The following was submitted by Virginia Cunningham, guest blogger.
Whether you’re a lifelong vegan, or just embarking on an effort to cut out all animal products from your diet, figuring out what you can eat may be something of a challenge, especially when it comes to processed, packaged foods. You know that fresh produce is a safe bet, but a person can not live on salads and vegetables alone without craving a bit of variety. And while many mass-produced products may sometimes provide a vegan “symbol” to make it easier to identify vegan-safe foods, it’s not yet standard practice. More often than not, you’ll have to spend time perusing the ingredients to make sure it’s something you can eat.
Even with careful inspection of labels, you may find yourself eating vegan foods that are less than nutritious for you. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking because something is “vegan” it also is healthy. However, vegan processed foods are still processed foods and often contain ingredients that are less than ideal. Most prepacked foods contain high levels of sugar and salt, not only as preservatives. but also as a way to improve the taste. Here are some of the more popular offenders that often make an appearance in vegan diets:
White pasta, rice and bread. Vegans (and vegetarians) tend to rely on carbs as a mainstay to their diets, as they are cheap, filling and generally animal-free. White pasta, rice and bread are heavily processed, often lacking the fiber, vitamins and other nutrients found in their whole-grain counterparts. White flour products tend to lead to spikes in blood sugar levels, which, over time, can lead to insulin resistance and potentially, diabetes. Additionally, over-consumption of carbs can ruin your smile, by damaging gums and weakening your tooth enamel due to the acidic environment it creates in your mouth.
Instead of white pasta and bread, opt for the whole-wheat or whole-grain versions; and rather than filling up on white rice, choose brown rice or other grains like quinoa, couscous, bulgur, steel cut oats, kamut or farro.
Cookies, chips and other snack foods. Yes, it’s easy to reach for cookies and chips as a quick snack, especially when they’re labeled vegan, but these versions are not any healthier than standard versions. In fact, many chips are vegan by nature, but they’re still fried, and all nutritional value is stripped from them during processing. Try to stick with whole foods as a snack, like sliced apples with peanut butter (or other nut butters) or chopped vegetables with hummus.
Meat substitutes like vegan hamburgers and hotdogs. Yes, vegans definitely need to make sure they get their protein sources, but processed meatless hamburger patties and hot dogs are not the best options. Packed full of processed soy, sugar, salt, preservatives and artificial flavors, these vegan substitutes are not any healthier than regular meat-based products.
If you want to participate in BBQ season, check the labels for ones that are made primarily with vegetables and don’t feature a lot of added sugar or salt. Or, opt for grilled sweet potatoes, veggie kabobs with mushrooms for that Umami element, and corn with a little olive oil or coconut oil brushed on with nutritional yeast.
To ensure a balanced diet that meets all your body’s need for nutrition, your vegan diet should include sources of protein, like edamame or tofu (though in limited amounts—the phyto-estrogens in soy products could be harmful to your health) and beans and lentils. Vegans need to make sure they get enough fat in their diet, so incorporating healthy fats like olive oil and coconut oil in cooking is key.
Vegan diets aren’t necessarily healthy, especially when you rely on packaged foods; however, by making the right choices and avoiding certain food traps, a vegan diet can be even better for your body than the standard diet.
Virginia Cunningham is a freelance health writer, yoga enthusiast and mom of three in Los Angeles. Her writing for NorthWest covers several different health topics, including personal nutrition, supplements and fitness. When looking for vegan-friendly meals for her family, she is always sure to avoid these processed foods.
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