Find out how the health of our vegan customers weighed up against the health of our non-vegan customers in our 2022 veganalysis.
Vegan diets have been around for a long time, with evidence of people choosing to avoid animal products being traced back over 2,000 years.
But, with greater awareness of the health and environmental impacts avoiding animal products can have, it seems more people are talking about or turning to a vegan diet.
What is Veganuary?
Veganuary is a campaign to inspire and support people to try veganism, drive corporate change, and create a global mass movement to champion compassionate food choices.
Veganuary is an annual challenge that encourages people to follow a vegan lifestyle for January. In 2022, Veganuary inspired more than half a million people to try vegan, with 629,000 people signing up from 228 countries and territories .
Why go vegan?
There are many reasons why a person may try a vegan diet, including environmental and animal welfare causes.
A well-planned vegan diet tends to be lower in saturated fat and higher in fibre, fruit, and vegetables, and therefore may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease .
Since 2018, we have analysed the data of our vegan and non-vegan customers, excluding people who follow a vegetarian diet, to see how a vegan diet impacts their health and which nutrients to watch out for when following a vegan diet.
We analysed the data of over 10,000 Medichecks customers to reveal how a vegan diet shapes up against other diets. Let’s look at the results.
Though many people believe you're more at risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency if you follow a plant-based diet, our results show that our vegan customers' vitamin B12 levels were only 4.1% lower than people with other diets in 2022.
Want to find out more about vitamin B12? Read our blog: is a vitamin B12 deficiency affecting your health?
Cholesterol and cardiovascular health
Our 2022 results show that, on average, people following a vegan diet have 14.6% lower non-HDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and lower total cholesterol levels (10.1%) than people following an omnivorous diet. Non-HDL cholesterol levels in early middle age are associated with heart disease in later life. No significant difference was found for HDL cholesterol.
Unhealthy cholesterol profiles are a risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease, such as heart disease and stroke. The differences may be because a healthy vegan diet typically contains fewer calories, with lower levels of saturated fats. Vegan diets may contain higher amounts of nutrients that protect against high cholesterol, such as fibre and plant sterols.
You can read more about cholesterol and total cholesterol in: what is total cholesterol?
HbA1c is a long-term measure of the body’s ability to control blood glucose. Factors like being overweight can impair the body’s ability to control glucose. With time, this can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, which is characterised by a raised HbA1c. Our 2022 results revealed that the average HbA1c levels were over 3% lower in vegans.
Folate levels were 58.9% higher in vegans than in the comparison group (12.4 ng/ml and 7.8 ng/ml respectively). In both cases, the average was within the healthy range. Folate-rich foods include broccoli, brussels sprouts, leafy green veg and beans. So, perhaps it's not surprising that vegans outdo their fellow meat-eaters in this area.
In 2020, the average blood levels of vitamin D between vegans and non-vegans were very similar. That's likely because food sources of vitamin D are relatively unimportant compared to supplemental vitamin D and the vitamin D we produce in our skin upon exposure to sunlight .
Our 2022 data revealed that vegans' vitamin D levels were 2.7% lower than non-vegans. The average vitamin D level in vegans was 71 nmol/L compared to 73 nmol/L in non-vegans. Sufficient levels of vitamin D are defined as greater than 50 nmol/L.
Omega-6 to omega-3 ratio
The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio could be an important determinant of inflammation in the body . The optimal ratio is considered below 5:1 approximately, and both groups exceed this.
In line with previous years, our 2022 data shows that vegans' omega-6 to omega-3 ratio was markedly higher (140% higher), possibly reflecting an increased reliance on vegetable oils with higher omega-6 content. Although, it could also relate to vegans having a lower omega-3 intake.
Omega-3 fats, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are predominantly found in fish, and our ability to convert a-linolenic acid is not very efficient.
Omega-6 is considered pro-inflammatory, although there is evidence that omega-6-rich foods, such as nuts, can decrease the risk of some diseases. Omega-6 fats are unsaturated, and the foods we find them in are typically very healthy, so we would not recommend cutting down on these.
It may be better for our vegan customers to increase their intake of omega-3 a-linolenic-containing foods such as chia seeds, flax, and walnuts, and perhaps consider microalgae supplements to provide a daily dose of EPA and DHA.
Markers of inflammation, such as CRP-HS, were 30% lower in our vegan population compared with non-vegans (0.38 mg/L and 0.54 mg/L respectively).
A lower CRP-HS level may reflect the influence of a lower-calorie diet and lower body fat in vegans. CRP can also rise in illness, so it may also be that vegans were experiencing fewer illnesses at the time of blood testing.
In both groups, the mean level of CRP-HS was within the reference range and below the level that may indicate raised cardiovascular risk. There was also an accompanying 6% reduction in total white cell count in vegans.
Our 2022 findings showed that gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT), a marker of liver health, was 12.7% lower for vegans. These findings may be due to less obesity leading to less fat deposition within the liver or healthier attitudes to alcohol consumption.
Vegan analysis 20212
Our Veganalysis results have remained remarkably consistent over the years. Vegans have lower levels of the metabolic markers HbA1c and non-HDL cholesterol, which means that they will have a lower likelihood of their blood vessels being damaged and causing cardiovascular disease.
A common concern about the vegan diet is that vegans struggle to maintain levels of vitamins and minerals, but we found that even where vegans had a significantly lower level (e.g. ferritin), the mean level was still within the optimal range.
Are you thinking of going vegan or would you like more information on optimising your health and nutrition when eating a plant-based diet? Have a look at our guide to vegan and plant-based health.
It is important to note that these values represent averages and cannot predict how an individual will respond to a particular diet. Any significant changes in your diet should be supported by a health professional such as a doctor, AfN-registered nutritionist, or dietitian.
In addition, this study represents observational data, which means that many other factors, such as lifestyle, age, gender, income, and overall health, are likely to influence the findings.
Markers where we expected a statistically significant difference between vegans and non-vegans were analysed. Vegetarians were excluded from the other comparison group. The Wilcoxon rank-sum test was used to assess whether a statistically significant difference between groups existed. All biomarkers were restricted to 2021 values.
Are you thinking of trying Veganuary? Look at our top 10 tips for getting through veganuary as a new (or returning) vegan.
- Geissler, C. and Powers, H.J. eds., 2017. Human nutrition. Oxford University Press.
- Ajabnoor, S.M., Thorpe, G., Abdelhamid, A. and Hooper, L., 2020. Long-term effects of increasing omega-3, omega-6 and total polyunsaturated fats on inflammatory bowel disease and markers of inflammation: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. European Journal of Nutrition, pp.1-24.