Just What Exactly Are the Benefits of a Vegan Diet?

Cardiologist Dr. Joel Kahn on the benefits of going plant-based.

I have followed a plant-based diet since 1977 when the salad bar at my freshman dormitory at the University of Michigan was the only choice that looked edible.

Fast-forward to the present, and in my dual roles as owner of a plant-based restaurant in Royal Oak, Michigan, and an active practice as a preventive academic cardiologist, I receive many questions about plant-based nutrition (PBN). One of the most common is “my doctor is not supportive, and I do not know what to information to share”.

As many people are choosing plant diets this month for Veganuary, having solid answers to this dilemma is important.

The Medical Community Is Evolving

Fortunately, the Kaiser-Permanente Medical Group, the nation’s largest HMO, produced an excellent document “Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant Based Diets,” that is a resource for sharing this information with your health care provider. While now a few years old, it appeared in a peer-reviewed journal and has many scientific references since. These are credentials your provider should respect. The paper provides a balanced view of PBN with key points that can help your doctor understand your health journey.

“The major benefits for patients who decide to start a plant-based diet are the possibility of reducing the number of medications they take to treat a variety of chronic conditions, lower body weight, decreased risk of cancer, and a reduction in their risk of death from ischemic heart disease,” the paper notes. It is a powerful endorsement. And more professionals in the medical world need to read and incorporate this as more patients change their diets.

Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash

5 Benefits of Plant-Based Nutrition

1. Reduced Risk of Obesity

These statements, with supporting references, can assist you in explaining your diet to your doctor:

  • “a vegan diet caused more calories to be burned after meals in contrast to non-vegan diets.”
  • “vegetarian diets are nutrient-dense and can be recommended for weight management without compromising diet quality.”
  • “a plant-based diet seems to be a sensible approach for the prevention of obesity in children.”
  • “plant-based dietary patterns should be encouraged for optimal health.”

2. Reduced Risk of Diabetes

A plant-based diet may aid in the prevention and management of diabetes, according to the review. Statements made include “a low-fat, plant-based diet with no or little meat may help to prevent and treat diabetes” and that “people on the low-fat vegan diet were able to reduce their medication”. The references are from respected researchers.

3. Reduced Risk of High Blood Pressure

In a review on the topic, the team found “vegetarian diets were associated with lower systolic blood pressure and lower diastolic blood pressure.” There is other data to support it as well. Likewise, a growing body of research points to the benefits of plant-rich foods on blood pressure levels.

4. Reduced Risk of Heart Disease

The strongest data for the health benefits of PBN are for heart issues. And the researchers reviewed this in detail. They looked at data from Dean Ornish, MD, including the startling finding that “regression of even severe coronary atherosclerosis after only 1 year”. Yet, in another study group, “vegetarians had a 24% reduction in ischemic heart disease death rates compared with non-vegetarians”. Pretty convincing statements.

5. Reduced Risk of Early Mortality

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee noted that plant-based diets were associated with “a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality compared with non-plant-based diets.” These are powerful reason to choose PBN as part of your health goals.

Benefits of a Vegan Diet
Photo by Luisa Brimble on Unsplash

5 Plant-Based Nutrition Myths Debunked


1. Not Enough Protein

Let’s give a giant supportive cheer of ‘hooray”. That’s because the writing group indicated “generally, patients on a plant-based diet are not at risk for protein deficiency”. They went on to say, “a well-balanced plant-based diet will provide adequate amounts of essential amino acids and prevent protein deficiency”. That should help answer the #1 biggest question.

2. Vegan Diets are Iron Deficient

Iron stores may be lower by following PBN. But the authors point out that “the American Dietetic Association states that iron-deficiency anemia is rare even in individuals who follow a plant-based diet”.

3. Not Enough Vitamin B12

Bacteria, not plants or animals, produce vitamin B12. “Individuals who follow a plant-based diet that includes no animal products may be vulnerable to B12 deficiency and need to supplement their diet with vitamin B12”. That is a fair statement and a good plan of action.

4. But Milk Has Calcium and Vitamin D

Plant-based sources high in calcium include dark leafy greens and tofu and fortified vegan milk and cereal. “Supplements are recommended for those who are at risk for low bone mineral density and for those found to be deficient in vitamin D”. I would advise you to ask for a blood level of your vitamin D-25OH.

5. Not Enough Fatty Acids

Linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) are the two essential fatty acids. And vegans who don’t eat enough fatty foods are most likely to be deficient in omega-3. “Foods that are good sources of n-3 fats should be emphasized. They include ground flax seeds, flax oil, walnuts, and canola oil”. Increasingly, blood tests that measure omega-3 levels are available and not expensive. I advise them for all of my patients or not.

My experience over 40 years, plus the Kaiser-Permanente publication, are resources valuable in supporting your healthy vegan diet journey to your primary care physician.

Need more reasons to go vegan? Check out our list of 101 reasons to give the diet a try. And grab one of the best vegan cookbooks, while you’re at it.


Joel Kahn, MD, FACC of Detroit, Michigan, is a practicing cardiologist, and a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine.  He graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Michigan Medical School. Known as “America’s Healthy Heart Doc”, Dr. Kahn has triple board certification in Internal Medicine, Cardiovascular Medicine, and Interventional Cardiology. He owns GreenSpace & Go, a health restaurant in suburban Detroit. Dr. Kahn can be found at www.drjoelkahn.com.

SHARE
Similar stories

Sign up for our newsletter