When you think about vegans, what comes to mind? For some, it’s the stereotypical vegan appearance – gaunt, frail, and malnourished with wrinkled, saggy skin.
Because of this image, many people worry that vegan diets don’t provide enough nutrition, are unsustainable long-term, and contribute to faster aging.
But is this true? On the flip side, can a vegan diet help you live longer? In this blog post, we’ll discuss vegan diets and the most up-to-date research on how they impact aging.
How does a vegan diet impact the aging process?
Aging is a complex biological process involving multiple organ systems and biochemical reactions in the body – it’s not just aches, pains, and wrinkles!
When considering whether a vegan diet causes people to age faster, it’s important to consider the many factors that are involved in the process of aging. Let’s explore these topics to get a better understanding of the relationship between veganism and aging:
There hasn’t been much research on the life expectancy of vegans specifically, but one review paper suggests that death rates among vegans are similar to those of omnivores (1).
We also have helpful data from research done on the Seventh-day Adventist community, a church group whose members often follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Members are also encouraged to limit refined sugars and highly processed foods.
Data from the Adventist Mortality study, the Adventist Health Study, and the Adventist Health Study-2 suggests that vegan males have a 14% lower risk of dying from any cause and a 42% lower risk of dying from heart disease compared to Adventists who eat meat (2). Vegans of both sexes also have lower “other mortality” rates, although the causes of death included in this metric were not defined (3).
It seems that diet quality could be an important factor impacting life expectancy. Another large-scale study called the EPIC-Oxford study combined vegetarians and vegans together and found that death rates were not lower when compared to non-vegetarians (4).
Since vegans were not analyzed separately, we don’t know if the researchers would have found lower death rates for them specifically. Interestingly though, vegans and vegetarians in the Adventist population (who had lower death rates) ate significantly more fiber and vitamin C than the British vegans and vegetarians in the EPIC-Oxford study (2).
More research is needed on life expectancy in vegans, but so far the evidence we have suggests that vegans (especially men) likely do not die earlier than meat-eaters, and may potentially live longer. It would also be great to see more research on the impact of the quality of vegan diets on mortality.
While many people have concerns about skin aging and wrinkles with vegan diets, a healthful vegan diet rich in nutrients with plenty of whole or minimally processed plant foods can support healthy skin.
Vegan diets tend to be higher in some nutrients that help slow skin aging, including vitamins E, A, and C, chlorophyll, polyphenols, and zeaxanthin, all of which act as antioxidants and can help prevent sun-related skin damage (5).
Monounsaturated fats found commonly in olive oil, olives, canola oil, avocados, and nuts may also slow skin aging thanks to their anti-inflammatory properties (6).
Omega-3 fats are essential fatty acids that play an important role in the health of our skin. Fortunately, it’s possible to get enough omega-3s on a vegan diet – it just requires some extra attention and intentionality with your food choices.
There are three types of omega-3 fats: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in some plant-based foods like flax seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, canola oil, and edamame, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) found in fatty fish and marine algae.
The body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, but the conversion rate is very low. DHA and EPA seem to provide the most benefits for skin aging (6). ALA may provide benefits for skin when the body converts it into DHA and EPA, so it’s important for vegans to consume enough ALA-rich foods to support this conversion (3.1g ALA for women and 3.6g for men daily).
If getting enough ALA-rich vegan foods in the diet is not feasible, it’s best to take an algae-based omega-3 supplement containing both DHA and EPA.
Collagen provides structure and elasticity to skin, but isn’t found in any plant-based foods. So do vegans need to worry about a lack of collagen in the diet?
Fortunately not, in most cases! The body can produce its own collagen, providing that all of the building blocks needed are obtained from the diet. These building blocks include vitamin C, zinc, copper, and three specific amino acids that can be found in beans and legumes – glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline.
If you don’t get enough of these nutrients in your diet, it’s possible that your body’s ability to produce collagen could be impaired, leading to saggy skin that looks older. Including plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans, and legumes will help meet your body’s need for these collagen-building nutrients.
Aging has a significant effect on the brain, leading to impaired cognitive function with conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. To date, there hasn’t been much research on veganism and brain function (7).
According to a 2021 systematic review, vegans and omnivores have about the same odds of developing memory problems (dementia, 8).
Interestingly, a 2022 study found that better adherence to a plant-based diet pattern (not specifically vegan) low in saturated fat and high in fiber and polyunsaturated fats is associated with better memory and executive functioning (source) even when accounting for factors like smoking, age, BMI, alcohol consumption, and low levels of exercise (9).
Western-style eating patterns high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates, common in the United States, have been associated with poorer memory, attention, and self-control (10). Healthful, well-planned vegan diets high in whole and minimally processed plant foods may be more beneficial for brain function than Western-style eating patterns since they are lower in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates.
One factor related to brain function as we age that may be favorably impacted by a vegan diet is a process called “neurogenesis” in which stem cells in the brain develop into new brain cells. This process helps preserve the health of our brains and repair brain cells that have been damaged during aging (11).
Nutrients that are plentiful in vegan diets and that are known to beneficially impact adult neurogenesis include folate, vitamin E, and polyphenols. Polyphenols are compounds found in many plant-based foods that act as antioxidants, repairing damaged cells in the body. Specific polyphenols that have been studied for their beneficial effects on brain function include curcumin from turmeric, resveratrol found in grapes, cocoa, and berries, and various polyphenols in blueberries and strawberries (11).
However, there are some nutrients important for neurogenesis that can be low in vegan diets – namely, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fats (11).
Plant-based foods do not contain significant, reliable amounts of vitamin B12, so vegans are at risk of deficiency if they do not include enough fortified foods or supplements. The most common fortified foods include some brands of nutritional yeast and non-dairy milks.
As for the three types of omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA provide the most benefits for brain health compared to ALA. As mentioned in the previous section on skin, the body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, but the conversion rate is very low.
Because of this, it’s important for vegans to consume enough ALA-rich foods or to take an algae-based omega-3 supplement containing DHA and EPA.
Oxidative stress is a condition associated with aging (12) and occurs when the amount of cellular damage in the body consistently overpowers the amount of antioxidants available to counteract it.
This damage happens naturally as compounds called reactive oxygen species (some of which also called free radicals) are produced as a byproduct of various metabolic and biochemical reactions in the body. It can also occur when the body is exposed to environmental toxins, such as smoke or certain foods.
Many foods contain compounds called advanced glycation end products, or “AGEs”, that contribute to oxidative stress, although some foods have more than others. Of all the foods tested so far, meats are the highest in AGEs due to their high protein and fat content. Other foods high in AGEs include higher-fat and aged cheeses and high-fat spreads like butter and cream cheese. Frying and other methods of high-heat cooking, like broiling or roasting, tend to form more AGEs than lower-heat cooking methods (13).
Of note, one plant-based food higher in AGEs is sauteed tofu. This may be because like meat, tofu is high in protein and fat. Some good news is that using a marinade with lemon juice and vinegar has been found to significantly lower AGE production during cooking, so consider marinating soy foods like tofu and tempeh with these ingredients before cooking (13).
Antioxidants from food help prevent and repair the damage caused by reactive oxygen species (14). Vegan diets that include plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are incredibly high in antioxidants, making them ideal for combating oxidative stress and inflammation in the body.
Overall, vegan diets based mainly on whole or minimally processed plant foods may slow the aging process by reducing oxidative stress in the body. These diets limit foods highest in AGEs and are higher in antioxidant-rich, low-AGE foods.
Muscle health and sarcopenia
Sarcopenia is a condition that tends to occur with aging and is characterized by muscle loss and lower muscle quality. Experts have suggested that older adults have increased protein needs compared to adults (at least 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight vs. 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight) and should eat plenty of protein in order to prevent as much muscle loss as possible.
Concerns about vegan diets and muscle stem from the fact that animal proteins typically have a higher protein quality score and are more efficiently absorbed by the body than plant-based proteins, suggesting that they are more effective for maintaining muscle tissue.
This may mean that older vegans will need to prioritize eating plant-based foods that contain all 9 essential amino acids in optimal proportions required by the body. These include soy-based foods like tempeh, tofu, and edamame, as well as quinoa.
Older vegans may also benefit from combining foods that are lower in specific amino acids and that complement each other, such as beans and rice or peanut butter and whole grain bread.
Plant-based protein powders made from soy or the commonly used combination of pea and brown rice protein can also help older adults consume enough high quality protein.
Vegan diets are appropriate for older adults, as long as the diet is well-planned (15). These strategies can help ensure that vegan diets for older adults are nutritionally adequate for minimizing muscle loss during aging.
Osteoporosis is a common health condition that occurs more often with age, especially in women. Vegan diets support healthy bones as long as they provide adequate amounts of vitamins D and B12, calcium, protein, fruits, and vegetables (15).
This is supported by data from the EPIC-Oxford study, where vegans with low dietary intakes of calcium per day were at increased risk for bone fractures, but vegans who had higher levels of calcium in their diet were not (16).
Vegans do have consistently higher risks of hip fractures, which researchers believe are likely due to inadequate intakes of calcium and vitamin D (17). In fact, research has shown that vegans who took a combined calcium and vitamin D supplement did not have a higher risk of fractures when compared to omnivores (18).
A 2019 study found that vegans had lower bone mineral density and higher rates of fractures compared with omnivores (19). It’s important to note, however, that other experts have criticized the way in which the authors analyzed their data since they did not account for important factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and physical activity that also impact bone health (19), so the accuracy of these results is not clear.
They do suggest that vegan diets should be well-planned for optimal bone health, a suggestion echoed by many health experts.
One of the best ways for vegans to get enough vitamin D and calcium is to choose non-dairy milks that are specifically fortified with these nutrients, providing the same bone-friendly nutrients as dairy milk without the dairy! Not all brands of non-dairy milk have vitamin D and calcium, so it’s important to check the food label. You’ll likely see vitamin D listed as “vitamin D2” and calcium listed as “tricalcium phosphate” or “calcium carbonate”.
Examples of non-dairy milk brands that are fortified with vitamin D and calcium include:
- Silk Organic Soymilk (all varieties)
- Califia Farms Zero Sugar Oatmilk
- Good & Gather (Target brand) Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Milk
- Good & Gather (Target brand) Less Sweet Oatmilk
- Oatly Original Oatmilk
- Great Value Almondmilk
- Great Value Original Soymilk
- Great Value Original Oatmilk
- Almond Breeze Unsweetened Original Almondmilk
- Ripple Oatmilk + Protein
- Ripple Original Unsweetened Plant-Based Milk
- Simple Truth (Kroger brand) Organic Unsweetened Soymilk
- Simple Truth (Kroger brand) Almondmilk
- Good Karma Flax Milk
- Pacific Foods Hemp Plant-Based Beverage
That said, many people (even non-vegans) are deficient in vitamin D. Consider getting your vitamin D levels tested and discuss taking a vitamin D supplement with your doctor if you are deficient.
If you’re looking for ways to get more calcium in your diet, check out this helpful list of high-calcium vegan foods in my blog post Is Calcium Carbonate Vegan? A Dietitian’s Guide.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States (20). Aging and heart disease tend to go hand-in-hand, with the likelihood of having this condition increasing with age (21). In fact, heart disease has been linked to accelerated aging and the development of Alzheimer’s disease (22).
Healthful vegan diets can be a powerful tool against heart disease, evidenced by the lower risk of heart disease for vegans compared to vegetarians and omnivores (15). This is likely due at least in part to their high intakes of fiber, potassium, and polyphenols, low intakes of saturated fat, lower cholesterol levels, and lower rates of high blood pressure.
Cancer and cancer treatment have been shown to cause accelerated aging, or aging that occurs more quickly than if a person had not been diagnosed with cancer (23). Vegan diets have been associated with a lower risk of developing cancer (24) likely due to their emphasis on foods high in fiber and antioxidants and low in saturated fat, red meat, and processed meat.
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) actually recommends a mostly plant-based diet for cancer prevention and to help prevent cancer recurrence. They also recommend maintaining a healthy body weight to prevent cancer, which is something vegan diets can help with (25).
The impact of a vegan diet on aging depends on how well-planned the diet is and on the nutrients that it provides.
Overall, the available research suggests that well-planned, nutritious vegan diets that include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds may increase life expectancy and can support healthy skin, bones, muscle, and brain function as you age.
Healthful vegan diets can also reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, lower your risk for heart disease, and may help prevent the development of some cancers.
If you’re concerned about the healthfulness of your vegan diet for aging or are considering transitioning to a vegan diet, a registered dietitian can help! Feel free to check out my nutrition counseling services.