Is it healthy and safe to eat vegetarian or vegan processed foods, vegan meats and vegan cheeses? We answer a listener question all about vegan processed foods | Brownble

 

In today’s Q and A episode I answer a listener question all about a common conversation vegans have amongst themselves, but even more so, that non-vegans have with vegans regarding how mainstream this movement has gotten, and the availability of many alternatives to meat and dairy, such a vegan meats, vegan cheeses, etc. I’ve addressed this question in the past in other Q and A episodes but never on its own and I thought it was the perfect opportunity to give you my perspective on processed foods.

Before we get started, just my standard disclaimer that my answers are for information and educational purposes only and should never substitute individualized medical or mental health advice.

Are you ready for the question by one of our Sams? Here it goes:

Hi Kim thanks a lot. I am learning every day .. and also thanks for the regular input you give us on your favorite podcasts and books, i really love it ! On another subject, I came across several people in my circle that started telling me that eating processed vegan food is bad : by processed food I mean vegan bacon ; luncheon, beyond meat burgers or soya steaks , nuggets, vegan moyonnaise and so on.. It seems that some people might be tempted to use this as an argument to say the eating vegan is un healthy. So the question is: is eating any of the above not recommended and should we go for legumes and "do it yourself" though not everyone vegan has time to make his own burgers .. on the other hand, I can appreciate that in vegan food like in any food, one should check how the food is made and avoid food that is with preservatives, colorants and so on, even if it is vegan .. so what to do and how to answer people who seem to use this argument to say eating vegan is as unhealthy as eating standard food. I really look forward to hear how you would reply directly to someone bluntly telling you to avoid eating vegan ham or processed burgers because they are unhealthy. I find it difficult as you may get lost in explanations and you almost feel guilty. Have a good week and looking forward to the podcast. Kind regards, “Sam”.

What a great question Sam. There is a lot to unpack here.

The first thing I want to say is what people most often want to know, and that is whether we include these foods or not so let’s start there.

Yes, at our house, we do enjoy many of the great options when it comes to meat alternatives and cheese alternatives along with so many whole foods that aren’t processed. As you know, we have a non-restrictive approach to veganism, that revolves around mindful eating and intuitive eating. This means that both within Brownble and of course within our own lives (we would never recommend anything we haven’t tried and don’t follow ourselves), we include tons of variety, we try to let go of the “good” and “bad” labels of food, and we include plenty of nourishing foods, and also play foods.

We also let our own internal cues guide us through this process we’ve explained in depth in our series on intuitive eating (episodes 171-177). That might mean that after lots of simple meals at home with lots of legumes, grains and vegetables, we are craving (emotionally and physically), something with a little meatiness and more heartiness. That sometimes means I make my own vegan sausages, and that also sometimes means I thaw some of the beyond sausages I keep in my freezer. Sometimes I make a sandwich with yummy hummus and grilled vegetables, and sometimes I miss a classic turkey sandwich and substute the deli slices with vegan deli slices. Sometimes I make my own cheeses, sometimes I use store-bought. Sometimes our meals are entirely made out of whole foods, sometimes a combination of processed foods and whole foods.

Vegan alternatives can help with providing textures you might miss when you leave animal products behind, products that can allow you to recreate old family favorite recipes, as well as provide quick and easy meals that will make your life easier. Whole foods are of course amazing and nutritious powerhouses and the good news is you don’t have to choose sides. You can have many options on the table and really tune into what will feel good and nourish you on that day. You’ll find, that after perhaps a day or two in which you ate lots of store-bought items you’re craving a home-cooked meal, as often happens for non-vegans as well.

  Is it healthy and safe to eat vegetarian or vegan processed foods, vegan meats and vegan cheeses? We answer a listener question all about vegan processed foods | Brownble  

Some benefits of vegan processed foods no one talks about

1) Many of these processed vegan foods are not only very high in certain nutrients (especially protein in the case of vegan meats) but are also supplemented, meaning, that by including these they can help you meet nutrient requirements on days in which you couldn't plan your meal in the ideal way or you were in a hurry. Although it is true that you can get all your nutrients (except vitamin B12) from whole plant foods, fortified foods and vegan alternatives can help you meet those requirements since we often don’t eat in the same exact way every day.

2) By having many options to fill your plate with, you are more likely to stick with a diet that has been shown to have so many health benefits in the long run. We've seen time and time again how students arrive at our virtual doors because they had left veganism behind after they followed a vegan diet that was too restrictive and they went back to eating animal products. By starting again from a place of abundance, of listening to your body and eating both nourishing foods and foods that are there for enjoyment and pleasure, people often find that they feel better, more energized, more like a “normal” eater, and this way of eating sticks and provides so many long term benefits.

3) Mental health is also a part of physical health, and that includes not feeling so stressed out about your new way of eating that it takes away from your quality of life. We firmly believe that being able to take some ready made vegan burgers to a non-vegan barbecue will help you feel included within your group of friends, family or community. Social connections and that feeling of belonging is an important factor when it comes to health.

4) Additional restriction in a vegan diet, can be a slippery slope into disordered eating, another aspect of health that is very much missing from the mainstream conversations. I highly recommend reading this article by registered dietitian Taylor Wolfram on the topic of processed foods and whether a healthy diet can include them.

  Is it healthy and safe to eat vegetarian or vegan processed foods, vegan meats and vegan cheeses? We answer a listener question all about vegan processed foods | Brownble  

Now let’s dispel some misconceptions

It is simply not true that all processed foods are "bad foods".

It is also not true that by being vegan you will be eating more processed foods than when you aren't vegan.

Non vegans often have this idea that because they don't understand how some deli slices could be made without meat, they are somehow more processed than animal-based alternatives, when often that is not the case. Many foods labelled as "meat" or "dairy" are in fact processed foods.

In terms of terminology, even a bag with chopped salad greens or a container of hummus or non-dairy yogurt are considered processed, and this is the case as well for the animal-based versions. I often find it strange that someone makes a big deal about the vegan sausage I took to a barbecue and grill me (no pun intended!) about the ingredients. So I walk to the fridge and bring out the package and show people. When however, they see the animal based sausage at the store they put it in their basket and they might have never even looked at that ingredients list. This is simply because it’s a familiar food, something they’ve eaten as a “natural” part of their diet for ages, but it is also a food product, aka, a processed food. Neither the vegan sausage, nor the animal-based sausage for that matter, have the almighty power to make or break your health.

It is also not the case that because you include some processed vegan alternatives, these are going to remove all the "natural" foods. For most vegans I know who do include them, they are a part of a diet that is filled with fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains etc. This is the case for us, even when we include them with no rules attached, they are still just one of the options that can fill our plates, but our plates are filled with so many whole foods as well. 

  Is it healthy and safe to eat vegetarian or vegan processed foods, vegan meats and vegan cheeses? We answer a listener question all about vegan processed foods | Brownble  

Let’s talk about veganism and its positive growth

I also think it’s important to support the companies that are creating some of these products that are taking veganism into the mainstream, where it will eventually become much more accessible and can be a great source of boosting nutrient requirements, and helping many more people adopt this diet.

It is in my opinion what is changing the world for animals and the conservation of our resources the most in the past few years. It allows for restaurants to offer more vegan options in a very simple way, which in turn helps people with the social aspects of being vegan.

It was the massive growth of non-dairy milks that got this ball rolling in such a huge way, and that happened because there was a huge demand for vegan products. I for one want to be supportive of these companies, so that eventually the price tags get lower, and people see how much simpler it is to go vegan nowadays. This change, for most people will mean a higher consumption of whole plant foods as well.

I have always considered myself to be a vegetable lover and eater, but when I look back now I realize that my consumption of fruits and vegetables grew in such a massive way, even when I do include some of these more processed foods. Had I not gone vegan, my consumption of meat and dairy was so high (and these are also processed foods, for we don’t hunt and eat wild animals), that I wouldn’t be receiving the many benefits of the truckloads of fruits and veggies I eat now which more than tripled in quantity.

  Is it safe and healthy to eat vegan processed meats and cheeses? We answer a listener question all about vegan processed foods | Brownble  

What non-vegans are usually trying to say when they make these comments.

Often people who are saying a comment like “vegan diets are now as unhealthy as meat based diets because of the amounts of processed foods now available” are simply vocalizing an excuse to not do it themselves, and are often not seeing that in their animal-based diet they are probably also eating processed foods that they haven't even considered processed foods (as I mentioned previously). They use this as a way of saying "veganism isn't a perfect diet, so I'll stay where I am". Of course no diet is healthy or unhealthy by definition, this is true about vegan diets and non-vegan diets, but in our opinion and based on the recommendations of many registered dietitians that work with vegan diets, including these foods doesn't mean a road to bad health, they are just some of the options among the plethora of unprocessed foods you'll be having as well.

I would also love to share this wonderful article on the subject by a vegan registered dietitian nutritionist who also talks about the red flags when it comes to eliminating additional foods within the vegan diet, and how including some "play foods or fun foods" can actually be an aid in your diet and your health.

A brief way to answer questions like these

When people ask me this question, besides the information I’ve already shared, here’s what I say:

No diet is healthy or unhealthy by definition, meaning it is up to each person, to take into account their preferences, their activity levels and energy needs, meeting nutrient requirements and also having a diet that feels doable, manageable that can practically fit into your life. It also has to provide the joy of sharing ice cream with your kids or being able to find options when you travel, etc. Health is also determined by so much more than just your eating, there are genetic determinants of health, socio economic determinants of health, and it’s all about doing the best we can in a way that feels doable.

I also add…

Vegan processed foods also vary greatly, and in my experience, most of the time, when you turn the package around, most vegan products list ingredients that I recognize, and that are also whole foods, and of course, you are the one that gets to decide how you eat as a vegan, how you feel your best and fuel your body, mind and soul the best. It is not a requirement to eat processed foods as a vegan just as it is not a requirement to avoid processed foods as a vegan to be healthy (like I stated before, many can actually aid in meeting nutrient needs).

There are countless registered dietitian nutritionists who specialize in vegan diets, who will tell you that no meal or specific choice will make or break your health, and the beauty of working with these dietitians is that often, one of the first questions they will ask you is: how can we make his work for you? With your time restraints, financial restraints and cooking knowledge? Having vegan processed foods available doesn’t mean the entirety of your meals will start and end with processed foods. Processed foods and the fear of them is the diet-culture focus point of the current moment, just like we had the fat-free days, and the low calorie days, and the carbohydrate free days, but still, so many processed foods have helped and aided in health. Think of fortified cereals, fortified juices or milks. Think of yogurt with its probiotics. Think of protein powders for athletes. Think of calcium set tofu, which in the processing itself it is not only providing us with protein, but also a source of much needed calcium (used in the process of making this product). Think of being able to have hummus and veggies at an airport, or a pre-made pasta sauce when you’re ill or pressed for time. Last but not least, remember that veganism is also about the health of our planet, the conservation of wildlife, the protection of animals, and our fellow humans, and having these options available gives them a chance too as more and more people make these changes.

It also opens the world of veganism (and with it, the consumption of more and more fruits and vegetables as well), to people who don’t have some or many of the points of privilege some of us have, for example, people who can’t cook all their meals from scratch because they hold several jobs, don’t have access to as many fresh foods on a day to day basis, are struggling with chronic illness or have a disability that prevents them from cooking, and more socio economic aspects we’ll address in future post.

Even when you have these processed options available, it doesn’t mean you won’t also be filling your plate with delicious whole plant foods as well.

I hope all of this information helps with your question Sam! If you have any questions you would like us to answer anonymously on the show, make sure to leave them below in the comment section, DM it to us in any of our social media (we are @brownble on Instagram where I am the most active) or send us an email to support@brownble.com


Two articles by registered dietitians you might find interesting:

Registered dietitian Taylor Wolfram on veganism and processed foods

A wonderful article by registered dietitian nutritionist Virginia Messina on processed foods, and the appearance of vegan burgers in fast food chains and so much more


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