If you hopped on the plant-based eating program because you thought it would help you lose weight (and research suggests that it does), you may be finding yourself struggling to make smart decisions when faced with the variety and types of packaged plant-based foods available.
It can be easy for plant-based newbies to stock up on carb-heavy, processed foods like cereals, desserts, candies, and more because they think it’s a healthier option. But just because a manufacturer has removed animal products or focused on plant-based ingredients doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s low in calories, fat, sugar, carbs or additives. (FYI, you’ll want to follow this guide if you’re planning on eating a low-carb, plant-based diet.)
In fact, to make these foods palatable many companies, bakeries or manufacturers add a lot of fat, and not always from healthy sources of fat, says Jessica Cording, RD, a New York City-based nutritionist and author of The Little Book of Game Changers: “A lot of processed plant-based diet foods contain tons of salt and sugar in order to make it taste good.”
We’re wired to crave salt, fat, and sugar, so it can be easy to overeat those foods. Here, Cording walks us through some of the plant-based diet traps to avoid and why they aren’t doing your waistline—or health—any favors. (Related: Is It Healthier to be Vegetarian?)
This is a broad and confusing category for many-plant based eaters. Sure, you didn’t think potato chips were a health food, but the other veggie-based crunchy snacks aren’t as clear-cut. There are mushroom chips (even ones that are supposed to taste like bacon), veggie straws, crunchy, pea-based snacks, and organic veggie chips.
“There’s a big difference between ‘chips’ made from freeze-dried beets or carrots where the ingredients are just carrots or beets and something that has a lot of ingredients in the product,” says Cording. If you find dehydrated vegetable chips, those are literally just the vegetables, so you’re getting fiber and the different vitamins and minerals that are in that food, she says. “Those are a really good option. But a lot of vegetable-based chips are going to be low in fiber, high in sodium, and not much protein to speak of. That’s something to be aware of,” Cording says.
“When my clients send photos of what they’re eating during the day to ask questions, I’ve noticed a lot of offices seem to stock up on things like popped chips, rice crisps or rice chips, and things that are organic or gluten-free,” says Cording. “Again, many of these are often low in fiber and protein. So someone ends up eating more because they are trying to get full, but they’re just filling themselves with carbs.” Cording says she prefers roasted chickpea snacks because they contain more fiber and protein while providing that satisfying crunch many of us are hunting for in a snack.
One of the many reasons you may have decided to go plant-based could be for your heart health by reducing saturated fat intake, particularly from animal fats. But you shouldn’t put a health halo on meatless fast-food burgers – they’re still a processed food and fairly high in saturated fats, often coming in at nearly 30% to 40% of one’s recommended daily value. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat them, but like regular burgers make sure to do so in moderation for a balanced, healthy diet.
Just because something says it’s vegan, dairy-free or gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s a healthy food. Cording says she sees these treats often at farmer’s markets and people might think they’re eating something healthier because of the ingredients it doesn’t have, but they still often contain a lot of sugar, fat, and can be high in calories. Even if it’s a plant-based brownie or cake topped with vegan sprinkles, it’s still a dessert and should be enjoyed sparingly. “Have whatever you’re going to be most satisfied with,” Cording suggests.
If you searched PETA’s website for vegan snacks, you might be delighted to find a list of some fun munchies and treats that you could eat if you were following that plant-based diet. And while it’s fine to indulge occasionally, don’t tell yourself that Fruit by the Foot and Sour Patch Kids count towards your fruit servings for the day. Or, that if you’re eating an organic or vegan candy it’s good for you. These foods are still processed, packed with sugar, and may contain additives if they aren’t organic.
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