Health and Ethics: how motivation towards veganism affects wellbeing and lifestyle

Amongst vegans there are many personal reasons for adoption of the lifestyle, and two of the highest cited reasons are due to ethics and/or health. At Vegan Oslo we are eager to encourage and help anyone consider and adopt a vegan lifestyle, whatever their personal reasons behind the choice.

This wouldn't be a genuine article about veganism without a food pun, would it?

This wouldn't be a genuine article about veganism without a food pun, would it?

The body of research investigating the effects of veganism on health, lifestyle and wellbeing is growing, and a recent scientific article ( Radnitz, Beezhold & DiMatteo, 2015; behind a paywall) that caught the attention of food writers compared the lifestyle choice differences between vegans who chose the lifestyle for ethical reasons or for health reasons. They began with the hypothesis that those choosing veganism based on health factors would also engage in other healthy lifestyle behaviours and eat a healthier diet within the vegan definition.

On the face of it this hypothesis seems to make sense: people motivated by health concerns enough to adopt a vegan lifestyle will probably be driven by that motivation in many aspects of their life, such as taking part in regular exercise and consuming fatty or sugary foods moderately. Both of these examples would lead to increased health benefits in the long run when compared to ethical vegans who may not be as driven to adopt these changes.

One of the first striking results of the research was that 'health-vegans' tended to stay vegan for less time than 'ethical-vegans', an average of 5 and a half years compared to 8 years, respectively. This is a particularly interesting result as whilst we may often be concerned more with helping people become vegan, sometimes we neglect to provide the support and attention to current vegans to help them maintain their lifestyle: once someone has established a vegan lifestyle, do we just think "ok, you're vegan now, you know what to do, just get on with it"?

The second significant result of the article is that real differences in diet do exist between vegans who adopted veganism for different reasons. Whereas ethical vegans ate more soy-based foods and foods high in vitamin D, health vegans consumed more fruit and fruit juice and fewer sweets.

The third finding of this study was that ethical vegans were significantly more likely to take multivitamin, vitamins B12 and D supplements, while health vegans were more likely not to take any vitamin supplementation at all.

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu. 'Going Green' for Atlantic Magazine’s Gallery section, May 2010 

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu. 'Going Green' for Atlantic Magazine’s Gallery section, May 2010 

Our Summary of The Research Report.

'Health vegans' eat eat more fruit and drink more fruit juice, they eat less sweets but also take less vitamin supplements.

'Ethical vegans' eat more soy products (possibly indicating a higher soy intake) and foods higher in Vitamin D. They are more likely to eat sweets.

However these differences were not accompanied by any difference in health outcome metrics assessed here, including depression level, BMI or amount of sleep participants got at night.

Whilst the study did not seek to establish a link between the dietary/supplement taking findings and the difference in duration of veganism, it provides some clues that could help both 'ethical' and 'health' vegans, and guide future research into vegan lifestyles.

If a person chooses veganism for health reasons, it seems reasonable to assume that a contributing factor for ceasing a vegan lifestyle could be that the health benefits they hoped to gain from veganism either did not emerge or did not outweigh the negative effects caused by vitamin deficiencies. 

So in that scenario helping health vegans fully match their nutritional requirements could help to improve their overall health and sustain their veganism, thereby continuing to have the positive impact on animal welfare that is of primary concern to ethical vegans.

In that spirit we have come up with some tips for health vegans and ethical vegans to help them gain all the benefits that the other group tend to have more of. We also some suggest areas of research we would like to see addressed so we can learn more about the ways that veganism manifests itself in peoples lives.

Tips for ethical vegans to improve their health and strengthen vegansim:

Don't overdo it on the sweets. Food has many pleasures and sweets are amongst their best, we love getting a bag of vegan sweeties from Yummy Heaven (find them on the app) but we all know that sweeties have little nutritional benefit so don't exclude the other necessary items from your diet.

Embrace all vegans. People come to veganism from all walks of life and it is important to be inclusive. Some ethical differences don't negate the positive impact that any extra individual adopting the vegan lifestyle has on the lives of animals and on the environment.

Keep informed and share information. Research about health, animal welfare and veganism is available and if ethical vegans are vegans for longer, then that is an opportunity to gain and pass on a large amount of information relevant to their interests. Be sure to only give credance to credible information and don't only seek out or share information which seems to portray veganism in the best light: if credible problems emerge, then deal with them!

Tips for health vegans to maximise health benefits and stay vegan:

Take vitamin supplements. If you previously obtained the majority of an essential nutrient from a dietary source you are now cutting out, it is important to find new dietary sources or boost your intake with vitamin supplements. Vitamin D is particularly important in Norway where sunlight can be scarce in winter (exposure to sunlight promotes vitamin D production in the skin) and non-vegan diets heavily feature fish (some fish products contain high levels of vitamin D). Get in the sun when you can (but still keep safe, don't burn!) and consider supplements. You can get vegan vitamins at many of the health food stores listed on the Vegan Oslo app.

Get ethical. You chose veganism for health reasons, consider the position of vegans who have adopted the lifestyle out of concern for animal welfare and research more about it. This will help you empathise with their point of view, include you more into vegan communities, and potentially to sustain your veganism and prolong the associated health benefits that motivated you in the first place.

Cover all your bases. Confusing articles about the nutritional (lack of) value of certain foods appear in the popular press at frequent intervals and often contradict each other. However basic knowledge of dietary requirements is widely available. Make sure you meet all the basic needs before taking on a specific diet or following a piece of dubious advice making grand claims about a product or food.

Research we would like to see done:

Does the lack of supplementation of vitamins etc. in health vegans have any direct, measurable effects on general health or coping with illness? People are often told a vegan diet can help to limit symptoms of certain illnesses; if some people go vegan without taking supplements, is there any difference in their management of illness compared to some that do?

What vitamin supplements give the greatest health benefits to vegans? People always ask us where we get our iron or protein from, so it's something we often think about, but what about the other dietary requirements that people are less aware of? Are we perhaps missing out on real beneficial effects because of a lack of familiarity with certain nutritional needs?

Does adopting a vegan lifestyle for the health benefits make a person more receptive to the arguments of ethical vegans? Does joining a community, despite differences in prior ethical views make one group more receptive to the concerns of another?

Any other tips to help vegans or suggestions of research you would be interested in? Let us know!


Radnitz, C., Beezhold, B. & DiMatteo, J. (2015) Investigation of lifestyle choices of individuals following a vegan diet for health and ethical reasons Appetite 90:31–36