Plant Based Eating Is Catching On! Cue the processed vegan junk food craze!
Plant based eating is definitely becoming more popular. People are realizing that the research relating to our health, environment, and animal welfare support and promote a plant based diet, and it is all a little too strong to ignore. People are also clueing into the fact that plant- based foods are delicious, supply tons of energy and make them feel amazing. Love it! What I don’t love, is that along with people hopping on the veggie train, I have seen a tremendous rise in vegan convenience foods. A whole food plant based diet does not have much room for these, but they abound, and I know people are drawn to them. I’ll occasionally partake, but very infrequently and I always check food labels and make sure that they are minimally processed and as close to whole foods as they can be.
Forks over Knives, which I would argue is the top resource to those following this diet, defines a whole food plant based diet as: A diet based on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes; and it excludes or minimizes meat (including chicken and fish), dairy products, and eggs, as well as highly refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil.” Most of the vegan convenience foods that I see out there fall into NONE of these categories and are in fact processed and loaded with oil, sugar, soy isolate, and too many calories. It is definitely a mistake to confuse vegan with "healthy food". I hate to hear from people, "Oh I was vegan for a while but gained so much weight and felt terrible". A little prying always reveals that they went the junk food vegan route and ate hardly any whole foods!
Vegan DOES NOT equal healthy! To illustrate the point, the following foods are vegan:
Kool-Aid Sugar-Sweetened Soft Drink Mix Lays potato chips Oreos Sweet Spiced Chili Doritos Swedish Fish Strawberry Pop Tarts Goya Flan
In addition to these "accidentally" vegan foods there are a plethora of new vegan cheeses, meat substitutes, prepared foods and restaurants that have vegan foods that aren’t always the healthiest choices (can anyone say french fries with vegan ranch)?? Now I will qualify that I think that these foods are certainly better for the planet and much kinder to animals, but they may not, in fact, be the best thing to put in our bodies. I'm not saying I never have them, or that there is no place for them. Some people when they make the switch have some big time cravings for cheese or meat and these can fill that void if used judiciously. They are not as addicting as their meaty/cheesy counterparts, so they can serve as a means to get off of the meat and cheese train. A step down so to speak. It is when they become a frequent staple that it becomes more of a problem.
Faux Meat Galore There are tons of meat substitutes out there. Fake chicken patties made from mycoprotein (there’s a fungus amongus), burgers made from processed gluten, and soy taco meat fill the freezers in the natural food and regular supermarkets. The nutrition in a store-bought veggie burger compared to a homemade bean and sweet potato burger pales in comparison. A newcomer to this huge new market is pea protein, and it seems like it may be healthier, but it shows up in processed foods, which we should avoid, so I am not throwing any gold stars at it.
It is tempting to go with the burgers that look just like a burger, have burger mouth feel and taste very much like a burger, and I am not saying that we never have them, but letting these faux cow burger patties become your go-to protein source results in you not getting all of the benefits of a whole food vegan diet. Meat substitutes are very often highly processed. They also have lots of salt and preservatives in order to have a long life in the refrigerator or freezer aisle. Reading labels carefully is paramount. Isolated soy protein, aka soy protein isolate and the long ingredient labels that you see in so many meat substitutes are what we need to steer clear of. We miss out on all of the nutrition offered by beans, sweet potatoes, veggies (and all other healthy components of veggie burgers), when we eat a processed v-burger.
Wheat gluten is another favorite meat substitute and if you can handle gluten (which I can’t), a better one to go with than isolated soy. It is generally less processed and the consistency is very close to meat. My family recently had the Impossible Burger and it was like they had all died and gone to "my mom/wife won't give me the evil eye if I eat this" burger heaven. Totally freaked out over how much it tasted like a burger. My husband actually had the waiter double check that they gave him the right one! SO much better for the environment, and studies that have compared the health effects of veggie protein to animal protein heavily favor veggie over meat.
To Soy or Not to Soy?
Soy has definitely gotten a bad rap, but studies show, that if eaten in it's whole unprocessed form, it is a great (and highly recommended) part of a vegan diet. A diet filled with isolated soy proteins which is a highly processed source of soy, however, is the type of diet that can get us into trouble. People living in asian countries eat a lot of soy and they generally have 32% lower rates of cancer and 40% lower rates of heart disease. They also consume whole and fermented soy products, not processed ones. Our country consumes too many processed soy products made with the worst part of the soy that has been stripped of a lot of the nutritious components of whole soy. Once again, we have taken a perfectly healthy food, adulterated it, and made it unhealthy!! We westerners are so good at doing that!!
There are definite health benefitsto consuming whole soy. I stick with sprouted organic, and if I can’t find sprouted, then just organic. Tofu and tempeh (which is often made from soybeans) are the best way to go, as they are fermented (more digestible and available nutrients), whole foods, close their source. The healthiest sources of soy are miso, tempeh, tofu, soy milk, and edamame. The farther your protein gets away from the source, and the more processed it is, the less nutritious it becomes. For instance, a tofu steak is going to be a better choice than a processed veggie burger that has soy isolates as one of its many ingredients.
At the risk of looking like a hypocrite (if you scroll back, I did a faux cheese blog), I will say that I am not too crazy about the cheese substitutes out there. Once in a blue moon, a rendez vous with some cashew cheese is probably OK, but people get a little too friendly with these. They are fat and calorie dense and therefore crave-able and it’s hard just to have a bit of them. People start with a little on a pizza, then are eating grilled cheese, dipping crackers in the spreadable types and, boom, fake cheese becomes a habit. I do have to say, that fake cheese probably isn't as addictive as real cheese as it lacks the highly addictive casomorphines that are released in our brain when we eat real cheese. This addiction is probably why I get the eye rolls when I tell people that I like vegan cheese just as much as regular cheese. I never ate cheese before I went plant based and therefore never had a cheese high. Vegan cheeses, for the most part, have little to offer in the way of nutrients. A faux cheese pizza, for example, has very little nutrition (but, I'll admit that a bit on a pizza loaded with veggies is a nice treat). A flat bread loaded with veggies and topped with nutritional yeast, packs a better nutritional punch and also tastes delicious!
Homemade cheese is another option. My newly vegan 14 year old son and I just took a fermented vegan cheese class and the cheese was incredible! It was made from either almonds, cashews or macadamias or both and it was YUM. I do believe this unprocessed fermented cheese is a good sub, but needs to be eaten in moderation since it is very calorie dense! It is way better than eating cheese, but it certainly is not low fat or lo cal, so proceed with caution.
Vegan in a Hurry
I have seen some great convenience foods that are vegan, and ones that are loaded with preservatives, fillers, sodium and fat. Read those labels!!! Gardein makes a large variety of veggie burgers, “pizza pockets”, and chicken tenders to name a few. They are made from a mix of soy and wheat proteins. They are definitely processed and not a first choice for me, but occasionally my husband wants something that tastes like a burger (my homemade, burgers are quite there yet) so he has one of these.
Next to the Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat burgers (which are gluten free unlike Impossible) are another one that he likes and they are made from pea protein which I like better than isolated soy. What I don’t like is that they have around 20 gms of fat (5 saturated) compared to the zero gms in my homemade burgers. Their beefy crumbles are a dead ringer for beef in chili or bolognese and I have used them to feed guests who had no idea they weren’t eating meat until I told them at the end of dinner. An entire package of the crumbles have 30 g of fat. You can easily eat a quarter a package in a sitting so 8 gms of fat. It also has yeast extract and several other natural preservative type ingredients that again, my homemade food does not have.
Personally, if I am not making them myself, I go for one of the veggie burgers made from beans, veggies, sweet potatoes,and/or quinoa. There are lots of these on the market and many are oil free. Pritikin has been around forever and their veggie burgers are definitely nutritious and full of just veggies. Check the labels, look for lots veggies, no fat, or as little fat as possible and a short ingredient list.
Here is my cheese blog for a review of my favorite cheeses which I use once in a blue moon.
It’s best to stick with whole foods and make your own food, but we all know that it is not always possible to cook EVERY meal. Sometimes we want to grab and go, and there are brands that do a good job keeping their products pretty close to whole food plant based. Read labels, stick with food that is as close to its original form as possible, high fiber, and oil free if possible. As a general rule, the shorter the ingredient list, the better. And once in a while, if you enjoy some fermented cashew cheese on a cracker, so be it!