Can a Vegan Diet Be Healthy? A Literature Review

post by Erich_Grunewald · 2021-03-12T12:47:15.185Z · EA · GW · 15 comments

This is a link post for


  Cardiovascular Disease
  Inflammatory Disease, Including Diabetes
  Weight Reduction
  Bone Health
  Nutritional Deficiencies
  Fatigue & Cognitive Function

The skins crawled, and the meat that was stuck on the spits bellowed,
both roast and raw, and the noise was like the lowing of cattle.[1]

– Homer

The first question is: healthy compared to what? To a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet? or to a standard Western diet? or to the mean world diet, if that is even a coherent concept? The papers I will cover in this post don't all answer the same question, so I'll try to be clear in pointing out what they are comparing to. They also differ in which non-carnivorous diets they are looking at. There are many varieties of vegetarian[2] & even vegan diets. Since there aren't that many studies on vegan diets specifically, I'll also be looking at studies of vegetarian diets. Why? Because I think it's likely (though not guaranteed) that any positive or negative effects in vegetarian diets are also present in vegan diets (though there might be positive or negative effects from vegan diets that aren't produced by vegetarian diets). I'll make these distinctions, too, where relevant.

The other thing I'll note before we get underway is that vegans & vegetarians are strongly self-selected groups that differ significantly from the general population. That means there are a lot of possible confounds here. If we find that vegans are on average healthier than non-vegans, we can't infer that it is the vegan diet that makes them healthier, because correlation is not causation. It could just be that vegans exercise more or smoke less, for example, & that it is the exercise or the lack of smoking, not the diet, that makes them healthier. What that means is that we must look at observational studies with a critical eye.[3] Instead, wherever possible, I will be citing randomised controlled trials (RCTs), where the variable being studied (in this case, a particular diet) is isolated so that causality can be inferred.

Just one final word of warning. I am myself a vegetarian leaning vegan, my wife is vegan & I believe that eating vegan is morally right, at least for the vast majority of humans. So it would be good for me if vegan diets were healthy, or at least risk-free. That said, I'll do my best to be fair-minded & to let the evidence speak for itself.

Cardiovascular Disease

If the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Christian tradition were Death, Famine, War & Conquest, today they would have had to have been named Heart Problem, Cancer, Respiratory Disease & Diabetes.[4] But Heart Problem would be the ruler of them all, which is probably why there are so many studies on veganism/vegetarianism & cardiovascular disease.

High body mass index, high blood fat, high blood pressure & diabetes all increase the risk of heart problems, stroke & so on.[5] In a meta-study from 2018, Benatar & Stewart looked at these risk factors among vegans.[6] They included 40 observational studies, mostly done in the West but with a considerable number also from Taiwan.[7] In what will be a bit of a recurring theme, they found different results in the West & in Asia.[8] In Western studies, vegans had lower body mass index, lesser waist circumference, reduced blood sugar levels, lower low-density lipoprotein (protein that transfer lipids around the body; fats are a kind of lipid) cholesterol (a type of lipid), less body fat & lower blood pressure than omnivores.[9] But in the Taiwanese studies these differences were much smaller or vanished completely.[10] Other observational studies seem to produce similarly significant results when comparing with Western diets.[11]

But again, these are not RCTs. I don't think these studies even control for confounds, or at least the authors of the meta-studies don't mention that. They just do some subpopulation analyses. But as mentioned before, if self-selected vegans tend to exercise more, smoke less, eat less junk food & afford healthier lifestyles generally, that might be enough to explain the difference.

Sketches of deer in wilderness.

Fortunately, there are a bunch of RCTs made on veganism/vegetarianism & cardiovascular disease.

Yokoyama et al. did a meta-study (2014) of seven controlled trials (of which six were RCTs) & 32 cross-sectional (examining population differences at a single point in time) studies on vegetarian diets & blood pressure.[12] High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart failure & ischemic heart disease among other things. Heart failure is where the heart's not able to pump blood as effectively as needed. Ischemic heart disease is when deposits build up in the arteries of the heart, reducing blood flow & causing heart attack & other issues. They found that vegetarian diets were associated with decreased blood pressure both in the controlled trials & in the cross-sectional studies.[13] A 2017 meta-study by some of the same authors, reviewing 30 observational studies & 19 clinical trials, found that a vegan diet was associated with & caused a reduction in three out of four markers for blood lipids.[14]

The cross-sectional studies in the earlier Yokoyama et al. meta-study were diverse geographically, but the controlled trials were all done in the West.[15] In fact, most of the studies I've found use different varieties of Western diets as control group, not because of researcher prejudice, but simply because most of the relevant research has been made in the West, particularly in the United States. We'll be seeing indications that results in the West don't generalise, so I will keep pointing this out.

López et al. did a meta-study (2019) of 11 RCTs, also looking at blood pressure.[16] They found evidence that vegan diets don't result in decreased blood pressure.[17] As the authors note, this is surprising given that the Yokoyama et al. study showed decreased blood pressure with a vegetarian diet.[18] However, most of these studies had a high (50+) mean age & many were of diabetics or dyslipidemics (people who have a lot of lipids in their blood), meaning the result may not generalise.[19] What's more, some of the studies covered here use various "good" omnivorous diets as the baseline case, e.g. diets recommended by medical societies & so on.[20] The authors write: "Throughout the studies, all participants were advised to reduce their red meat intake, increase their vegetable intake, and lose weight."[21]

In a 2020 meta-study of 15 RCTs, mostly from the West, Lee et al. found that vegetarian diets reduced blood pressure.[22] They also found, in a subgroup analysis, that vegan diets were more effective in reducing blood pressure than were vegetarian diets.[23] (I don't think they correct for multiple comparisons, but this result was significant even after I made a Bonferroni correction.) Once again the effect was stronger in U.S.-based studies (which makes sense given the pretty abysmal diet of the median American).[24]

Viguiliouk et al. conducted a meta-study (2018) of 9 RCTs, mainly done in the West, all of which looked specifically at diabetics.[25] The control diets were a pretty even mixture of normal diets & conventional diabetes diets.[26] They found that vegan diets were really good on body weight & possibly better on blood fats & blood sugar level.[27] But there was no effect at all on blood pressure.[28] That makes me think that the Lòpez et al. meta-study, which found that vegan diets don't result in decreased blood pressure, found no improvement precisely because six of its 11 included studies were of diabetics.[29] Actually, having just now gone back to that study, I see the authors commenting that "because major clinical trials and a recent meta-analysis have noted differences in hypertension outcomes between diabetic and non-diabetic patients, this could have influenced our findings".[30]

Verdict: I'm pretty confident that vegan diets are better for the heart than common Western diets, though the difference seems to be smaller for diabetics & may not exist at all between vegan diets & common non-Western diets or healthy omnivore diets generally.


If death worldwide was an Olympic sport, cancer would be a silver medallist.[31] (It's worth pointing out, though, that cancer is not a leading cause of death in much of the developing world, where infectious disease is more common.)[32] Reviewing the health effects of a vegan diet, Craig (2009) notes that fruit, vegetables, legumes, fibre, soy & vitamin C are all protective against cancer.[33] He also writes:

Vegan diets are usually higher in dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, iron, and phytochemicals, and they tend to be lower in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol, long-chain n–3 (omega-3) fatty acids, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12.[34]

There's apparently some evidence that vitamin D shortage, which is common among vegans, is associated with increased risk of cancer.[35] But in theory the vegan diet has a lot going for it here.[36] Does the evidence bear that out?

I wasn't able to find many studies on population-level epidemiology here, maybe because it seems pretty vain to assign a bunch of people vegan diets, wait ten weeks or so & see how many people got cancer in that time. I suppose maybe there's no reliable biomarker for cancer, like blood pressure is for cardiovascular disease. That said, Craig writes that vegetarians have lower risk of prostate & colorectal cancer & that, because obesity increases the risk of cancer, vegans' lower body mass index may be protective.[37]

A meta-study from 2017 found in ten prospective (selecting subjects before their conditions are known) cohort (following subjects over time) studies that vegetarianism & especially veganism were associated with a lower overall risk of cancer.[38] In a 2015 review of long-term health effects of vegans/vegetarians, looking at eight large prospective cohort studies, all done in the West, Appleby & Key found that "[o]verall cancer rates may be slightly lower in vegetarians, but the data are inconclusive for most common individual cancers".[39] And of course, though the nutritional facts give us some hints, it's not clear that vegan diets actually cause these small effects.

Verdict: Inconclusive, but it seems probable that veganism isn't harmful & might even be somewhat beneficial?

Inflammatory Disease, Including Diabetes

Chronic inflammatory diseases apparently include things like type 2 diabetes, heart disease & cancer.[40] There's some evidence that inflammatory biomarkers are linked or contribute to these chronic diseases.[41] A biomarker is just something in the body that you can measure. Menzel et al., in a 2020 meta-study of 21 cross-sectional studies, look at associations between veganism/vegetarianism & abnormal levels in these inflammatory biomarkers.[42] They found that vegan & vegetarian diets are associated with lower C-reactive protein levels (this being a major inflammation marker).[43] They found no differences in the many other biomarkers studied, though they caution that the important ones (except for C-reactive protein) haven't been studied much yet.[44]

Of course, correlation does not equal causation. And the included studies were mainly carried out in Asian countries. As of now, there are no RCTs on veganism & inflammatory biomarkers.[45] If you are in the business, make one!

Nor are there any RCTs on vegan/vegetarian diets & diabetes – we had seen many studies of diabetics, but so far we haven't looked at the risk of getting diabetes. Lee & Park performed a meta-study in 2017 of 12 cross-sectional & two cohort studies.[46] They found that vegetarianism was associated with not having diabetes, though not in the Asian studies; this result held even after conditioning on body mass index.[47] Though these were all observational studies, they note that other studies indicate that whole grains, fruit & vegetables help prevent diabetes whereas higher consumption of red & processed meat is positively correlated with diabetes risk.[48]

Verdict: There's some evidence that veganism reduces risk of diabetes & other inflammatory disease, though it's hardly overwhelming. Without RCTs, I am uncertain.

Weight Reduction

As we've seen, obesity is associated with a number of diseases, including diabetes but also cardiovascular disease & others.[49] Huang et al. reviewed 12 RCTs in a 2015 meta-study on veganism/vegetarianism & weight reduction.[50] They found that, though vegetarian diets did better than the omnivore diets, vegan diets beat them by a wider margin.[51] Again, this makes sense, because vegan diets are high on whole grains, fruit & vegetables. However, the improvement was attenuated over time.[52] So it's hard to say whether this is a long-term effect (though given that observational studies point in the same direction, it seems probable).

Sketch of forested mountain landscape.

Judging purely from the author names, I assume most of these 12 RCTs were carried out in the West, but the control subjects here were assigned low-fat diets, anti-diabetes diets, weight-reducing diets & so on.[53] So the results carry not only against the standard Western diet but seemingly also against healthier omnivore diets.

Verdict: Veganism seems a good bet to reduce body weight & reduced body weight can be good for many reasons.

Bone Health

There are two main ways of measuring bone health. One is by looking at the bone mineral density; the lower the bone mineral density, the higher the risk of bone fracture. The other is by simply counting bone fractures. Iguacel et al., in a 2018 meta-study looking at 20 observational studies (of which 15 studied bone mineral densities & 5 fracture rates), found that vegans had both lower bone mineral density & higher fracture rates than both vegetarians & omnivores.[54] These studies mostly included women subjects, elderly women being at particular risk of fracture, & were pretty evenly split between Western & Asian countries.[55] They are observational studies, of course, so they are not going to prove causation.[56] However, since vegan diets are known to be low on calcium & vitamin D, & since adequate calcium & vitamin D intakes are the most important ways of preventing low bone mineral density, we can make guesses.

Ho-Pham et al., in a 2009 meta-study, find lower bone mineral densities among vegans, but note that the difference is "clinically insignificant".[57] They don't mention anything about controlled trials, so I suppose these are observational studies.

Craig writes that there's evidence of low bone mineral density among some vegans, specifically those with low protein & calcium intakes.[58] And in the previously mentioned 2015 review of long-term health effects of veganism/vegetarianism, Appleby & Key found that "[b]one fracture rates [...] are higher in vegans [than in non-vegetarians] if they have inadequate intakes of calcium".[59] But bone health also depends on some nutrients, like vitamin D, vitamin K, potassium & magnesium, as well as foods like soy, fruit & vegetables, most of which vegans do well at.[60] Craig mentions several RCTs of menopausal women in particular that showed increased soy intake as improving bone mineral density.[61]

Verdict: There seems to be some risk of vegans having worse bone health than do omnivores & vegetarians, likely because they don't get enough calcium & vitamin D. This can be solved by taking supplements or eating foods fortified with these.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Let me quote Craig again on the nutritional aspect:

Vegan diets are usually higher in dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, iron, and phytochemicals, and they tend to be lower in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol, long-chain n–3 (omega-3) fatty acids, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12.[62]

It's pretty well known that cutting out all animal products from your diet puts you at risk of some nutritional deficiencies, iff you don't eat foods fortified with these or take supplements. The main problems are with vitamin D & vitamin B12.[63] Vitamin D deficiency is especially a risk for those vegans who also have other risk factors, like for example living in Lapland, being Black, wearing a burka or niqab & so on – anything that reduces sun exposure.[64]

Vegans are more likely to have vitamin B12 deficiency than both vegetarians & omnivores.[65] A 2013 meta-study found a significant association with veganism/vegetarianism & vitamin B12 depletion & deficiency.[66] It looked only at observational studies, but given that vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal products, I think I can go out on a limb here & guess that the culprit is the diet. A cross-sectional study from 2017 of over 90,000 participants (about three percent of whom were vegetarian or vegan) looked at nutritional intake among self-reported vegans/vegetarians:

[V]egans exhibited a higher estimated prevalence of inadequacies for some nutrients, in particular vitamin B12 (69.9% in men and 83.4% in women <55 years of age), compared to meat-eaters. [...] Our study highlighted that, overall, self-reported vegetarians and vegans may meet nutritional recommendations.[67]

Sebastiani et al. reviewed (2019) the evidence for effects of vegan diets on mothers & offspring during pregnancy.[68] Nutrition is obviously essential for pregnant women, as deficiency can lead to chronic disease & other lifelong health issues in the child.[69] Many of the studies reviewed were done on relatively poor populations in Asia & Africa & may not generalise; few studies were RCTs.[70] Their opinion seems to be that vegan diets are fine, so long as one gets enough of the necessary nutrients (proteins, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 & iron are those that vegans risk not getting enough of).[71] If one does get the right nutrients, there's some evidence that vegan diets can even reduce the risk of complications in pregnancy.[72]

Verdict: Vegans run the risk of not getting enough of some nutrients, especially vitamin D & vitamin B12. This can be solved by taking supplements or eating foods fortified with these.

Fatigue & Cognitive Function

So much for the stuff that kills you. One of the more common complaints I hear anecdotally about veganism is that makes you tired or enervated or unable to focus. This seems less important than not dying to me, but sure, it's no fun not having any energy.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find many studies on this. Medawar et al. reviewed (2019) the evidence for effects of vegan/vegetarian diets on cognitive function among other things.[73] They cover a few observational studies the results of which I suspect can be explained by selection effects, concluding that:

[T]here is an overall robust support for beneficial effects of a plant-based diet on metabolic measures in health and disease. However, the evidence for cognitive and mental effects of a plant-based diet is still inconclusive.[74]

Verdict: No idea. Please write me if you come across any good studies on this.


Overall, it seems highly probable that vegan diets are healthier than common Western diets, & perhaps also somewhat healthier than good Western & non-Western omnivore diets. However, that is assuming that the vegan gets all the nutrients that they need, especially vitamin D & vitamin B12, of which two vitamins many vegans don't have enough. These can be gained through supplements or by eating foods fortified with them.

  1. Homer. & Lattimore, R. (1967). The Odyssey of Homer. New York: Harper & Row. ↩︎

  2. Here & for the remainder of this post, when I write "vegetarian", I refer to all diets that exclude fish & meat (the most common variant being lact-ovo-vegetarian) unless otherwise noted. I'll avoid the term "plant-based diet" because it seems to have many different definitions. ↩︎

  3. Though observational studies are not good for inferring causality, they can be useful here both for giving evidence against correlations & for inferring long-term health effects. ↩︎

  4. Wang, H., Naghavi, M., Allen, C., Barber, R. M., Bhutta, Z. A., Carter, A., Casey, D. C., Charlson, F. J., Chen, A. Z., Coates, M. M., Coggeshall, M., Dandona, L., Dicker, D. J., Erskine, H. E., Ferrari, A. J., Fitzmaurice, C., Foreman, K., Forouzanfar, M. H., Fraser, M. S., … Murray, C. J. L. (2016). Global, regional, and national life expectancy, all-cause mortality, and cause-specific mortality for 249 causes of death, 1980–2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015. The Lancet, 388(10053), 1459–1544. ↩︎

  5. Benatar, J. R., & Stewart, R. A. H. (2018). Cardiometabolic risk factors in vegans; A meta-analysis of observational studies. PLOS ONE, 13(12), e0209086. ↩︎

  6. ibid. ↩︎

  7. ibid. ↩︎

  8. ibid. ↩︎

  9. ibid. ↩︎

  10. ibid. ↩︎

  11. Dinu, M., Abbate, R., Gensini, G. F., Casini, A., & Sofi, F. (2017). Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 57(17), 3640–3649. ↩︎

  12. Yokoyama, Y., Nishimura, K., Barnard, N. D., Takegami, M., Watanabe, M., Sekikawa, A., Okamura, T., & Miyamoto, Y. (2014). Vegetarian Diets and Blood Pressure. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(4), 577. ↩︎

  13. ibid. ↩︎

  14. Yokoyama, Y., Levin, S. M., & Barnard, N. D. (2017). Association between plant-based diets and plasma lipids: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition Reviews, 75(9), 683–698. ↩︎

  15. ibid. ↩︎

  16. Lopez, P. D., Cativo, E. H., Atlas, S. A., & Rosendorff, C. (2019). The Effect of Vegan Diets on Blood Pressure in Adults: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. The American Journal of Medicine, 132(7), 875-883.e7. ↩︎

  17. ibid. ↩︎

  18. ibid. ↩︎

  19. ibid. ↩︎

  20. ibid. ↩︎

  21. ibid. ↩︎

  22. Lee, K. W., Loh, H. C., Ching, S. M., Devaraj, N. K., & Hoo, F. K. (2020). Effects of Vegetarian Diets on Blood Pressure Lowering: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis and Trial Sequential Analysis. Nutrients, 12(6), 1604. ↩︎

  23. ibid. ↩︎

  24. ibid. ↩︎

  25. Viguiliouk, E., Kendall, C. WC., Kahleová, H., Rahelić, D., Salas-Salvadó, J., Choo, V. L., Mejia, S. B., Stewart, S. E., Leiter, L. A., Jenkins, D. JA., & Sievenpiper, J. L. (2019). Effect of vegetarian dietary patterns on cardiometabolic risk factors in diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Clinical Nutrition, 38(3), 1133–1145. ↩︎

  26. ibid. ↩︎

  27. ibid. ↩︎

  28. ibid. ↩︎

  29. Lopez, P. D., Cativo, E. H., Atlas, S. A., & Rosendorff, C. (2019). The Effect of Vegan Diets on Blood Pressure in Adults: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. The American Journal of Medicine, 132(7), 875-883.e7. ↩︎

  30. ibid. ↩︎

  31. Wang, H., Naghavi, M., Allen, C., Barber, R. M., Bhutta, Z. A., Carter, A., Casey, D. C., Charlson, F. J., Chen, A. Z., Coates, M. M., Coggeshall, M., Dandona, L., Dicker, D. J., Erskine, H. E., Ferrari, A. J., Fitzmaurice, C., Foreman, K., Forouzanfar, M. H., Fraser, M. S., … Murray, C. J. L. (2016). Global, regional, and national life expectancy, all-cause mortality, and cause-specific mortality for 249 causes of death, 1980–2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015. The Lancet, 388(10053), 1459–1544. ↩︎

  32. ibid. ↩︎

  33. Craig, W. J. (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(5), 1627S-1633S. ↩︎

  34. ibid. ↩︎

  35. ibid. ↩︎

  36. ibid. ↩︎

  37. ibid. ↩︎

  38. Dinu, M., Abbate, R., Gensini, G. F., Casini, A., & Sofi, F. (2017). Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 57(17), 3640–3649. ↩︎

  39. Appleby, P. N., & Key, T. J. (2015). The long-term health of vegetarians and vegans. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 75(3), 287–293. ↩︎

  40. Menzel, J., Jabakhanji, A., Biemann, R., Mai, K., Abraham, K., & Weikert, C. (2020). Systematic review and meta-analysis of the associations of vegan and vegetarian diets with inflammatory biomarkers. Scientific Reports, 10(1). ↩︎

  41. ibid. ↩︎

  42. ibid. ↩︎

  43. ibid. ↩︎

  44. ibid. ↩︎

  45. ibid. ↩︎

  46. Lee, Y., Park, E. (2017). Adherence to a Vegetarian Diet and Diabetes Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Nutrients, 9(6), 603. ↩︎

  47. ibid. ↩︎

  48. ibid. ↩︎

  49. Haslam, D. W., & James, W. P. T. (2005). Obesity. The Lancet, 366(9492), 1197–1209. ↩︎

  50. Huang, R.-Y., Huang, C.-C., Hu, F. B., & Chavarro, J. E. (2015). Vegetarian Diets and Weight Reduction: a Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 31(1), 109–116. ↩︎

  51. ibid. ↩︎

  52. ibid. ↩︎

  53. ibid. ↩︎

  54. Iguacel, I., Miguel-Berges, M. L., Gómez-Bruton, A., Moreno, L. A., & Julián, C. (2018). Veganism, vegetarianism, bone mineral density, and fracture risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition Reviews, 77(1), 1–18. ↩︎

  55. ibid. ↩︎

  56. ibid. ↩︎

  57. Ho-Pham, L. T., Nguyen, N. D., & Nguyen, T. V. (2009). Effect of vegetarian diets on bone mineral density: a Bayesian meta-analysis. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90(4), 943–950. ↩︎

  58. Craig, W. J. (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(5), 1627S-1633S. ↩︎

  59. Appleby, P. N., & Key, T. J. (2015). The long-term health of vegetarians and vegans. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 75(3), 287–293. ↩︎

  60. Craig, W. J. (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(5), 1627S-1633S. ↩︎

  61. ibid. ↩︎

  62. Craig, W. J. (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(5), 1627S-1633S. ↩︎

  63. ibid. ↩︎

  64. ibid. ↩︎

  65. ibid. ↩︎

  66. Pawlak, R., Parrott, S. J., Raj, S., Cullum-Dugan, D., & Lucus, D. (2013). How prevalent is vitamin B12deficiency among vegetarians? Nutrition Reviews, 71(2), 110–117. ↩︎

  67. Allès, B., Baudry, J., Méjean, C., Touvier, M., Péneau, S., Hercberg, S., & Kesse-Guyot, E. (2017). Comparison of Sociodemographic and Nutritional Characteristics between Self-Reported Vegetarians, Vegans, and Meat-Eaters from the NutriNet-Santé Study. Nutrients, 9(9), 1023. ↩︎

  68. Sebastiani, G., Herranz Barbero, A., Borrás-Novell, C., Alsina Casanova, M., Aldecoa-Bilbao, V., Andreu-Fernández, V., Pascual Tutusaus, M., Ferrero Martínez, S., Gómez Roig, M., & García-Algar, O. (2019). The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diet during Pregnancy on the Health of Mothers and Offspring. Nutrients, 11(3), 557. ↩︎

  69. ibid. ↩︎

  70. ibid. ↩︎

  71. ibid. ↩︎

  72. ibid. ↩︎

  73. Medawar, E., Huhn, S., Villringer, A., & Veronica Witte, A. (2019). The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: a systematic review. Translational Psychiatry, 9(1). ↩︎

  74. ibid. ↩︎


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-03-12T17:14:25.056Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think vegan diets have proven themselves to be among the best when it comes to mortality, and the differences between the top diets in mortality don't matter much at this point. If vegan diets were bad enough for mortality to be a concern, we'd see this in the observational studies that adjust for health behaviours.

Cognitive function and energy are what I'm most worried about now, for my quality of life and productivity. I'm bivalvegan (6 years), and I take a multivitamin, creatine, DHA/EPA, vitamin D3 (I had problems with it despite my multivitamin) and iron (I had problems with it despite my multivitamin). There are other proposed micronutrients I should plausibly be worrying about, but I'm not convinced yet (there is some choline in my multivitamin, but not much). If I were convinced, I'd probably just eat more bivalves, since I don't have them often now.

I think I spend around $1/day on supplements, mainly for the DHA/EPA.

Replies from: technicalities
comment by technicalities · 2021-03-12T19:52:17.761Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Worth noting that multivitamins are associated with very slightly increased mortality in the general population. Cochrane put this down to them overdosing A, E, and beta-carotene, which I don't expect vegans to be deficient in, so the finding might transfer. (Sounds like you've done blood tests though, so ignore me if it helps you.)

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-03-12T21:34:10.625Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I haven't dug through the studies, but these were specific supplements, not multivitamins, right? I'd imagine ~100% recommended daily value in a multivitamin and ~200% in your entire diet is safe for pretty much any nutrient, but ya, some multivitamins go way over for some nutrients (although are typically below upper limits). Supplements for specific nutrients may be worse.

I use to pick supplements. The multivitamin I'm using now is poorly-rated, but significantly above average for safety, including all nutrients below upper limits, but maybe the upper limits are set too high.

comment by BrianTan · 2021-03-12T14:30:58.959Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this post! I'm currently transitioning to a vegetarian diet, and am considering doing or trying a vegan diet in the future. So the title of this post was something I've thought about. I'm glad to see someone compile a literature review on this question. 

I guess one question though that health-conscious meat-eaters might still ask after reading this is, "Okay a vegan diet is healthy, but I want to have the healthiest diet. Wouldn't the healthiest diet for humans be one that is not vegan?" 

It would probably be hard to find out what is the healthiest diet for humans from existing literature, but I've seen someone argue in this forum that the healthiest diet is probably not vegetarian [EA · GW]:

I am not a nutritionist but my very brief look at the opinions of expert and enthusiast nutritionists and the studies they cite has told me that the healthiest diet is probably not vegetarian.

First, not all animal products are equal, and the oft-touted pro-veg*n studies overlook these differences. Many of the supposed benefits of veg*n diets seem to come from the exclusion of processed meat, which is meat that has been treated with modern preservatives, flavorings, etc. This is really backed up by studies, not just anti-artificial sentiment. Good studies looking at the health impacts of unprocessed meat (which, I believe, generally includes ground beef) are rare. I've only found one, a cohort study, and it did find that unprocessed red meat increased mortality, but not as much as processed red meat. Whether unprocessed white meat and fish have detrimental impacts seems like a very open question. And even when it comes to red meat, nutritional findings that were backed by similarly strong evidence as this have been overturned in the past, I believe. Then there are a select few types of meat which seem particularly healthy, like sardines, liver and marrow, and there is still less reason to believe that they are harmful. Moving on to dairy products, it seems that fermented dairy products are significantly superior to nonfermented ones.

Second, vegan diets miss out on creatine, omega-3 fat in its proper EHA/DHA form, Vitamin D, taurine, and carnosine. Dietary intake of these is not generally necessary for a basically decent life as far as I know, but being fully healthy (longest working life + highest chance of living to a longevity horizon + best cognitive function) is a different story, and these chemicals are variously known or hypothesized to be beneficial. You can of course supplement, but at the cost of extra time and money - and that's assuming that you remember to supplement. For some people who are simply bad at keeping habits - me, at least - supplementing for an important nutrient just isn't a reliable option; I can set my mind to do it but I predictably fail to keep up with it.

Third, vegan/vegetarian diets reduce your flexibility to make other healthy changes. As an omnivore, it's pretty easy for me to minimize or avoid unhealthy foods such as store-bought bread (with so many preservatives, flavorings etc) and fortified cereal. As a vegetarian or vegan, this would be significantly more difficult. When I was vegan and when I was vegetarian, both times I made it work by eating some less-than-healthy foods, otherwise I would have had to face greater time and/or money spent on putting my diet together.

Finally, nutritional science is frankly a terrible mess, and not necessarily due to ill motives and practices on the part of researchers (though there is some of that) but also because of just how difficult it is to tease out correlation from causation in this business. There's a lot that we don't understand, including chemicals that may play a valuable health role but haven't been properly identified as such. Therefore, in the absence of clear guidance it's wise to defer to eating (a) a wide variety of foods, which is enhanced by including animal products, and (b) foods that we evolved to eat, which has usually included at least a small amount of meat.

For these reasons, I weakly feel that the healthiest diet will include some meat and/or fish, and feel it more strongly if we consider that someone is spending only a limited amount of time and money on their diet. Of course that doesn't mean that a typical Western omnivorous diet is superior to a typical Western veg*n diet (it probably isn't).

I'm curious to hear if you have any thoughts on this!

Replies from: Erich_Grunewald
comment by Erich_Grunewald · 2021-03-12T19:08:17.762Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Ah, good question. Like the author of your quote, I'm also not a nutritionist, nor am I a medical doctor. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if the healthiest diet did include some animal products. That's because vegan/vegetarian diets optimise for something else – they optimise for the removal of meat & animal products. It shouldn't be surprising that a diet optimising purely for health might be better than (& different from) one that optimises for something else entirely.

I suppose in the end one has to sort out one's motivations in choosing a diet. How much importance do I place on my health versus, say, animal suffering? (Or, in more deontological terms, how do I reconcile the duties I have to myself with those I have to other creatures?) Personally, I would strive to eat vegan/vegetarian even if I learned that it was relatively unhealthy. But I'm well aware that not everyone would do that!

Replies from: BrianTan
comment by BrianTan · 2021-03-13T13:56:15.258Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah what you said makes sense. I agree that I think practically everyone who can should go for a vegetarian/vegan diet even if it is not the healthiest one. It's already good enough that it's likely a healthier diet compared to most people's diets. Thanks for your thoughts!

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-07-25T06:23:17.419Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Dobersek, U., Wy, G., Adkins, J., Altmeyer, S., Krout, K., Lavie, C. J., & Archer, E. (2021). Meat and mental health: a systematic review of meat abstention and depression, anxiety, and related phenomena. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 61(4), 622-635.


Objective: To examine the relation between the consumption or avoidance of meat and psychological health and well-being.

Methods: A systematic search of online databases (PubMed, PsycINFO, CINAHL Plus, Medline, and Cochrane Library) was conducted for primary research examining psychological health in meat-consumers and meat-abstainers. Inclusion criteria were the provision of a clear distinction between meat-consumers and meat-abstainers, and data on factors related to psychological health. Studies examining meat consumption as a continuous or multi-level variable were excluded. Summary data were compiled, and qualitative analyses of methodologic rigor were conducted. The main outcome was the disparity in the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and related conditions in meat-consumers versus meat-abstainers. Secondary outcomes included mood and self-harm behaviors.

Results: Eighteen studies met the inclusion/exclusion criteria; representing 160,257 participants (85,843 females and 73,232 males) with 149,559 meat-consumers and 8584 meat-abstainers (11 to 96 years) from multiple geographic regions. Analysis of methodologic rigor revealed that the studies ranged from low to severe risk of bias with high to very low confidence in results. Eleven of the 18 studies demonstrated that meat-abstention was associated with poorer psychological health, four studies were equivocal, and three showed that meat-abstainers had better outcomes. The most rigorous studies demonstrated that the prevalence or risk of depression and/or anxiety were significantly greater in participants who avoided meat consumption.

Conclusion: Studies examining the relation between the consumption or avoidance of meat and psychological health varied substantially in methodologic rigor, validity of interpretation, and confidence in results. The majority of studies, and especially the higher quality studies, showed that those who avoided meat consumption had significantly higher rates or risk of depression, anxiety, and/or self-harm behaviors. There was mixed evidence for temporal relations, but study designs and a lack of rigor precluded inferences of causal relations. Our study does not support meat avoidance as a strategy to benefit psychological health.

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-07-25T06:40:36.088Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Across all studies, there was no evidence to support a causal relation between the consumption or avoidance of meat and any psychological outcomes. However, three studies provided evidence suggesting (contradictory) temporal relations between meat-abstention and depression and anxiety. Michalak, Zhang, and Jacobi (2012) demonstrated that the mean age at the adoption of meat-abstention (30.58 years) was substantially older than the mean age of the onset of metal disorder (24.69 years). These authors posited that mental disorders may lead to the adoption of a meat-less diet. The authors stated that individuals with mental disorders may “choose a vegetarian diet as a form of safety or self-protective behavior” (Michalak, Zhang, and Jacobi 2012, 6) due to the perception that plant-based diets are more healthful or because individuals with mental disorders may be “more aware of suffering of animals” (Michalak, Zhang, and Jacobi 2012, 2). Interestingly, these investigators also found that people with a lifetime diagnosis of psychological disorders consumed less fish and fast food. While these results conflict with previous research on fast food and mental health (Crawford et al. 2011), they support Matta et al.’s results and hypothesis that the exclusion of any food group, and especially meat and poultry, is associated with increased odds of having symptoms of psychological disorders (Matta et al. 2018).

Conversely, in their longitudinal analysis, Lavallee et al. (2019) found that meat-abstention was linked to “slight increases over time” (Lavallee et al. 2019, 153) in depression and anxiety in Chinese students. One important caveat when considering these disparate results on temporal relations may be differences in the factors that led to meat-abstention (e.g., religious practices, health and ethical considerations, or socio-economic status). For example, economically disadvantaged individuals who do not consume meat due to its relative cost may be at risk for ill-health for myriad reasons independent of their lack of meat consumption. Thus, future research examining temporal relations should establish clear distinctions between individuals and populations that abstain from meat consumption due to ethical, religious, and health-related perceptions, or those who do not consume meat for economic reasons.



In 2012, Beezhold and Johnston (2012) conducted a RCT in which 39 self-characterized omnivores (82% female) were assigned to one of three groups: lacto-vegetarian (i.e., avoided all animal foods except dairy), ovo-pescatarian (i.e., avoided meat and poultry but consumed fish and eggs), or omnivore (i.e., consumed meat and/or poultry at least once daily). Their results suggested that restricting meat, fish, and poultry improved some domains of short-term mood states. As detailed in our discussion, this study had major design flaws (e.g., potential observer-expectancy effects) and errors in interpretation and communication (e.g., nonequivalent groups at baseline, failure to recognize regression to the mean).

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-07-25T05:39:46.978Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Isabel Iguacel, Inge Huybrechts, Luis A Moreno, Nathalie Michels, Vegetarianism and veganism compared with mental health and cognitive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 79, Issue 4, April 2021, Pages 361–381,




Vegetarian and vegan diets are increasing in popularity. Although they provide beneficial health effects, they may also lead to nutritional deficiencies. Cognitive impairment and mental health disorders have a high economic burden.


A meta-analysis was conducted to examine the relationship between vegan or vegetarian diets and cognitive and mental health.

Data Sources

PubMed, Scopus, ScienceDirect, and Proquest databases were examined from inception to July 2018.

Study Selection

Original observational or interventional human studies of vegan/vegetarian diets were selected independently by 2 authors.

Data Extraction

Raw means and standard deviations were used as continuous outcomes, while numbers of events were used as categorical outcomes.


Of 1249 publications identified, 13 were included, with 17 809 individuals in total. No significant association was found between diet and the continuous depression score, stress, well-being, or cognitive impairment. Vegans/vegetarians were at increased risk for depression (odds ratio = 2.142; 95%CI, 1.105–4.148) and had lower anxiety scores (mean difference = −0.847; 95%CI, −1.677 to −0.018). Heterogeneity was large, and thus subgroup analyses showed numerous differences.


Vegan or vegetarian diets were related to a higher risk of depression and lower anxiety scores, but no differences for other outcomes were found. Subgroup analyses of anxiety showed a higher risk of anxiety, mainly in participants under 26 years of age and in studies with a higher quality. More studies with better overall quality are needed to make clear positive or negative associations.


Some specific important points about the methodology from the paper:

"When a study offered information about matched and nonmatched data, the matched data were used for analysis." but it looks like only one old study had matching.

"Only raw data (unadjusted) were used to perform the meta-analyses, as only 2 publications in the present meta-analysis included adjusted data." However, "Nevertheless, adjustment for confounders did not drastically change results in these 2 studies."

Replies from: Erich_Grunewald
comment by Erich_Grunewald · 2021-07-25T08:42:28.291Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing these!

comment by S_Adi ( · 2021-03-13T07:33:16.116Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The authors cautiously conclude that “striving to eat a plant-based diet with lower intake of animal fats may be linked to better mental health” and express hope that, with further research, plant-based diets could one day be a considered as part of “front-line treatment for mood disorders.”-

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-03-13T08:09:08.204Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think I've seen studies going the other way, with vegans having more mental health issues. I also saw a researcher suggest that once you control for prior experiences of trauma, the differences go away (I don't think the study is published yet).

comment by BenSchifman · 2021-03-13T01:20:55.915Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Well researched post - thanks!  If you have an even greater appetite (pun intended) for this topic I recommend the book How Not to Die.

Replies from: Julia_Wise
comment by Julia_Wise · 2021-03-13T14:40:42.386Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think Greger probably does provide good advice for people who have already decided to be vegan, but at least his website I think is not clear that it starts from a premise of veganism and then addresses health rather than starting with the question of what's best for health. Wikipedia says Greger became a vegan as a college student when he toured a stockyard. I certainly respect that decision as a personal one, but I think his nutrition advice doesn't clearly address his non-health reasons for recommending veganism.

Replies from: BenSchifman
comment by BenSchifman · 2021-03-14T21:28:07.833Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks Julia -- I didn't realize he had become a vegan before becoming a doctor, writing his book(s), etc.  I think he probably underplays that in his writing to reach a wider audience.  It does give me a bit of a reason to question his objectivity in assessing the evidence about what diet is best for health / longevity (as opposed to what is best from an animal welfare perspective).  However, I did find his book to be a very thorough and evidence-based presentation of the studies that suggest a "whole food plant based" diet (distinct from a vegan diet which could = only potato chips and twinkies!)  is helpful in preventing and treating diseases, particularly heart disease and diabetes.