Vegan Foods That Aren't as Nutritious as They Seem

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Food marketers know that certain nutrition “buzzwords,” such as natural, organic, gluten-free and vegan, are perceived by consumers to be healthier. Don’t fall for that trap, often referred to as the “halo effect.” Just because a food is vegan doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthier for you than its counterpart that contains dairy, egg or meat. Here are five potential offenders.

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Baked Goods

Most vegan baked goods are just as bad as, if not worse than, their dairy-and-egg equivalents. Often lots of sugars (e.g., corn syrup, agave, honey) and oils high in saturated fat are added to achieve the flavors and textures needed to allow for vegan desserts to compete with other decadent options. However, nutritious options do exist — look for the use of whole grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts in the recipe or as the first ingredients in the ingredient list.

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Ice Cream

Re-creating ice cream without milk used to be a tall order. These days almost anything can be whipped and frozen, from soy to coconut. But don’t let the lack of dairy fool you — some of these frozen confections can have more calories and fat than most standard ice cream brands. Just like regular ice cream, this is a treat and should be enjoyed in moderation. And if you’d rather go with sorbet, choose ones with minimal added sugar … fruit is sweet enough as it is!

Coconut Milk

Milk

There is a wide range of non-dairy options, including soy, hemp, coconut, rice and almond milks. While the use of these milks is not bad per se, it’s important to be aware of two key points when choosing your milk: sugar and nutrient content. Go for the unsweetened version of your preferred milk, as food manufacturers can easily add 3 to 4 teaspoons of sugar per cup of milk. Also, be aware that the only milks with any significant protein content are soy and hemp. In addition, make sure your milk is enriched with nutrients commonly found in dairy, like calcium and vitamin D.

Macaroni and “Cheese”

Pasta, like all starches, is vegan (assuming it is not made with eggs). So large amounts of vegan refined-starch products are no better than their non-vegan alternatives. And with vegan cheese, odds are you’re not getting the nutrients associated dairy cheese (protein and calcium); you may just be getting oil and thickeners.

Processed “Meats”

A number of minimally processed vegan protein options exist, such as tofu, seitan and tempeh. However, food manufacturers are quick to coat them (or textured vegetable protein) with breading, oil and/or stabilizers or additives to morph them into your favorite fake meat. Check the label of your preferred vegan protein sources, as some are better than others. Watch out for the usual offenders: very long ingredient lists, added sugars, added oils, etc.

Notice that the majority of these foods are processed, and contain the same junky ingredients that most people should avoid, vegan or otherwise: excess oil, sugar and refined starches. While certain specialty foods may help vegans achieve their daily needs for protein, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, etc., vegans (and everyone else, for that matter), should eat real food when possible.

Here are a few nutritious “real food” vegan meal options:

Vegan Lentil Burgers (pictured at top)

Vegan Wild-Rice-Stuffed Butternut Squash

Vegan Tofu and Spinach Scramble

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Through his book and blog, Death of the Diet, Jason Machowsky, MS, RD, CSCS, empowers people to live the life they want by integrating healthy eating and physical activity habits into their daily routines. You can follow him on Twitter @JMachowskyRDFit.