The Unhealthy Vegan

Vegan is not what it used to be

A vegan diet has historically been associated with healthier eating.  This, however, may be less accurate now than it has been in the past.   It seems that the vegan diet has changed gradually in an unfavorable way with the progressively higher intake of industrial plant-based meat and dairy substitutes or ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

Three to four decades ago eating vegan seemed to be more work than eating the standard diet including meat, dairy and eggs.  Food preparation and eating out were challenging while life has gotten faster leading to a greater amount of “prepared” food. To try to define that, a basic underlying concept emerges which is food manufacturing.  As little as 100 years ago food was almost exclusively grown or raised. Now it is manufactured.

 Several new studies have linked manufactured foods termed ultra-processed foods or UPFs to many of the metabolic related health problems that have become epidemic.  Most prototypic is type two diabetes which now is present in 12-14% of adults.  There is a smoldering state that precedes diabetes, insulin resistance.  It occurs because the insulin receptors that signal cells to take glucose in and process it for energy begin not to respond well to insulin.  A compensation to try to “force” insulin signaling the body produces very high amounts of insulin.

Eventually, insulin receptors become more resistant and the abnormally high levels of insulin are not enough to maintain normal blood glucose.  This phase was formally called “pre-diabetes” but has been softened recently to “at risk of diabetes” as one-third of all adults has it!  This attempt to soften the news to this broad swath of the population has never made sense to me.  Prediabetes is simply early diabetes, the same as the first trimester of pregnancy is not pre-pregnant, it is simply early pregnancy.

Back to the vegan diet and all of this; a recent study looked at the UPFs in the current vegan, vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and standard diets. The diet highest in UPFs were the vegan and vegetarian diets at 39.5% and 37% by volume respectively.

The overall results reflect our excessive reliance on UPFs with those representing at least one in 3 of all calories.  In a sense, we are all being convenienced to death and a little more so in the dominantly “plant” eaters.

The problems with UPFs are many.  They are nutrient depleted, full of penalizing additives such as processed sugars, laden with herbicide residues and heavy with chemical additives.  The image below shows the comparative nutrient content of a serving of 100% whole wheat, refined white flour and “enriched flour”.

Notice that all 20 nutrients in whole wheat are reduced between 50% and 100% in refined flour.  That term refined flour never appears on a label.  Instead you will see the term enriched wheat flour which is the last column.  By regulation processers are required to replace only 4 of the 20 removed nutrients!

The goal of refining flour is to remove the germ where the essential oils/fatty acids live as they are what can go rancid in a relatively short period of time.  Unfortunately, the germ is also where all of the nutrients live. Don’t overlook the “essential” in oils/fatty acids.

Fats such as fatty acid add a primary taste drive to food, the “Oh good eat” signal to the taste buds.  Try a teaspoon of white flour.  There are only two other primary taste drives in food, salt and sweet.  The one that is being used out of control is sweet.  The two links to prior blogs discuss these concepts in more detail.

Stuff Disguised as Food – How to Read a Label

Stuff Disguised as Food – Sugar, Sugar Everywhere

The debate about the health impacts of the different plant/animal content diet favors a more plant-based approach to healthy eating.  That now comes with the qualification that those diets avoid the tendency to now be heavy in UPFs, and care needs to be used in that area.  As the researchers of this new study concluded:

“Not all vegetarian diets necessarily have health benefits because of potential adverse effects of UPFs on nutritional quality and healthiness of diet.”

Epidemiology research does show benefits to diets with higher amounts of healthy plant-based foods.  These are diets that do not contain significant UPFs.  Doing for the benefit requires doing it well.

Gehring et al.  Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods by Pesco-Vegetarians, Vegetarians, and Vegans: Associations with Duration and Age at Diet Initiation. 

The Journal of Nutrition, 2020, July.