There are various ways of going about an animal-free diet and they will vary considerably in their capacity to meet nutrient needs and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. As a rule of thumb, the extent to which a diet aligns with national dietary guidelines is an indication of its healthfulness. Dietary guidelines in Europe and America (and to some extent across the globe) tend to converge1. The following is a distillation of the type of food-based recommendations commonly seen in official nutrition guidelines.
Control energy intake from food to maintain a healthy weight.
Eat fewer fatty cuts of red meat and processed meats
Eat some legumes, nuts, fish, lean meats and eggs.
Eat at least 2 portions of fish per week (including one portion of oily fish).
Consume some dairy or dairy alternatives.
Eat a range of fruits and vegetables.
Choose unsaturated sources of fat
Minimise salty, sugary and fatty foods
The advice to emphasise vegetables, fish, wholegrains, nuts and legumes and limit red meat is backed by a wealth of evidence; particularly from prospective cohort studies2. Furthermore, greater adherence to dietary guidelines is associated with better health outcomes in large, long prospective cohort studies3,4,5,6 and short-term randomised controlled trials7,8,9,10 compared to a Western Pattern Diet.
Since vegans do not consume animal products; naturally they will not comply with the guidance to consume some fish, lean meats, eggs and dairy. Nonetheless, emerging evidence suggests that vegans are on average the most compliant with dietary guidelines compared to other dietary groups11,12,18. This is likely due to animal-free diets steering people towards eating more whole plant foods and less saturated fat.
Furthermore, I doubt the lack of animal protein is a great detriment to well-planned animal-free diets. Lean meats, eggs and dairy are rich sources of various essential nutrients and can form a part of a healthy diet. But these nutrients can be obtained from animal-free sources and what's more, a lot of evidence indicates that plant protein is generally speaking healthier. Substitution models consistently find protein from plant-based foods (e.g., soy, nuts, wheat) to be associated with better health outcomes compared to animal-protein13,15,16 and rarely (if ever) show the converse. Moreover, clinical trials reliably show that plant protein improves markers of cardiometabolic health16, 17.
However, from a health perspective, fish very much appears to improve health outcomes and is an important source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in the human diet. Nonetheless, vegans can obtain shorter-chain omega-3 from plant foods (e.g., flax, chia, walnuts) and algal oil is an animal-free source of long-chain omega-3.
Below I have summarised 5 animal-free patterns of eating which – when well-planned – can meet nutrient needs and score highly in terms of alignment with dietary guidelines. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of options, but I believe they represent veganised versions of the most common health-oriented dietary strategies.
High Protein Vegan
Important note: whatever animal-free pattern of eating you choose, some planning is required to hit nutrient targets. Click here for some tips in this regard.
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2. Schwingshackl, L., Schlesinger, S., Devleesschauwer, B., Hoffmann, G., Bechthold, A., Schwedhelm, C., Iqbal, K., Knüppel, S. and Boeing, H., 2018. Generating the evidence for risk reduction: a contribution to the future of food-based dietary guidelines. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 77(4), pp.432-444.
3. Yu, D., Zhang, X., Xiang, Y.B., Yang, G., Li, H., Gao, Y.T., Zheng, W. and Shu, X.O., 2014. Adherence to dietary guidelines and mortality: a report from prospective cohort studies of 134,000 Chinese adults in urban Shanghai. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 100(2), pp.693-700.
4. Van Lee, L., Geelen, A., Kiefte-de Jong, J.C., Witteman, J.C.M., Hofman, A., Vonk, N., Jankovic, N., Hooft van Huysduynen, E.J.C., De Vries, J.H.M., van't Veer, P. and Franco, O.H., 2016. Adherence to the Dutch dietary guidelines is inversely associated with 20-year mortality in a large prospective cohort study. European journal of clinical nutrition, 70(2), pp.262-268.
5. Kebbe, M., Gao, M., Perez-Cornago, A., Jebb, S.A. and Piernas, C., 2021. Adherence to international dietary recommendations in association with all-cause mortality and fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular disease risk: a prospective analysis of UK Biobank participants. BMC medicine, 19, pp.1-9.
6. Lassale, C., Fezeu, L., Andreeva, V.A., Hercberg, S., Kengne, A.P., Czernichow, S. and Kesse-Guyot, E., 2012. Association between dietary scores and 13-year weight change and obesity risk in a French prospective cohort. International Journal of Obesity, 36(11), pp.1455-1462.
7. Krishnan, S., Adams, S.H., Allen, L.H., Laugero, K.D., Newman, J.W., Stephensen, C.B., Burnett, D.J., Witbracht, M., Welch, L.C., Que, E.S. and Keim, N.L., 2018. A randomized controlled-feeding trial based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans on cardiometabolic health indexes. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 108(2), pp.266-278.
8. Reidlinger, D.P., Darzi, J., Hall, W.L., Seed, P.T., Chowienczyk, P.J. and Sanders, T.A., 2015. How effective are current dietary guidelines for cardiovascular disease prevention in healthy middle-aged and older men and women? A randomized controlled trial. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 101(5), pp.922-930.
9. Gotfredsen, J.L., Hoppe, C., Andersen, R., Andersen, E.W., Landberg, R., Overvad, K. and Tetens, I., 2021. Effects of substitution dietary guidelines targeted at prevention of ischemic heart disease on dietary intake and risk factors in middle-aged Danish adults: The DIPI randomized controlled trial. British Journal of Nutrition, 126(8), pp.1179-1193.
10. Uusitupa, M., Hermansen, K., Savolainen, M.J., Schwab, U., Kolehmainen, M., Brader, L., Mortensen, L.S., Cloetens, L., Johansson?Persson, A., Önning, G. and Landin?Olsson, M., 2013. Effects of an isocaloric healthy N ordic diet on insulin sensitivity, lipid profile and inflammation markers in metabolic syndrome–a randomized study (SYSDIET). Journal of internal medicine, 274(1), pp.52-66.
11. Walsh, H., Lee, M. and Best, T., 2023. The association between vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore diet quality and depressive symptoms in adults: A cross-sectional study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20(4), p.3258.
12. Bogataj Jontez, N., Kenig, S., Šik Novak, K., Petelin, A., Jenko Pražnikar, Z. and Mohorko, N., 2023. Habitual low carbohydrate high fat diet compared with omnivorous, vegan, and vegetarian diets. Frontiers in Nutrition, 10, p.572.
13. Song, M., Fung, T.T., Hu, F.B., Willett, W.C., Longo, V.D., Chan, A.T. and Giovannucci, E.L., 2016. Association of animal and plant protein intake with all-cause and cause-specific mortality. JAMA internal medicine, 176(10), pp.1453-1463.
14. Viguiliouk, E., Stewart, S.E., Jayalath, V.H., Ng, A.P., Mirrahimi, A., De Souza, R.J., Hanley, A.J., Bazinet, R.P., Blanco Mejia, S., Leiter, L.A. and Josse, R.G., 2015. Effect of replacing animal protein with plant protein on glycemic control in diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutrients, 7(12), pp.9804-9824.
15. Budhathoki, S., Sawada, N., Iwasaki, M., Yamaji, T., Goto, A., Kotemori, A., Ishihara, J., Takachi, R., Charvat, H., Mizoue, T. and Iso, H., 2019. Association of animal and plant protein intake with all-cause and cause-specific mortality in a Japanese cohort. JAMA internal medicine, 179(11), pp.1509-1518.
16. Li, S.S., Blanco Mejia, S., Lytvyn, L., Stewart, S.E., Viguiliouk, E., Ha, V., de Souza, R.J., Leiter, L.A., Kendall, C.W., Jenkins, D.J. and Sievenpiper, J.L., 2017. Effect of plant protein on blood lipids: A systematic review and meta?analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of the American Heart Association, 6(12), p.e006659.
17. Guasch-Ferré, M., Satija, A., Blondin, S.A., Janiszewski, M., Emlen, E., O'Connor, L.E., Campbell, W.W., Hu, F.B., Willett, W.C. and Stampfer, M.J., 2019. Meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials of red meat consumption in comparison with various comparison diets on cardiovascular risk factors. Circulation, 139(15), pp.1828-1845.
18. Clarys, P., Deliens, T., Huybrechts, I., Deriemaeker, P., Vanaelst, B., De Keyzer, W., Hebbelinck, M. and Mullie, P., 2014. Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Nutrients, 6(3), pp.1318-1332.