Bill Clinton has gone vegan. Oprah had her 378 staffers go vegan for a week and they lost 444 pounds collectively. To celebrate nutrition month (March), plenty of people are shifting their diets toward plant foods and becoming vegan or near-vegan. However, does this automatically mean they will be eating healthier?
Not necessarily. People often assume that becoming vegan means no more donuts, cheesecake, s’mores, gummy bears, ice cream bars, Cheezies, chicken wings or similar “treats” because 20-years-ago vegan versions of these did not exist. Today, however, vegan junk foods are yours for the taking. This evolution is wonderful and horrible at the same time. It can be a relief to provide your child with a delicious vegan ice cream bar at a gathering when youngsters are enjoying similar treats. And it’s great that your family can enjoy s’mores or roast marshmallows around the campfire, without using regular marshmallows containing gelatin, a product from animal bones and the slaughterhouse industry. But if you get too cosy with these processed foods, your veggie diet can become almost as bad as the standard American diet or its Canadian counterpart that we had hoped to avoid.
In this busy world, convenience foods have a clear attraction. While popping a veggie pie in the microwave is faster than preparing dinner from scratch, it helps to have some other options. Processed, packaged foods are designed to tantalize your taste buds and keep you coming back for more. This task is accomplished with lots of salt, sugar and fat, all of which have a nasty way of coming back to bite you in the butt.
Not long ago, most people had no idea what the word vegan meant. Those who did regarded it as a risky dietary choice. Today, the word vegan is viewed in a more flattering light. This shift is the result of several decades of solid, scientific evidence confirming the safety, adequacy and considerable health benefits of well-planned vegan diets. As a result, you can walk into any mainstream grocery store and find products with the word vegan prominently displayed on the label. Producers use the word vegan to sell goods because consumers associate this word with wholesome, nutritious, ethical and green.
But don’t be fooled. The word vegan on a label does not automatically mean healthful, low calorie, low fat, low sugar or a high nutrient content. Some of the unhealthiest foods – soda pop and deep fried, salty snacks – are 100% vegan.
Going vegan? Choose foods wisely
Eat mainly whole plant foods: Make vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds the centrepieces of your meals and snacks. Aim for 10 servings of vegetables and fruits per day, with at least three servings of greens each day. (A serving is a half-cup; with leafy greens, it’s a cup.
Take care of nutrients such as vitamins B12 and vitamin D: Use supplements or fortified foods where appropriate.
If you eat vegan convenience foods, do so in moderation: frozen entrees, veggie meats, frozen, whole grain waffles and packaged mixes offer variety, but stick mainly to whole foods.
If you eat vegan “junk” foods, do so only occasionally. Read labels! This includes the Nutrition Facts and the Ingredient List.
Vesanto Melina is a dietitian and co-author of nutrition classics Cooking Vegetarian, Cooking Vegan, Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan, Becoming Raw, Raising Vegetarian Children, the Food Allergy Survival Guide, and the Raw Food Revolution Diet. For personal consultations, phone 604-882-6782 (Pacific time) or email firstname.lastname@example.org