Many people are adopting a vegan diet for health, environmental, or ethical reasons. This increasingly popular diet involves avoiding foods containing animal products, such meat, eggs, and dairy. But a common mistake is to assume that everything vegan is healthy. Some foods are “accidentally vegan”, meaning that they were never intended to promote health.
Well-intended bad diet
I met a young lady who went on a vegan diet for a year in an attempt to reduce inflammation and improve her health. Although she was sticking to it consistently, her new eating plan wasn’t working. To make matters worse, her doctors found her health was actually deteriorating. Her labs showed her inflammatory markers were increasing and that put her at risk for serious complications like a heart attack. She felt defeated and wondered what was going wrong.
As it turned out, her vegan diet largely consisted of processed vegan junk food (chips, breads, fake meats, granola bars) and she was rarely eating plants. Research shows that an unhealthy vegan diet substantially increases the risk for inflammatory conditions, including heart disease [Ref 1] [Ref 2].
Vegan Junk Food
The problem with the vegan diet is that it only describes what not to eat. As long as you’re not eating animal products, anything goes. With all of the processed foods on the market it is possible to be on a vegan diet and not eat any fruits or vegetables at all.
The next time you’re browsing in your grocery store notice the array of “accidentally vegan foods”: potato chips, processed crackers, refined grains (processed bread, crackers, cereals, cookies, muffins) chocolate syrup, pudding, and sweetened beverages are just a few examples. These vegan junk foods are highly processed products laden with fat, sugar, and salt that promote chronic diseases.
Junk Food Disguised as Healthy
The food industry often prints buzzwords on food packaging, making it increasingly difficult for you to know which foods are healthy and which aren’t. When people see words like “organic” “low-fat” “vegan” “plant-based” “natural” “fat-free” and “gluten-free” they assume the product is healthy. That’s a big mistake. Some of these vegan products and aren’t even real food.
Vegan foods can be loaded with sugar. Keep in mind, natural sugars like honey and fruit juice concentrate, are no better for you than cane sugar.
Think twice about relying on store-bought protein bars and granola bars. They are worse than candy bars in terms of calories, sugar, fat, and processed junk.
Plant-based vs. Vegan
Plant-based nutrition is different than a vegan diet because the foods are mostly plants. Low fat-whole food plant-based nutrition goes a step further by emphasizing unprocessed plant-based foods without oil. The focus is on fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
With low-fat, whole food, plant-based nutrition, every bite contains healing vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Research studies show that these anti-inflammatory nutrients allow patients to reverse cardiovascular disease, diabetes (insulin resistance) and stabilize blood sugar. The best kept secret in medicine is that if we choose the right eating and lifestyle habits, the body can heal itself [Ref 3].
Vegan diets are popular, but that doesn’t mean they are good for you. “Accidentally vegan foods” can make you sick. For the greatest health benefits, eat low fat, whole, unprocessed plant foods.
If you are experiencing diabetes and want to learn about healthy eating habits that allow your body to heal, download our free Guide to Overcoming Diabetes Naturally.
Ref 1. Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, et al. Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2017 Jul 25:70(4):411-422.
Ref 2. Some types of vegetarian diet can raise heart disease risk. NHS Website. July 18, 2017.
Ref 3. Kadoch MA. The Power of Nutrition as Medicine. Prev. Med. 2012; 55(1):80.
Carla Hightower, MD, MBA is a physician, health coach, workplace wellness consultant, and speaker. She helps people heal themselves with food. Through wellness workshops and courses, she helps companies create healthy, energetic teams.
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