6 Foods That Aren’t as Healthy as You Thought, and Easy Swaps From RDs
While there’s no denying that eating plant-based is generally better for your health, unfortunately, just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Below, nutrition pros weigh in on the vegan or plant-based foods to be wary of the next time you shop for groceries, plus what to eat instead. Yes, these foods may be vegan, but they’re likely doing more harm to your health than good. As so many of us embark on committing to healthy eating this year, we just don’t have time for icky frozen food hangovers where you spend your day feeling like one giant salt blob. Do you?
1. Vegan Meal Replacement / Protein Bars
Processed convenience foods like such are often high in fat and sugar, which also increases the product's calories,” says Trista K. Best, MPH, RD, with Balance One Supplements.
If you’re craving something filling and mildly sweet, skip the meal replacement bars and opt for a handful of nuts for protein and healthy fats and protein and a fiber-filled piece of fruit, like an apple or pear.
2. Vegan Frozen Meals
You may be saving time, but for the most part, you’re not safeguarding your health when you scarf down these meals. “The sodium, fat, and calorie content in most of these meals makes them among the worst vegan foods to purchase,” says Best. “They offer little in the way of essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals and are significantly dense in calories and fat.”
“Prepare your own with plant-based pasta or whole-grain wraps, and lots of veggies to be frozen and easily accessed, rather than relying on these meals that are dangerously high in sodium and will leave you feeling hungry shortly after due to their refined carbohydrate content,” she adds.
Worth noting: More recently some healthy frozen food options have flooded the vegan sector, like PlantMade, Alpha Foods, and Good Catch Foods—all a far cry from the sodium-loaded and heavily processed offerings of yesteryear.
3. Jackfruit-Based Meat Patties
Jackfruit is a common meat alternative in vegan recipes, as Dr. Safeena Amjad, MSc, PhD Scholar in Clinical Nutrition notes, but it doesn’t have “a hefty amount of protein.”
“It is better to make meat alternatives by mixing quinoa, lentils, and spinach. Quinoa has nine of the essential amino acids and is therefore a complete protein. The lentils may add to the protein content and textural qualities, giving it a soft and chewy texture. The spinach adds the essential iron and good texture,” Amjad notes. For something similar to what she suggests, try this healthy black bean and quinoa burger topped with fresh vegetables.
4. Non-Dairy Cheese with Soy Isolates
“Many cheese alternatives are [likely] to contain controversial soy isolates and highly-processed vegetable oils (such as corn oil), without offering much nutritional value,” cautions Sheri Vettel, RD at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.
Instead, opt for the plant-based cheeses on the market that are made with ingredients like nuts and seeds. Or DIY it: “Cashew ‘cheese’ can be made in a food processer with pre-soaked cashews, nutritional yeast, your favorite seasonings, and a bit of lemon juice—there are many delicious recipes available online to choose from,” adds Vettel.
5. Non-Dairy Cheese with Coconut Oil
Another no-no on the vegan cheese front are products made with coconut oil.
Large amounts of coconut oil can be used to give these cheese their texture, notes Amjad, which isn’t ideal for cardiovascular health. “Coconut oil has saturated fats which increase the low-density lipoproteins, leading to an increase in cholesterol levels,” Amjad explains. (For more info, check out some of the research on coconut oil and heart health here)
“It is better to make a vegan cheese with olive oil. Olive oil raises the HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which may help remove plaque from the arteries, hence benefiting the heart,” she adds. If you’re not making vegan cheese from scratch (raises hand), look for packaged nut-based vegan cheeses without any or limited coconut oil (the farther down on an ingredient list an item is, the less the product contains it).
6. Plant-Based Burgers
“Veggie burgers are often given a health halo; however, many of the varieties available at the grocery store are quite high in sodium and likely to contain ingredients that aren’t optimal for health,” says Vettel. Some of the ingredients she says to look out for include heavily-processed vegetable oils like corn oil, soy protein isolates (“which may be genetically-modified”), and carrageenan or xanthan gum, food additives that may lead to digestive problems.
Instead, she advises, seek out plant-based burgers that contain whole food ingredients (such as nuts, grains, and beans), or make your own vegan burgers from scratch..” You can easily whip up a delicious veggie burger using walnuts ground with spices, herbs, [a flax or chia egg], and an extra-small roasted beet for a pop of color.”