Not all vegan diets lead to healthy eating

A vegan who consumes no animal products can be just as unhealthy living on inappropriately-selected plant foods as someone who dines on burgers and chicken nuggets, says the writer.
A vegan who consumes no animal products can be just as unhealthy living on inappropriately-selected plant foods as someone who dines on burgers and chicken nuggets, says the writer.PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

Study shows that careless food choices can result in an unhealthful plant-based diet

I have no argument with people who adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet for health, religious, environmental or ethical reasons.

But I object vehemently to proselytizers who distort science or the support for dietary advice offered to the more than 90 per cent of us who choose to consume animal foods in reasonable amounts.

I do not endorse inhumane treatment of farm animals or wanton pollution of the environment.

Nor do I endorse careless adoption of vegetarian or vegan diets. A vegan who consumes no animal products can be just as unhealthy living on inappropriately-selected plant foods as someone who dines on burgers and chicken nuggets.

A vegan diet laden with refined grains like white rice and bread, juices and sweetened drinks, chips, cookies and crackers, and dairy-free ice cream is hardly healthy.

Dietary guidelines from responsible sources recommend that we should all adopt a plant-based diet rich in foods that originate in the ground, "fleshed out" with low-fat protein sources from animals or combinations of beans and grains.

However, careless food and beverage selections can result in an unhealthful plant-based diet.

In a large study published in the Journal Of The American College Of Cardiology, a team from Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health checked the relationship between plant-based diets of varying quality and the risk of developing coronary heart disease among more than 200,000 people.

The participants, who started the study free of chronic disease, were tracked for more than two decades.

Their diets were characterised as one that emphasised plant foods over animal foods; a plant-based diet emphasising healthful plant foods; or an unhealthful plant-based diet. Any of the diets could have included various amounts of animal products.

Healthful plant foods like whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes, as well as vegetable oils, coffee and tea, received a positive score. Plant foods like juices, sweetened drinks, refined grains, fries and sweets, along with animal foods, received a negative rating.

Those with the least healthful plant-based diet were 32 per cent more likely to be given diagnoses of heart disease. The team concluded that "not all plant foods are necessarily beneficial for health".

In other words, you don't have to become a strict vegetarian to protect your heart. Simply reducing your dependence on animal foods, and especially avoiding those high in fat, is helpful.

Short of becoming a vegan, you can add variety to your meals with a few dietary adjustments.

Responding to the Harvard study, Dr Hena Patel and Dr Kim Allan Williams Sr, cardiologists at Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago, suggested choosing one day a week to be meatless and gradually add more meatless days, while including one or more new plant-based recipes each week.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2017, with the headline 'Not all vegan diets lead to healthy eating'. Print Edition | Subscribe