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Why 'Vegan' Doesn't Always Equal Healthier

With the bad reputation that meat has been getting recently and the explosion of plant-based meat replacements, one would think that eating anything plant-based is good for you. Not so fast!

Diets centered around plants have been around for centuries. From vegans to vegetarians, eating solely or mostly fruits and vegetables is nothing novel. And with the development of plant-based foods aimed at substituting meat, saying no to meat has never been more fashionable.

In many parts of the world, meat consumption, or at least red meat consumption, have been on a steady decline. This doesn't necessarily mean a direct increase in the number of, as the proportion has remained steady and no more than 5% to 7%.

So it more likely means people who eat meat are just eating less of it. People choose to eat less or no meat for many reasons including health. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables have been proven to combat high blood pressure, cholesterol and even prevent heart disease. And I’m all for people eating more fruits and vegetables as long as they get enough protein, whether from meat or plant sources. If you do follow a plant-based or vegetarian diet, or want to cut down on meat, you still have to be mindful of what’s on your plate.

Not All Food from Plants is Healthy

In simple cases, it might simply depend on how the food is prepared. Take French fries for example. It’s not the potatoes themselves that are unhealthy but the process of frying. In doing so, you take away the fiber by peeling the skin, and add calories and fat with the oil it is cooked in. At the same time much of the nutrition from the potatoes is burned away.

The last decade has seen a dramatic increase in the number of products marketed as vegan, vegetarian or non-meat. Some of these products are foods that have been around a long time, while others are quite new and been created strictly to pounce on this trendy market opportunity. The majority of them are highly processed foods.

Hydrogenated margarine is one that’s been around for a long time. Touting itself as being made mostly from vegetable oils, it was marketed as the healthier alternative to butter. However, the hydrogenation process results in the creation of trans fats, which may ultimately increase your chances of getting heart disease more than butter.

The Rise of Plant-based Meat Alternatives

More recently, the food industry has been producing plant-based foods as meat alternatives. Not just an option instead of meat, but a meat alternative that tries to look and taste the same. The most popular is the Beyond Meat burger, but there are more. You can get plant-based sausages and even plant-based chicken nuggets as well.

Originally, vegetarian burgers looked like vegetables formed into a patty. You could see the bits of beans, corn and other vegetables in them. Some of these products are still around, but less and less resemble their plant-based roots but rather look like fast food meat products.

The Beyond Meat burger is made from pea isolates and includes coconut oil, cocoa butter and natural flavors, and has more sodium than most beef patties. The Impossible Burger is similarly made, but with soy instead of peas. These, and other products like them, are processed foods. Much of the nutrients, such as the fiber in the original vegetables, have been removed or chemically altered during processing.

Are Plant-based Meat Alternatives Healthy?

It’s unclear whether these meat replacements are healthier or not compared to meat itself, mainly because the studies haven’t been done. However, there is enough knowledge about the bad health effects of processed foods in general to warrant concern.

There have been many critiques urging caution in the consumption of these products as with any highly processed foods. The Beyond Meat company has also recently removed some unsubstantiated health claims from its website. And even the CEO of Whole Foods, which sells many plant-based meat alternatives products, has questioned whether they’re healthy.

If you do choose to cut down your meat intake, aim to replace it with natural wholes foods. And be mindful to limit processed foods whether made from plants or meats. A good rule of thumb to follow; if you didn’t make or you can’t recognize what went into it, it’s probably best to limit how much you eat. The graphic below (courtesy of @Meowmeix) shows just how processed that meat alternative really is.


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