What's Wrong With Vegan Foods?

Last night, I made a presentation to the Sun City Hilton Head Eat Smart Live Longer Club on why many "vegan" foods are not whole food, plant-based and are best avoided (even in transition). While there was much more to the presentation than this, these four slides I think really drove home the points I was trying to make.

In the first two slides, I did two comparisons of two very popular "vegan" burgers against first our own whole food plant-based guidelines and then secondly against the actual hamburger (and the comparison here was against a not very lean hamburger at that). As can be seen on the first slide, neither vegan burger meets our requirements when it comes to fat content or to sodium content.

Furthermore, when you compare against fat, saturated fat, sodium and calories, the hamburger comes out the healthier choice. And the more lean we make the hamburger, the more dramatic the differences can be.

Of course the point of that is not to say that anyone should start eating real hamburger meat again. We already know that hamburger meat is not considered healthy and is not whole food, plant-based. The point of this slide, is that these products, from a health standpoint, are not an acceptable alternative.

Some people like to think of them as a transition food. But why would you transition into eating WFPB by choosing something less healthy than what you were eating before? My suggestion for transitioning in is to select plant-based foods that you liked before and eat those during the transition period. For example, my favorite vegetables before I went whole food, plant-based were peas, corn and artichokes. While I hardly ever eat those foods now, back when I started they helped me to transition into eating WFPB because they got me focusing on eating vegetables by eating vegetables that I already enjoyed. So, I ate a ton of those three vegetables in the beginning.

But to transition in by eating fake meat and other processed foods just never made sense to me. How does pretending to eat meat get you to finally enjoy eating fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and nuts and seeds? And at what point do you decide that you had enough fake burgers and fake mayos and now you're ready to go full bore whole food, plant-based? The only way to do it, in my opinion, is to do it and not try to continue imitating how you ate before.

But it's not just the fat and sodium content of these fake products that concerns me, it's also the ingredients. This next slide makes the point as to why I consider these fake foods to be "chemical-based" as opposed to "plant-based." And as we always say, if you don't recognize the ingredients or you can't pronounce the ingredients, then it's probably not a whole food.

Then I got into one of my favorite topics (and this drew the loudest gasps last night). That topic is Natural Flavors. There's a whole book just on natural flavors, called The Dorito Effect and it's an excellent book to read. It's eye opening.

So, this next slide is intended to show how Natural Flavors shows up in an Ingredients list and how innocuous it looks on the label. It's almost inviting. It makes it sound like we're talking about the real food, being that it's natural, flavoring the particular food or drink.

But then this fifth slide destroys that myth. In this slide, I show the ingredients (chemicals) behind just one typical natural flavor. Those are ingredients that never show up on the label. All the label says is "Natural Flavors."

And I would say that about 90% of the processed foods in the store today have Natural Flavors listed in their ingredients listing. That's my guesstimate as to the prevalence of natural flavors.

In conclusion, I make the point that our WFPB way of eating, while it can exclude animal products, is really not a vegan diet. It is a diet focused on eating real food (not fake food or processed foods made in a manufacturing facility somewhere). I think that Michael Pollan described it best when he wrote:

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Those seven words, to me, wrap up the entire whole food, plant-based philosophy. If we keep those seven words in mind at every meal, then we should always be able to steer ourselves right when it comes to eating healthy. But if instead, we think of the WFPB way of eating as a vegan diet, then we can get led astray and we can find ourselves easily eating a lot of less than ideal foods.

One thing that almost all successful diets for health (WFPB, Mediterranean, Paleo, etc.) have in common is the elimination of processed foods. Hopefully, these slides and my presentation to about 140 people last night help to convey why that is.