Is Vegan automatically healthy?

Short answer: No.  And neither is vegetarian.

Vegan and vegetarian diets have always been around.  In certain regions, such as in India and Southeast Asia, vegetarian diets are the cultural norm.  These cuisines attracted more attention in Western countries in the 1960’s, as the environmental movement grew, and books like Diet for a Small Planet gave vegetarian diets an eco-friendly sheen.  Now, in addition to the eco-halo, vegan and vegetarian diets are seen as inherently healthier, better for you and the planet.  Is it true?  Maybe, maybe not.In the 1970’s, vegetarian cuisine was all about vegetables and grains.  Casseroles with beans and grains, vegetables, fruit, brown rice, other whole grains, loaves of whole wheat bread that weighed 5 lbs.  Eggs, cheese, milk and yoghurt for the non-vegans.  Soy products hadn’t yet taken over the meatless menu, so if you ate any soy, it was plain cooked soy beans.  Tofu was hard to find outside an Asian market, and soy milk hadn’t been invented for the masses.  Overall, the possibility for a healthier diet was strong.  If you were vegan or vegetarian, you were eating mostly unprocessed foods by default.

Then food companies caught the vegetarian/vegan wave, and transformed our thinking, redefining “vegan” and “vegetarian” as reliance on soy-based meat substitutes.  Unfortunately, simply switching to soy burgers and soy-based meat and dairy substitutes can lead to a diet that is just as processed, high fat and high sodium as a meat-eater’s diet heavy on cheeseburgers, pizza and other processed foods.  Being vegan used to mean no more pizza.  No burritos, no burgers.  No bacon.  Now you can have vegan pizza, with soy cheese and fake sausage if you want.

End result: they’ve taken the “veg” out of vegetarian.  I’ve met many self-professed vegans and vegetarians who eat almost no vegetables or fruits.  They think a steady diet of soy burgers = dietary purity.  In fact, they’re lacking all the nutrients found in vegetables and fruits.  Missing in action: potassium, magnesium, calcium, B-vitamins, vitamin C, and other vitamins and minerals.  Worse, a high intake of soy meat substitutes easily leads to a high sodium intake.  That fake meat flavor has to come from somewhere, and salt and other flavor additives are key ingredients.

How did this happen?  We’re a burger nation.  People want their meat and want to eat it too, so to speak.  Soy meat and dairy substitutes make it easy and convenient to be vegan.  You don’t have to give anything up; you just buy a different convenience food.  As people have less time and skill for cooking complicated vegetarian dishes, it’s not surprising that fake meat has taken over.

So if you want to be vegan or vegetarian, how do you keep your diet balanced?  A soy burger with chips and a soft drink is technically a vegan meal, but it’s unbalanced.  Have a salad or fresh fruit, and juice or water, instead of chips.  Add some whole grain crackers and nuts if you need more food.  It’s not hard to make vegan meals healthier as well as convenient.  It just takes a bit of planning ahead.  Plus the understanding that simply switching to soy doesn’t equal healthy, if your other choices are poor.

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