In last week's article about Whole Foods, I alluded to the idea that the processed food aisle can be packed with misleading and manipulative health claims. This issue has been on my mind a lot lately -- it's hard to avoid with the Internet's recent obsession with going vegan (please Google the controversy surrounding "What The Health" if you need some convincing). In my opinion, the public seems to be convinced that any food labeled "vegan" is somehow superior to all other potential nourishments, despite some evidence to the contrary.
To begin, a vegan diet consists solely of plant-based foods. Vegans do not eat any product derived from animals, including meat, dairy, and eggs. I don't believe that there is anything inherently wrong with a vegan diet (I do have some issues with the holier-than-thou attitude of some in the vegan community, but that's for another day). I am firmly in the camp that everybody responds to foods differently, and a plant-based diet may very well be ideal for many people on the planet.
However, I do believe that there is a right and a wrong way to enjoy a vegan diet. Many key vitamins & minerals, like calcium and iron, are traditionally acquired from animal-based products and vegans must put in extra effort in order to maintain adequate levels. Iron can be found in dark, leafy vegetables and whole grains, but research has showed that plant-based iron is absorbed less effectively by the body than animal-based iron (i.e. red meat). A similar problem arises with omega-3 fatty acids. There are three main types, two of which are sourced from fish and marine organisms (EPA and DHA), and one of which is sourced from plants (ALA). Omega-3 fats are essential — meaning that the body cannot synthesize them itself — and the presence of the marine variants in particular has been linked with a marked reduction in the risk for cardiovascular disease. Vitamin B12 is also infamous for its incompatibility with a vegan diet, since it is only naturally found in animal products such as milk, yogurt, beef, and pork.
All of this is not to say that optimum health is impossible on a vegan diet. However, the removal of major food groups from the diet will have an effect on the micronutrient, vitamin, and mineral content in the body, and this key caveat means that fortification and supplementation are imperative for vegans to remain healthy. Unfortunately, fortification is a slippery slope — the food industry often fortifies an otherwise unhealthy product with one nutrient, thereby allowing them to make an exaggerated health claim. This is particularly relevant in the arena of "vegan alternatives" like non-dairy milk and non-meat burgers, as well as snacks and junk food that are primarily made up of varying ratios of fat, sugar, and processed carbohydrates. These alternatives are causing a real headache for U.S. lawmakers, specifically regarding the legality of labeling a product as "milk" when its nutritional content varies significantly from the real thing. At the end of the day, the existence of these alternatives is more about providing a food that tastes and looks like the real version than it is about delivering any type of similar nutrition. I've taken the liberty to showcase some of these offenders in more detail below.
A Less-Than-Ideal Vegan Diet:
What's the Bottom Line?
The non-vegan versions of all of these foods are by no means "healthy" either, and everything (including the products I've mentioned above) is completely fine in moderation! However, the trendiness of the vegan diet has resulted in an onslaught of "alternative" foods that are heavily processed and sold under the guise of good health. Check out the ingredients before you buy something, and do your best to eat from as many food groups as you can -- just because it's vegan, doesn't mean it's the best option for your mind, your body, and your health.
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program.