The Plant-Based Health Fad is Misleading

The Plant-Based Health Fad is Misleading

Plant-based diets have taken root in the fitness industry…

Plant-based diets have taken root in the fitness industry. More and more fitness influencers are going vegan for the sake of leading so-called “healthier” lifestyles. A quick Google search uncovers articles listing the “science-backed” health benefits of going vegan and testimonials by people claiming veganism cured their various health conditions. Such publications may mislead people into thinking that plant-based diets are fundamentally better for their health than omnivorous ones, but this is untrue!

Going vegan is unnecessary if all you want is to nourish your body or lose a few pounds.

Vegan diets are not inherently healthier than omnivore ones.

The Disclaimer…

Before I continue, I’d like to clarify that this article is not meant to dissuade people from switching to veganism over ethical or environmental concerns. I am not here to question the environmental impact of the meat industry, nor to debate whether it’s right to slaughter animals.

I am here to offer an alternative perspective to folks who want to lead a healthier lifestyle and think that making the switch to veganism is the best way to accomplish that goal.

What’s a “healthy diet” anyway?…

A “healthy diet” is a catch-all term, subjective by design. Magazines are laden with articles outlining how switching to a “healthy diet” will help you “lose weight and feel great”.

But what does this really mean?

Does it mean eating nutrient-dense foods? Unprocessed foods? Low-calorie food? It’s unclear. So, if the term “healthy diet” is so subjectively defined, should an objectively rigid diet be considered the “healthiest”?

And what the honk is a Macro?…

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services publishes dietary reference tables of the recommended micro- and macro-nutrient intake for people, given their age, gender, weight, and other relevant factors. They construct these recommendations based on careful reviews of the scientific literature and are updated regularly.

Micronutrients refer to vitamins and minerals, which often displayed at the bottom of nutrition labels with their associated % Daily Value. Our bodies need them in certain amounts to perform vital functions but cannot create them from scratch (with the exceptions of vitamins D and K). We must therefore get them from our food.

Macronutrients refer to three biomolecules: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Everything we eat contains a set ratio of these three compounds. Much like micronutrients, we must acquire fats and proteins from our diet.

To complicate matters, every protein is composed of 20 building blocks, called amino acids. These need to be consumed in a specific ratio in order for our bodies to use them as fuel. When a protein has this proper ratio of amino acids, it’s “complete”. All animal-based proteins are complete. All plant-based proteins are incomplete (with the exception of soy).

But aren’t plant-based diets more nutritious?…

Contrary to the notion that vegan diets are more nutrient-dense than conventional ones, vegans must be more vigilant than omnivores when choosing their protein sources. This is because the proteins they consume are “incomplete”. Additionally, many vegans require external micronutrient supplementation, especially calcium and vitamin B-12, which are usually acquired in pill-form.

Processed foods have a bad rep. But much like “healthy diet”, “processed foods” is a catch-all term often applied to anything that comes in a package. While chemical processing has been linked to cancer and heart disease, mechanical processing is innocuous.

Just because something’s wrapped in plastic, doesn’t mean it’ll give you cancer. And just because a food item has a vegan-label, doesn’t mean it’s less chemically processed. Vegan cookies, pizzas, and croissants are just as processed as their non-vegan counterparts.

How about going vegan to lose weight?…

meta-analysis published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences maintains that in order to lose weight, you must be in a “caloric deficit”. A calorie is a unit of energy, much like a second is a unit of time and a meter is a unit of length. The ‘calories’ on our nutrition labels indicate how much energy the food we consume is giving us.

If we consume more calories than we use in a given day, our bodies store this energy in the form of body fat. If we use more energy than we get from our food, our bodies will start breaking down fat to reach our energy needs.

This is a “caloric deficit”. If we eat less calories than we need, we lose weight.

Plant-based foods don’t factor into the equation. You can gain weight eating nothing but lettuce (not recommended) and you can lose weight eating nothing but cheese (also not recommended).

…figure out what a “healthy diet” means for

So then how can I eat more mindfully?…

If making the switch to veganism isn’t required to meet your daily intake of nutrients, avoid chemical processing, or lose weight, why it often regarded as “healthier” than other, more balanced diets? The reality is, going vegan is hard. Many social events are centered around food and viable vegan options are difficult to come by, even as the numbers of vegans rise. While some may be willing to adjust their lifestyle significantly over ethical or environmental reasons, doing so for health reasons is simply unnecessary.

Before tossing your meat and dairy products in the trash, take out your laptop and do some research on how to properly read a nutrition label. Learn how best to adjust the amount of food you eat in order to lose or maintain your current weight. Figure out what a “healthy diet” means for you before conforming to what it might mean for someone else.

My Sources

Ever the skeptic. I encourage you to read more (and never stop reading you nerds) about anything you may be confused about or disagree with.

⊕ U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

Centers for Disease and Control Prevention

U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services

The National Academy of Sciences

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