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Part 1: Veganalysis 2020

Want to find out how the health of our vegan customers weighed up against the health of our non-vegan customers in 2020? Part 1 of our Veganuary series reveals all.

Veganuary has taken the world by storm. It is estimated that since 2014, more than one million people in 192 countries were inspired to try vegan for January [3]. 

There are many reasons why a person may choose to try a vegan diet, including environmental and animal welfare causes. In addition, a well-planned vegan diet is high in fibre, low in energy and saturated fat, and therefore may reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But as with all diets, you must prepare sufficiently for a vegan diet.

So, how does a vegan diet benefit your health? How can you go about switching to a vegan diet? What nutrients should you watch out for, and why isn’t vegan food automatically healthy? 

Part 1: Veganalysis 2020

The results are in… our Veganalysis of 2020 is here. We’ve analysed the data of over 10,000 Medichecks’ customers to reveal how a vegan diet in 2020 shapes up against those who followed an omnivorous diet. There were a few surprises along the way… And in addition, 2020 has not exactly been a normal year... So, how do these results compare with our previous years? Let’s take a look… 

Iron 

We assess levels of iron within the body by looking at the biomarker Ferritin. Ferritin is the body’s iron storage protein and a reliable indicator of iron levels within the body. In-line with previous years, in 2020 vegan Medichecks’ customers had average ferritin levels around 30% lower than those who follow an omnivorous diet. However, the average value was comfortably within the healthy range for both vegans and non-vegans. This finding was confirmed by looking at the haemoglobin (Hb) levels, which can become lowered with iron deficiencies, but the average haemoglobin (Hb) levels were also within the healthy range for both groups.

Ferritin

Vitamin B12

In-line with 2019, vegan Medichecks’ customers in 2020 had an average active vitamin B12 level about 7% lower than those who follow an omnivorous diet. Similar to iron levels, the average active vitamin B12 level for both diets was comfortably within the healthy range.

Blood sugar (HbA1c)

HbA1c is a long-term measure of the body’s ability to control blood glucose. Factors such as being overweight may lead to the development of insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes) and weaken our body’s ability to control blood glucose. Similar to our 2019 results, our results from 2020 have revealed that vegans’ average HbA1c levels were 2mmol/mol lower than non-vegans, which is a difference of around 5%. This suggests that vegans in 2020 had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This finding may reflect the typically lower energy density of vegan diets, and therefore healthier body weights and overall a better ability to control blood glucose levels. 

Folate

In-line with 2019, our 2020 results have revealed that vegans have around a 30% higher blood level of folate compared to those following a non-vegan diet. Folate-rich foods include broccoli, brussels sprouts, leafy green veg and beans. So, it is not surprising that the vegans outdo their fellow meat-eaters in this area. However, both groups had average folate levels well above the cut-off value which indicates a deficiency.

Folate

Vitamin D

2019 saw an average difference of 5% in vitamin D levels between vegans and non-vegans however this was not echoed in the most recent data. In 2020 average blood levels of vitamin D between vegans and non-vegans was very similar. This is not surprising if we consider that 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 [1]. 

What was surprising was that, despite the lockdown we experienced in 2020, when compared to 2019, vitamin D levels had improved for Medichecks’ customers. This may reflect a brighter, sunnier summer. But more likely it reflected a more conscientious approach to our health, and therefore, a higher uptake of vitamin D supplements in 2020.

Cardiovascular health

If our Veganalysis from previous years has revealed one thing, its that vegan diets are beneficial for cardiovascular health. Both 2018 and 2019 revealed that, on average, individuals following a vegan diet had lower levels of non-HDL cholesterol (the more harmful stuff) and lower total cholesterol levels, compared to those following an omnivorous diet. 

2020 did not disappoint. 2020 supported our previous findings that a vegan diet is beneficial for cardiovascular health. Reductions in non-HDL cholesterol occurred along with parallel levels of HDL cholesterol (the good stuff) between groups, indicating a healthier cardiovascular profile overall. These are interesting findings because unhealthy cholesterol profiles are a risk factor for developing cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke. The differences may be due to the fact that a healthy vegan diet typically contains fewer calories, with lower levels of saturated fats. But also, vegan diets may contain higher amounts of certain nutrients which are known to be protective against high cholesterol, such as fibre and plant sterols.

Cholesterol

Omega-3:Omega-6 ratio and inflammation

The omega-6:omega-3 ratio has been proposed to be an important determinant of inflammation in the body [2]. A low ratio is thought to be better for our health. 

The challenge for vegans is that omega-3 fats such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are predominantly found in fish, and our body’s ability to convert the pre-cursor (a-linolenic acid) is not very efficient. Due to this, vegans may have a higher omega-6:omega-3 ratio. This is supported by our data which shows that in 2018, 2019 and 2020 vegans had an omega-6:omega-3 ratio 60-70% higher than their omnivorous counterparts. This may be due to the high inclusion of omega-6 fats in the diet, through vegetable oils such as sunflower oil, nuts and seeds.  

Though, omega-6 fats are unsaturated, and the foods we find them in are typically very healthy, so we don’t recommend cutting down on these. It may be better for our vegan Medichecks’ customers to increase their intake of omega-3 a-linolenic containing foods (chia seeds, flax and walnuts) and perhaps also consider a microalgae supplement to provide a daily dose of EPA and DHA required by the body.

It is important to note that although the ratio was higher for vegans, in-line with 2018 findings, markers of inflammation such as CRP-HS were significantly lower in vegans by around 30%. This seems contradictory considering the importance of the omega-6:omega-3 ratio to inflammation… this is supported by a recent large study which found little convincing effect of omega-3 supplementation on markers of inflammation such as CRP [2].

If we consider that excess body fat can also contribute to inflammation, a lower CRP-HS level may therefore reflect the influence of a lower calorie diet, and therefore lower body fat, in vegans. CRP can also rise in illness, so it may also be that vegans were experiencing less illness at the time of blood testing.

Liver health

In agreement with our findings from 2018 and 2019, in 2020 a marker of liver health (Gamma Glutamyltransferase (GGT)) was 25-30% lower for vegans. This finding may reflect a healthier lifestyle, such as lower alcohol intake or lower levels of body fat, within the vegan group of customers.

The final words

Our results have revealed that, whether vegan or not, our Medichecks’ customers are a healthy bunch! Our vegan Medichecks’ customers are well clued up on their health and are hopefully following the advice of our doctors to avoid nutritional deficiencies. 

No more advice for you now, other than keep it up - and keep your eyes peeled for our 2021 Veganuary results!

To find out more about how to ensure your vegan diet stays healthy, stay tuned for part 2 to find out how to optimise the nutrients in your diet and part 3 to get up-to-date guidance from an expert scientist who is researching all things vegan.


Extra comments

It is important to note that these values represent averages so cannot predict how an individual will respond to a particular diet. Any large 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 likely influence the findings. 


References

[1] Geissler, C. and Powers, H.J. eds., 2017. Human nutrition. Oxford University Press.
[2] 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.
[3] https://veganuary.com/