On today’s episode of Cook with Katie, I’ll be cooking. . .nothing!
No, I haven’t gotten lazy! I would rather discuss a topic that frequently comes up in my discussions with students: if a food is vegan, does that automatically make it healthy?”
There’s a lot of information out there (both good and bad!) about food and nutrition. Everyone seems to have an opinion about food, and there’s often conflicting information regarding what is and what isn’t healthy. A good portion of my time in nutrition counseling is spent debunking common myths. Today, I’d like to spend some time talking about vegan foods, and whether everything that has a vegan label should be considered “healthy.”
What is a vegan diet?
People who follow a vegan lifestyle do not consume any animal products. These include meat, eggs, dairy, and for some, honey (beyond food, most people who are vegan will not use leather). Many people choose to eat vegan for health reasons, while others are related to ethics. However, I find that most people associate “vegan” as synonymous with “healthy”.
For the most part, many vegan foods are indeed incredibly nutritious: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins such as tofu, tempeh, seitan, nuts, and seeds are all FANTASTIC sources of nutrition. However, there are other foods that fall into the vegan category that aren’t so fantastically nutritious:
- SUGAR is vegan (it comes from sugar cane or sugar beet plant).
- MARGARINE is a vegan butter substitute created by hydrogenating oils (usually soybean oil—which is vegan). This process of hydrogenation creates artificial trans fats that increase one’s risk for developing heart disease.
- PALM OIL is another type of plant oil that can behave similarly to margarine in a food product, but does not contain trans fats. However, harvesting palm oil has become so mainstream, it is heavily destructing land and forests throughout Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. Foods that contain palm oil are not an environmentally friendly choice.
Frequently, I have students justify their food choices based on certain labels, such as something being organic, vegan, or gluten-free. This mainly happens with dessert foods. It’s easy to replace baked goods that typically use butter with margarine or palm oil and be able to call that product vegan. With frozen desserts, you can replace cow’s milk with coconut or almond milk. But when you look at the calorie, fat, and sugar content of that vegan cookie, pie, or pastry, it’s very similar to their conventional counterparts. I also find people justifying having larger servings of these desserts.
“I ate 6 cookies. But they were vegan (or gluten free, or organic) so that isn’t as bad, right?”
Let’s examine 2 nutrition fact labels so you can see what I mean:
The column on the left is an ice cream nutritional facts label for vegan ice cream. The column on the right is the same flavor, only it is the conventional dairy counterpart. Although the vegan variety does have 40 fewer calories per serving, and is slightly lower in fat, the sugar content is very similar at 26 g versus 28 g (this would be 6.5 teaspoons of sugar per serving in the vegan variety compared to 7 teaspoons of sugar in the dairy version).
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that food companies are broadening their selections and creating products for people to enjoy who are following certain lifestyles and eating plans. My goal here is to clarify that just because a product is dairy-free, vegan, or some other classification, does not automatically make it healthy. Use scrutiny and check out the ingredients and amount of sugar in a product before determining whether it’s healthy or something that should be used in moderation.
Need more advice? Come see me (or another one of our fantastic team members)! Students who’ve paid the health fee receive one free nutrition appointment each semester.