Reading Time: 5 minutes 'Consuming processed foods occasionally is not an issue but relying on them can be detrimental to our health' Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

It’s great that veganism is becoming so popular – but vegan doesn’t always equal healthy.

With this rise in popularity has come a wave of new products that are suitable for vegans. 

While I’m all for someone choosing a vegan burger over a meat one, it’s important processed foods don’t make up the main bulk of our diet. 

Is vegaan always healthy?

Processed food products are often high in fat and sugar or salt and devoid of many essential nutrients. 

Consuming processed foods occasionally is not an issue but relying on products like this can be detrimental to our health, causing issues such as weight gain, bloating, skin issues, inflammation, high blood pressure, poor heart health, diabetes, and even some cancers. 

Processed, refined food is also very easy to overeat. You can easily consume too many calories but be undernourished and not get the vitamins and minerals you need. 

Of course, there are probably going to be times when you eat processed foods. If you avoid the most processed types of foods the majority of the time it can be much easier to ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need, as well as being able to manage your weight.  

Foods to focus on

So what should you eat instead?

The answer is whole foods! Whole foods are those which have had a minimal amount of processing and are often single-ingredient foods. 

Foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas), nuts, and seeds.

We need fat, protein, carbs, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and fluid in our diet, and whole foods will often have a combination of these. 

You might also be interested to know that calories from processed foods are more easily absorbed than those from whole foods. 

This is because more energy is needed to digest and absorb whole foods as opposed to processed foods. So, if weight loss is your aim this is another good reason to focus on whole foods. 

Healthy sources of fat, carbs, and protein

You will probably have seen lots of diets focusing on excluding fat or excluding carbs, or focusing on eating lots of protein. 

It’s not a good idea to eradicate a whole food type or to focus on one. Here’s why:

Fat

We need some fat in our diets. The fat in our bodies has a lot of very important jobs to do such as providing energy and insulation and it’s a vital part of our cell structure. 

Some of the nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, K are fat soluble, so you need fat to absorb them. 

So if you’re eating foods that are high in these vitamins you won’t absorb them unless you are eating some fat.

Good fat sources are avocado, olives, nuts and seeds, such as hemp seeds, chia seeds, linseeds (also known as flaxseed).

Carbohydrates 

These are our body’s preferred sources of energy for the brain and central nervous system. Unfortunately, they have got a really bad rap over the years. 

We became obsessed with low-fat foods a couple of decades ago and people were gaining weight even more. Some explanation of this has focused on the fact we were consuming high sugar and high carb foods instead. 

Many traditionally high-fat foods were made lower fat by removing some or all of the fat and then stuffing them full of thickeners and sugar – foods such as yogurts and ice cream. 

But it is important to differentiate between different types of carbs. The carbs I recommend my clients eat are wholegrain varieties. 

The foods which are best to avoid or limit are things like doughnuts, cakes, biscuits, pastries. These foods are highly processed. 

There are a lot of vegan versions of these around now so it can be very tempting to eat them, especially if you’re a new vegan and you’d maybe thought you were going to have to give up these types of foods!

Healthy options to include are minimally processed and starchy carbs – things like quinoa, buckwheat, wild rice, millet, wholewheat pasta, brown rice, wholemeal bread, oats, and sweet potatoes. 

These foods are not only providing you with a good source of carbs, but also protein, fiber, and lots of vitamins and minerals. 

Fiber   

Fiber is a type of carb that’s lacking in most people’s diets in the UK. A huge benefit of going plant-based is increased fiber intake because fiber is only found in plant foods. 

Fiber is not just great for keeping you regular, but it can also help lower your chance of getting heart disease. We’re currently eating a paltry 18g of fiber a day and we should be aiming for a minimum of 30g

Protein

Protein is involved in many functions in the body including the formation of your skin and hair, your muscles and connective tissues, and carrying oxygen around your body.

It’s in most foods but some plant sources are particularly good sources. If you consume a wide variety of foods then you’ll get all the protein you need. 

Great sources are tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils and chickpeas, edamame beans and garden peas. 

In terms of maintaining a healthy weight getting a good balance of fat, carbs, protein and fiber can help with cravings and with feeling satisfied for longer. 

Specific nutrients

Another benefit of eating vegan wholefoods is the range of vitamins and minerals that they provide. 

But, you may be concerned about getting enough of certain nutrients such as iron, calcium and B12. 

Iron

Iron deficiency is common worldwide, regardless of diet. Iron-rich plant foods are plentiful though. These include lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried fruit, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereal.

To help get maximum absorption ensure you have a source of vitamin C at the same time as consuming iron-rich foods. It’s also a good idea not to have drinks containing tannins – succh as tea, at the same time as your meal. 

Tannin can block the absorption of iron. It doesn’t mean you can’t drink tea – just allow an hour on either side of your meal. 

Calcium 

Most of us have grown up thinking calcium just comes from dairy. Dairy is a source of calcium, but there are plenty of plant-based sources. 

We can get calcium from foods such as:

  • calcium-set tofu
  • green vegetables (kale, broccoli, watercress, cabbage, and pak choy)
  • fortified plant milk and yogurts
  • dried fruit 
  • seeds

B12 

B12 is a vitamin that comes from bacteria. Vegans can obtain it from fortified food or a supplement. In this way, we’re taking it from the same source as animals – micro-organisms. 

Foods fortified with B12 include yeast extract, some varieties of nutritional yeast flakes, fortified milk, and yogurts.

These are general guidelines and if you are concerned you should talk to your doctor about seeing a dietitian. Discussing the use of supplements with a health professional will help to ensure that they are suitable for you.

How to eat more wholefoods

If you’re going vegan or trying more vegan food and want to do it healthily, one simple way to start is by taking your familiar favorites and just veganizing them with whole foods. 

It can also make it easier if you’re the only one in the house that wants to eat this way. You may get other family members on board if the meals are familiar. 

If everyone eats the same, it also means less prep and clearing up!

Some meals that can easily be made vegan, using wholefoods, include curry, chilli con carne, spaghetti bolognese and lasagne. Swap the meat for red kidney beans or lentils or chickpeas.

Adding pulses to soups helps to make them extra filling and boosts the fiber and protein content. 

Burgers are a great option to make yourself. Although more time-consuming than buying readymade you’ll be consuming a lot less fat and salt, while getting a range of nutrients at the same time. 

Burgers, like many of the options I’ve mentioned, are great for making a big batch of and storing in the freezer for when you’re stuck for time – and inclination! 

It can seem a bit overwhelming at first, so start by gradually increasing the number of plant-based meals and snacks you have. 

Focus on eating those in real food form and you’ll reduce the amount you eat coming from a packet.  

Coral Sirett

Coral Sirett is a vegan weight loss coach, qualified nutrition adviser, workplace wellbeing consultant, speaker and the founder of Zest Health. Based in the UK, she works with clients worldwide offering private health coaching and consultations, a personalised nutrition report, and an online programme. Coral adopts a gentle and sustainable approach with clients as she believes lasting healthy change should be an enjoyable and positive experience. Find out more at zest-health.com.