Is “plant-based” becoming a meaningless term? Is a vegan diet healthy? Walk into any grocery store and there's no shortage of foods available with "plant-based" on the label. US plant-based food retail went up 27 percent in 2020 alone. But is this a good thing? As a whole food plant-based meal delivery company, we have sort of a controversial view...
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When I first went vegan in 2016 ("plant-based" wasn't as trendy or prevalent a term yet), I went to the grocery store and bought anything I could get my hands on that said “VEGAN.” I spent a lot of money on not-so-tasty, definitely not very healthy, ultra-processed foods, mainly because I didn’t know what else to do. I thought being vegan was going to prove very expensive.
Fast forward to today: my shopping habits have changed drastically. I spend the bulk of my time at the grocery store in the produce section, the canned section, and the freezer section. My grocery bill is smaller than when I was on the Standard American Diet (and when I was on a junk food vegan diet) – and I’ve never felt better.
Lesson learned: Just because it says “vegan” doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
Almost six years after I went vegan, plant-based” has risen through the ranks and is seemingly everywhere. Marketing companies have picked up on the fact that the plant-based diet is trending and the term’s taken the food industry by storm – you can’t walk down a grocery store aisle without seeing the words “plant-based” stamped on everything, from potato chips to seltzer water.
Is a vegan diet healthy?
While the rise of plant-based eating is wonderful for the planet and the animals, some food companies are making it difficult for consumers to differentiate between actually healthy plant-based foods and those that are not. People are confused, and left asking the question "is a vegan diet healthy?"
Let’s break down why this is happening, and then we will give you the tools you need to tell the difference between healthy plant-based food and the B.S. – you know… "bad stuff."
But first, what does “plant-based” even mean, and why is it different from “vegan” or “WFPB”? It can be quite confusing, so let's drill down:
Vegan: Is a vegan diet healthy?
A vegan diet eliminates all animal products, 100 percent of the time. But vegan goes beyond diet. Someone who identifies as a vegan often excludes animal exploitation from all parts of their lives and advocates against animal abuse, cruelty, and the systematic slaughter of animals for food and commodities. This includes factory farming, cosmetic testing, the use of leather and fur as clothing, and the destruction of animal habitats to extract natural resources. Vegans also advocate stopping commercial farming practices to preserve our planet. Vegans do not eat meat, dairy, eggs, or any other animal by-products. They do not wear leather or fur and use cruelty-free products. Of course, it’s impossible to be 100 percent vegan (every taxpayer is helping to subsidize the meat and dairy industry), but vegans strive to do their best in this regard. So is a vegan diet healthy? Not necessarily.
Plant-based: Healthy vegan meals
A plant-based diet is primarily comprised of plant-based foods and excludes or very much limits meat, dairy, and animal products from their diet. Typically, those who follow a plant-based lifestyle are more likely to be a little more lenient with their diet, as they are making a personal decision for themselves vs. a vegan who is protecting a third party. Oftentimes, those on a plant-based diet are participating for health-related reasons (to reduce the risk of or even reverse heart disease, diabetes, and other lifestyle diseases). This is why it is especially confusing when junk foods are labeled "plant-based.”
Vegan and plant-based are not mutually exclusive, because a vegan person is technically plant-based, but a plant-based person may not hold the values of a vegan. For instance, someone on a plant-based diet might use goat milk soap or wear leather or sometimes eat eggs.
A whole food plant-based diet, like a plant-based diet, is made of up plant-based foods and does not include (or at least limits) meat, dairy, eggs, or other animal products. But whole food plant-based also means avoiding refined and processed foods (including oil), while filling up on whole fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, and legumes. But these folks take things a step further health-wise and only eat plant foods in their whole form, which means avoiding refined and processed foods while filling up on whole fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, and legumes. You may be picturing someone munching on celery and apples, but really WFPB means they buy food in its whole form. This doesn’t mean they can’t chop, peel, saute, blend, and cook.
A flexitarian diet is, you guessed it – flexible! Flexetarians enjoy a little meat and dairy now and again, but eat mostly plants. They are often health-conscious but don’t want to put too many restrictions on themselves.
All three of these diets are healthier alternatives than the Standard American Diet, and the good news is, you don’t have to choose just one. Someone can follow a WFPB diet or a plant-based diet for their health, while also being vegan and refraining from buying leather and other animal by-products.
In this article, remember, we are analyzing the term “plant-based” as used by marketing companies, NOT individuals. If you use “plant-based” to describe your diet, you can eat whatever the heck you want, judgment-free. We are unboxing why the term has become a marketing ploy for profit, and how it can misguide consumers, similar to the baseless phrases like “clean eating” or “healthy.” And just because someone is vegan, doesn't mean their unhealthy. Is a vegan diet healthy? It depends on what you're eating!
So why are we seeing “plant-based” and "vegan" on everything at our grocery stores? And what does it mean for your shopping experience (and health)?
The motive: You guessed it...MONEY!
“Plant-based food retail sales were worth $7 billion in 2020, posting a 27% growth rate overall for products that specifically replace animal-derived options, according to SPINS data released by the Good Food Institute and the Plant-Based Foods Association (PBFA). A total of 57% of U.S. households purchased plant-based food in 2020, up from 53% in 2019.
Plant-based meat had $1.4 billion in sales, growing 45% overall compared to 2019. In fact, it makes up 2.7% of all U.S. retail packaged meat sales. Refrigerated plant-based meat sales saw the highest growth percentage, up 75% in 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic brought on a boom in plant-based sales in 2020, as consumers looked for products they thought were better for them — or discovered the brands on store shelves as many conventional meat producers faced production challenges.”
Plant-based is on the rise, which is exciting for the future of the planet, animal welfare, and to a degree, our health!
As Paige Ohliger of Plantricious puts it:
“Eating more plant-based is good for the planet, but eating more plant nutritious food is good for us.”
Paige Ohliger of Plantricious
But...if you’re in it for the health benefits, how are you supposed to know what’s healthy, and what’s just vegan junk food, without proper labeling? There are healthy vegan meals out there, but how to find them? If you’ve just started your plant-based diet, it can be confusing enough just cutting out meat, eggs, and dairy. Now you're deciphering what’s “healthy” or not without any clear guidelines.
Why is it so difficult to distinguish? We asked Ohliger to help us out with this burning question: is a vegan diet healthy, and is it healthy just because it's "plant based"?
“‘Healthy’ is different for everyone. So what is healthy for you and I, may not be healthy for someone who has heart disease. That’s why working with The Plantrician Project and ACLM and all the amazing health care physicians that we do know, we gathered our guidelines from the things that they were preaching and it turns out there are 7 guiding principles.”
The Plantricious Seals were created to help people sort through all the marketing grabs like “plant-based,” “high-protein,” “healthy,” and “all-natural.”
“Our mission is to make plant nutritious eating easy. So we’ve created these seals, which are tools to help people identify what is a healthy, plant-nutritious food, per what the healthcare community is advocating.”
So why are marketing companies able to plaster “plant-based” on just about anything vegan (or even not vegan)? Ohliger explains:
“There is no universally set standard to what is plant-based. So they just took it and ran with it…There’s money to be made, so the marketing people saw it. Because we had no standards, no set standards, no universally agreed-upon standards for what exactly was plant-based, they took it and ran with it. So literally no one holds the bar for what they could slap ‘plant based’ on.”
What’s in a name? Why is it so important that marketing companies don’t overuse “plant-based?” or "healthy vegan meals"
Well, for a healthy individual, added oil or sugar might not make an immediate difference in their health. Over time with consistent overuse, it could contribute towards inflammation or chronic illness. But the fear is greater for those that are already sick. Ohliger says it best:
“For people with chronic illness, every bite they take is a step towards wellness or illness.”
For someone with heart disease, diabetes, or battling food addiction or obesity, each bite matters! If they choose products because of misleading marketing terms, that could make or break their recovery. Individuals that can't answer "is a vegan diet healthy?" may be easily mislead.
So what guidelines do the leading doctors and nutrition experts deem “healthy?”
Here are 5 of the 7 basic principles of healthy vegan meals:
- Whole food
- No added oil
- Zero added sugar
- No artificial additives or preservatives
- ...Head to the Plantricious website for the rest of the guidelines!
Sound familiar? MamaSezz follows these guidelines with all our ready-made whole food plant-based meals. And if you’d like to add a little extra oil or sugar, that’s up to you! We deliver hearty, healthy foods that follow the principles of optimal health, so you can make your own choices. So is a vegan diet healthy? Not necessarily.
Also...plant-based” is losing credibility
"Just as the term “all-natural” has lost much of its healthy-image luster over the years, the claim of “plant-based” also may be at risk of losing some of its better-for-you significance with consumers, according to Mintel research."
The benefits of switching from a junk food vegan diet to a whole food plant-based diet are extraordinary, especially if you suffer from a chronic illness. One of the best shopping tips we have for those looking to eat a healthy plant-based diet: Stick mainly to the produce section, and dabble in the canned and dried beans aisle, and frozen fruits and veggies aisle (not pre-made meals). Your wallet and body will thank you.
That said, we get it – sometimes you want to buy something packaged and easy at the grocery store. On these occasions, knowing how to read a nutrition label is your best bet for making healthy plant-based choices. Flip that package over and read the nutritionals. If you're only asking the question "is a vegan diet healthy?" then you're not asking the right questions.
The truth is, most packaged foods just aren’t super healthy. If you’re not a great cook, focus on simple plant-based recipes (this easy WFPB meal formula offers simplicity and variety!). If you like to cook but plant-based eating is new to you, these vegan cooking hacks will save your hours in the kitchen.
No time for even simple meals? Make things easy on yourself and try ready-made plant-based delivery companies (like MamaSezz!) or others with the Plantricious Seal.
Unhook from processed foods and live your best plant-based life with the MamaSezz Detox and Reboot. Over the two weeks, increase your energy, lose weight and reboot your mojo.
Order two weeks of ready-made whole food plant-based meals with daily meals plans PLUS the tools you need to revitalize your natural health and energy. Get started now.
Never ask again, "is a vegan diet healthy"?
- A plant-based diet is a healthy choice for your body, the planet, and the animals — but food labels don't always tell the whole story.
- The "plant-based" label found at grocery stores isn't fully regulated, so there aren't clear cut standards for what foods qualify as "plant-based."
- Many food companies and their marketing departments have taken advantage of these loose standards and often mislead consumers into thinking their products are healthy simply because they're "plant-based."
- A food can be very processed, with lots of additives and other unhealthy junk, and still be "plant-based."
- The healthiest way to eat a plant-based diet is to choose a whole food plant-based diet.
By Caroline DiNicola Fawley
Caroline is a plant-based chef, recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition educator, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies