taken for the study.
There was also something of a cautionary note revealed by one study of the vegan dietconducted in Germany, which found that vegans can have lower levels of vitamin B12 and if this is the case, a slightly increased homocysteine level—which could increase the risk of heart disease. So, naturally, vegans need to make sure they are getting adequate levels of B12, but many of them might be aware of how important this nutrient is.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in America and about 595,000 cancer deaths will occur here in 2016, with an estimated 1.65 million new cases. Some portion of these deaths and new cases may be preventable with simple lifestyle changes like eating healthier, but is there research indicating that a vegan diet might be beneficial?
As with heart disease, the answer is yes. A vegan diet helped reduce the chance of developing cancer in a systematic review and meta-analysis of 86 cross-sectional and 10 prospective cohort studies, “Vegan diet conferred a significant reduced risk (-15%) ofincidence from total cancer.”
A vegan diet was found by another study—which used data from 69,120 participants—to be associated with a protective effect for overall cancer incidence, and that may be true also for female-specific cancers.
So, this information about cancer in general is good news, but what about specific cancers?
For prostate cancer, researchers found that a vegan diet had a protective effect in a prospective cohort using data from 26,346 male participants in the Adventist Health Study-2.
A vegan diet was said by other researchers to be effective in increasing the intake of protective nutrients and phytochemicals while reducing foods associated with chronic disease, in a study of 93 early-stage prostate cancer patients.
Bladder cancer risk was found to possibly have been reduced by consumption of cruciferous vegetables. A study of 250 cases of incident bladder cancer from a ten-year period (1986-1996) using 47,900 men found that total fruit and vegetable intake did not have benefits, but that high intake of cruciferous vegetables may reduce bladder cancer risk—broccoli and cabbage were singled out as potentially reducing this risk.
Researchers in a similar study concluded that their data showed raw cruciferous vegetable consumption may reduce bladder cancer risk, after conducting a study of two-hundred and seventy-five people with primary incident bladder cancer and 825 without cancer.
3. Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease
This disease is actually a number of lung diseases like emphysema, bronchitis and asthma
and combined they kill approximately 149,205 Americans each year. Research conducted on the potential connection to a vegan diet is almost non-existent, except for a study which found that it could be helpful for asthma. Bronchial asthma patients who had the disease for an average of 12 years were put on a vegan diet for one year. The researchers observed a decrease in symptoms, and that it was possible for some of them to reduce their medications.
4. Stroke or Cerebrovascular Disease
Cerebrovascular diseases kill about 128,978 Americans each year. Subarachnoid
hemorrhage, transient ischemic attack (TIA), vascular dementia, and stroke are types
of this disease. Within PubMed.gov, there doesn’t appear to be any research study papers focused only on vegan diets and stroke.
However, one of the main risk factors for stroke is elevated cholesterol and we have seen that a vegan diet can be effective for lowering it. So in a sense, a vegan diet could also be seen as potentially beneficial for decreasing the risk of stroke. High blood pressure is another risk factor and it also can be lowered by a vegan diet, so again, this diet could be seen as potentially decreasing the risk of stroke.
Diabetes is another risk factor for stroke and we will see a little lower in this article in the section about it, that a vegan diet potentially can be beneficial.
About 84,000 Americans die each year from Alzheimer’s and dementia, and millions have them. It appears that no research has been conducted on the effects of a vegan diet on Alzheimer’s, but there has been one study showing that a vegetarian diet might be beneficial for dementia.
This disease results in about 75,578 American deaths per year and is linked to other conditions like kidney disease, heart disease, stroke, and blindness. There has been some research showing that a vegan diet could be beneficial for diabetes.
Researchers studied 99 people who were put on a low-fat vegan diet or one from the American Diabetes Association, and found that both improved glycemic and lipid control, but these improvements were greater for the low-fat vegan diet.
A review of medical literature focused on vegetarian and vegan diets and diabetes management, stated that low-fat vegan diets improve glycemic control more than typical diabetes diets. The review also stated that vegan diets potentially have advantages for type 2 diabetes management.
Another review of the literature found that it is reasonable to suspect that the risk ofcomplications from diabetes like macrovascular disease, nephropathy and retinopathy can be reduced by a vegan diet. When combined with exercise, a vegan diet could be effective in helping to manage diabetes.
A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that substituting plant protein for animal protein resulted in modest improvements in glycemic control for people with diabetes.
7. Kidney Disease
Diseases and conditions of the kidneys result in about 47,112 American deaths each year, and it has been estimated that 10% of adults in the United States might have them. There hasn’t been much research conducted about how a vegan diet could be helpful in reducing or preventing kidney disease, but there is a little evidence.
A diet with more plant protein was linked with lower chronic kidney disease mortality in an observational study with well over 14,000 participants 20-years-old or greater.The researchers also said that they could not be sure that it was the plant protein or other aspects of a plant-based diet that were relevant to their conclusion, and that future research would be of use.
A supplemented vegan diet was found to have a favorable effect on elevated cholesterol and proteinuria (abnormal protein levels in urine) in nephrotic patients. (A similar study from the previous year found the same effects.)
Currently, just about 2% of Americans are vegans, according to a Gallup survey. Hopefully, there will be more scientific research conducted to continue examining the advantages of a vegan diet, and that goes deeper into the potential benefits of certain plant-based foods.