3 minutes to read
Food products are not automatically more nutritious because they are vegan. Photo / 123RF
A vegan or vegetarian diet won’t guarantee better health, but attention to detail should bring benefits.
I recently read in a newspaper article that vegan products were often less healthy when compared with regular
food products. Vegan ready meals had more salt and sugar than meat-based ready meals, and plant-based yogurts had less protein and more calories than regular dairy yogurts. I thought vegan diets were supposed to be healthier?
Vegan and vegetarian diets, when well planned, are linked to a range of health benefits. However, the critical point here is the “well planned” part of the statement. Because there are many vegan diet options, and not all are healthy. As you’ve read, food products are not automatically more nutritious because they are vegan.
Vegans abstain from using animal products, including in their diet. They eat plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and seeds, and plant-derived processed foods. They do not eat meat, fish, dairy products, eggs or food products containing those ingredients.
Vegetarians, in contrast, add dairy products and eggs to their plant-based diets.
Although plant-based diets are at risk of being deficient in protein, iron, vitamin D, calcium, iodine, omega-3, and vitamin B12, a well-planned plant-based diet can meet all the nutrition requirements of otherwise healthy adults – except for vitamin B12, which vegans must acquire through dietary supplementation.
From a health perspective, well-planned, healthful vegan and vegetarian diets appear to improve long-term health outcomes. For example, a 2017 review of 86 cross-sectional and 10 cohort studies found that vegetarians had a lower incidence of heart attacks and cancer, and vegan diets were associated with a lower incidence of cancer. Vegetarianism is also associated with a lower prevalence of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension and all-cause mortality.
Of course, there is no single version of a vegan or vegetarian diet. Theoretically, one could eat only French fries and baked potatoes and still qualify as a vegetarian – albeit a nutritionally deficient vegetarian.
Unfortunately, the same is true when it comes to food products. Not all vegan or vegetarian products are created equal. And often, the more processed they are, the less healthy they are likely to be (which explains why nutritionists recommend choosing foods as close as possible to their natural form).
Sadly, a segment of the food industry is prepared to invent new ways of eating poorly for consumers. For example, if you want to avoid sugar, they’ll create sugar-free junk foods. And if you want to eat vegan, they can create vegan food products that are more unhealthy than non-vegan foods.
Having said this, it does not mean that the entire food industry is corrupt. It simply means we must pay as much attention to the nutrition profile of a vegan food product as we would to a “regular” food product – if we are interested in our long-term health.
One cannot assume a “vegan” label guarantees a healthy food product, yet we often subconsciously think this. Indeed, researchers have termed this the “health halo effect” – the finding that consumers presume a food to be healthier if it has healthy-sounding phrases on its packaging such as “protein”, “natural” or, in this case, “vegan”. A 2018 study, for example, found that even when a traffic-light warning label was affixed to a food product, consumers still perceived it as healthy if it had the word “protein” on the front packaging.
In summary, a well-planned vegan or vegetarian diet can undoubtedly produce health benefits. But it’s important to compare nutrition labels between products to find the healthiest option.