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Is Vegan Junk Food Less Than Ideal?

17 June 2024

Plant based eating was back in the news this week under the headline: Vegan Fake Meats Linked to Heart Disease, Early Death. Sounds pretty dire, right? Once again, headlines designed to generate clicks have misrepresented data and ignored nuance. It's true that ultra-processed plant based food was linked to poor health outcomes, however “vegan fake meats” (here, I suggest calling them animal alternatives) represented a tiny percentage of food eaten in the vegan junk food diet (0.2%). So to single them out in a headline seems disingenuous.

Of course, ultra-processed vegan food is not ideal! For optimal health, we need whole and minimally processed plant foods. In this study, “foods” like beer, wine and sugar were included in the “non-ultra-processed plant based foods” (huh?), while alternative meats was just one out of 14 categories of UPF plant-based food. Previous studies have found mixed results on the impact of replacing meat with plant based meat alternatives, but perhaps that is because there are so many different formulas (and nutritional values) in this category. Even Impossible has changed its own formulation since first being introduced, due to pressure from dietitians (yay!) and consumers.

Personally, I believe that plant based meat alternatives are a useful transition food, when you're trying to consume less meat, but I strongly encourage you to examine the ingredients and Nutrition Facts carefully! If your goal is health (why wouldn't it be, since healthy people have more fun?), then these foods are a small piece of a whole foods plant based puzzle that is abundant in vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains.

How many times can I say it? Chickpeas can save the world (if you don't like them, never mind…plenty of other options available)!

All this led to my boring, nuanced, but very accurate headline. Presenting a choice of meat eating vs. plant based meat alternatives is a false dichotomy. As Americans, we are not deficient in meat - or even protein - so replacing it with “fake meat” (a term invented to denigrate any new alternative that comes out) may not be the ideal solution. We need more fiber! Our gut microbiome is the control center of our body; whole plant foods feed the healthy bacteria, animal foods do the opposite, and ultra-processed foods (salt, in particular) destroy the bacteria we need. Which do you want?

I've talked about the no-perfect-diet concept before, so let's consider food choice as relative. If you can include even one additional legume-rich animal-free meal in your week, you will be doing wonders for your health, the planet and the animals.

Choose wisely! And reach out to me if you want to learn more or just need some practical suggestions.

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