While a vegetarian diet comes with many documented health benefits (1), you can spoil the healthy aspects easily by indulging in many common habits. You could be a closet junk food vegetarian headed for health woes and not even know it! Here are the 5 warning signs you need to change your eating habits to get back on track.
#1 – (The Obvious) You Love “Junk” Food
Just because your pizza is vegetarian doesn’t make it healthy, especially if you’re eating it once a week or more. Same if you’re going for the Impossible Burger or just a plain veggie burger with a side of french fries. Stopping for fast food isn’t good for us, whether it’s daily or only a couple of times a week – vegetarian or not. These are not healthy meals, period. Neither are packaged chips, candies, ice creams and cakes that overwhelmingly make up our snack foods and desserts at the expense of nuts, seeds, fruits and veggies.
If you turn your nose up at chicken but say yes to sweets every day, you’re skating on thin ice with your health.
#2 – Processed Foods in Your Fridge & Cupboards
So maybe you’ve boycotted McDonald’s and save cake for birthdays and celebrations. If your pantry is nothing but boxed foods, heat and serve meals, or canned foods, chances are you’re consuming tons of processed foods without realizing it.
Processed foods make up 62% of the American diet. What’s processed food? Basically anything that’s not a whole food or made with real, non-chemically created ingredients. Processed foods aren’t just microwave meals and other ready meals. A processed food is any food that has been altered in some way during preparation (1).
Many processed foods though contain high levels of salt, sugar and fat. They commonly contain other additives that either preserve it, enhance flavor, or provide texture and color. A lot of these are chemical additives no one can pronounce or interpret short of a chemistry degree but don’t be fooled, sugar and salt are key ingredients in the processing process. While preservatives, emulsifiers, and other substances also make our food processed, the milling process for flour, one of our most commonly consumed food products, turns a whole grain into a nutritionally devoid powder that acts as straight up sugar in our blood stream. This toxic flour makes up most of our breads, pastas, and baked goods. If you love your bagels, pastas, cookies and cakes, realize they’re highly processed with nutritionally empty flour.
We desperately need to reverse course from consuming 62% of our diet as processed foods and aim for 70% whole foods (see my article How to Join the Real Food Revolution).
#3 – Healthy-Sounding Food Substitutes
When going vegetarian, people often think vegetarian substitutes are de facto healthier than the foods they are replacing, but this is an incorrect assumption. In trading your chicken breasts for veggie sausage you often trade out the meat for a host of chemicals. Veggie sausages are usually highly processed, containing bizarre, unnatural ingredients like “textured vegetable protein” and all the preservatives and emulsifiers common to other processed foods. Read your labels. Some brands are cleaner than others.
Veggie sausages are only one example. Turn over to the ingredient list on many of your favorite “meat substitutes” and you’ll usually find a mind-boggling array of strange ingredients. That chicken, with its one ingredient, starts looking pretty healthy compared with veggie crumbles, veggie sausages or veggie burgers laden with dozens of non-natural ingredients.
Even your egg replacers are made with an abundance of ingredients as manufacturers leap through hurdles trying to make the replacements taste similar and have the same color or texture. That means “natural” flavors (which are actually chemicals), artificial flavors, artificial coloring and emulsifiers – none of which are good for us.
While meat substitutes can be great transition foods for helping wean off meat, they shouldn’t be a staple of the vegetarian diet.
#4 – Healthy Foods That Aren’t
Often when people go vegetarian, they’re doing it for health reasons. Their diet will shift toward the “healthier” end of the spectrum but these days, a lot of unhealthy foods have camouflaged themselves among the healthy ones. Not everything that sounds healthy actually is. Food manufacturers are trying to cash in on the “healthy” food market but only offer hype, not health.
For instance, you can hardly find plain yogurt these days. It’s all flavored and sugared up. Turn over to the ingredients and you rarely find real fruit. It’s all artificial. And highly sweetened. Yogurt is mainly healthy because of its live cultures of bacteria that help increase our probiotic intake. Yet few consumers seem to realize that all that sugar kills the live cultures. Additionally, most yogurts only contain a handful of strains of bacteria so their usefulness is dubious when you consider that our gut biome consists of hundreds of species of beneficial bacteria. Consuming a small amount of six to twelve species isn’t going to do much. Meanwhile, a growing number of yogurts in the dairy section don’t even contain live cultures so you’re really just eating tangy milk, usually with a bunch of sugar and artificial flavors. That’s hardly a healthy breakfast or cooking ingredient.
Yet we think we’re eating a healthy choice.
What about granola? Check the ingredients and you’ll find it’s full of sugar – in the form of “cane sugar” or “organic brown sugar” or “molasses”. Being organic doesn’t make them not sugar and your granola comes loaded with them. Many healthy sounding foods have gotten blitzed with sugar so read your ingredient lists and nutritional tables. Be aware that 3 grams of sugar equal roughly one teaspoon of sugar. So that serving of granola may come with the equivalent of teaspoons of sugar.
Another marketing trick is substituting ingredients to make the same bad for you food sound healthier. Look no farther than chips made with chick pea or other substitute flours for an example of this. Usually people are looking at the key ingredient and think “chick peas are better than potatoes”. Yet the process of making these “healthy alternative” chips isn’t necessarily healthy. After all, potatoes are fairly healthy to begin with but the process of turning them into chips is what makes them so unhealthy, including high cooking heat which changes the chemical composition to create carcinogens in those chips. Practically any veggie or flour cooked that way will undergo the same transformation. And that’s not even touching the oil content and other additives.
#5 – Bad Beverages
When people think of healthy diet, they mostly think about food but our drinks highly impact our health.
We’ve gotten into the habit of drinking our calories. This not only leads to added caloric intake and weight gain, but it also replaces healthier food choices in our lives. Soda and sugar-laden beverages are linked to increased morbidity, not just weight gain and higher diabetes risk (2). Alcohol is empty calories and has been shown to increase cancer risk and lead to high blood pressure. Fruit juices and fruit cocktails shoot us full of fructose and sugar when we’d be better served eating real fruit for its deliciousness, lower glycemic impact, and higher fiber, mineral and vitamin load which helps with hunger suppression and feeds our beneficial bacteria.
Similarly, drinking milk yields fewer benefits than eating real food that again contains more fiber, minerals and vitamins and far less sugar than milk (12g – or 4 teaspoons of sugar equivalent). Even one boiled potato beats milk hands down for nutrition yield and satiety. We’ve just bought the dairy industry’s marketing (with the help of their lobbying the government about daily dairy recommendations).
If you’re a vegetarian with a soda addiction or drinking habit, your health isn’t likely to stay or be healthy long-term. Drinking your calories won’t benefit your health either. Stick with real foods that come with better benefits.
Junk the Junk
If you’re vegetarian and vegan but love processed foods, your health may suffer. There are healthy ways of being vegetarian and they, like any truly healthy diet – omnivore or vegetarian – revolve around ditching processed foods for real food. Real food is one ingredient foods that we cook and combine into delicious, real meals over heat and serve, box kits, fast food, junk food or take out.
Real health comes from real food. Join the real food revolution and watch your vitality, energy and health kick into high gear like it’s meant to be.
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