Do vegans take more sick days?

Man ill on the sofa, surrounded by tissues

News reports have claimed that vegans take twice as many sick days as the average worker. We look behind the headlines.

15 January 2019

The research

Just as the media frenzy surrounding the launch of the Greggs vegan sausage roll was dying down, veganism hit the headlines again.

Newspapers have covered results of a survey commissioned by Fisherman’s Friend, who make throat lozenges. The company carries out an annual cold and flu survey, and releases selected results to the media to promote their products.

The full survey data is nowhere to be found, but according to news reports, the survey of 1,000 UK residents in full-time employment was carried out on behalf of Fisherman’s Friend by survey consultants Censuswide. It found that vegans had taken an average of 4.8 days off work in the past year as a result of cold, coughs or flu. By comparison, meat-eating office workers had taken an average of 1.4 days, and the average for all workers was 2.5 days.

The survey reportedly also found that younger people take more time off than older workers. 16 to 24-year-olds took 2.63 sick days while the over-55s took only 0.7 days.

UK government surveys suggest that less than 1 per cent of the population are vegan. That means the Fisherman’s Friend survey of 1,000 workers is likely to have included 10 or fewer vegans – hardly enough to draw any firm conclusions about the health consequences of a vegan diet.

Even if it had included a large number of vegans, a survey of this kind wouldn’t be able to say whether a vegan diet was the cause of a higher number of sick days. It can only demonstrate a correlation, which might be caused by other factors. For instance, people following a vegan diet are likely to be younger, and the survey found that younger respondents took more sick leave.  And we don’t know anything about the other lifestyle habits of the people in the survey, which might have affected the results.

The expert view

BHF Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor said: “A well balanced, healthy diet is important for vegans and meat eaters alike to provide all the nutrients needed for good health. We can all benefit from including more plant based foods in our diet, and foods like fruit and vegetables, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds and wholegrains should make up the majority of the food we eat.” 

How the research was reported

Considering the results were based on a very small number of vegans, they were covered by most tabloids in the UK, and even reached Australia.

Some reports didn’t make it clear that the results came from a survey, with The Mirror referring to it as “a study” and “research”.

The Sun called vegans “Green around the gills”, and the Metro warned “Perhaps carrots should carry cigarette-style health warnings, as it’s emerged that vegans actually take more days off sick than everybody else.”

This coverage had the unhelpful effect of suggesting that a diet containing more fruit and vegetables is bad for your health, despite countless studies demonstrating the opposite. In 2016 a study by scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital, monitoring more than 130,000 people for thirty years, found that every three per cent increase in calories from plant protein reduced the risk of dying from heart disease by 12 per cent.

More recently, a BHF-funded study published in the Lancet Planetary Health used computer modelling to compare a range of diets across more than 150 countries to determine the relationship between diet, health and environmental impact. The researchers found that for people in high and middle income countries, low meat flexitarian or vegan diets which met healthy eating guidelines had positive benefits for health for most people as well as on the environment. They calculated that these types of diets could lower early deaths from heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and cancer by around 19-22 per cent.

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