GOOD FUEL | The Dangers of Junk Food Veganism
One of my favorite foodie quotes, and one that should be kept close to mind by anyone with even the remotest concerns for their wellbeing, is from renowned activist-author, Michael Pollan:
Eat food; not too much; mostly plants.
Seven words - when it comes to dietary explanations, it doesn’t get much more simple.
Though he admits to “not making the decision to eat meat lightly” , Pollan isn’t plant-based - he isn’t even vegetarian, but this fundamental ethos is no less valuable, and I still hold much respect for him.
However we interpret our diets, from the most meat-craving omnivore to a purely plant-based raw vegan, these seven words should form the foundation of our daily meals. And not only for our own benefit.
Agriculture - both animal and plant - is singly responsible for more pollution, more environmental destruction, more health issues and, taking animals into account, more fatalities than any other industry. We have become a world of fast food, of sugar addiction, of deep-fried, over-saturated, artery-clotting, heart-stopping overindulgence, and it isn’t only our own bodies that we are punishing with our poor diets.
When we tell people that ‘I’ve just become vegan’, or ‘I’m plant-based now’, the immediate assumption is that we must eat so healthily. Of course, there are still those who naively believe veganism and malnutrition go hand in hand, but many now understand that a modern plant-based diet is balanced, abundant, and healthy. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
Oftentimes when removing meat and dairy from our diets, our health does improve - mine certainly did. I recall that, after the first week or so, I felt more energized, lighter and less lethargic, I was sleeping better than I had for years and had far more clarity of mind. We may drop a few pounds, our skin may clean up and we will almost certainly, at early some point of our journey, feel an increase in energy and clarity. But just because it’s plant-based, that does not necessarily make it healthy.
Vegan food supplements, such as dairy-free cheeses, meat-free pies, plant-based pizza vegan donuts, and veggie burgers and sausages, are often no less junky food than your average McSandwich or Dunkin’dulgence. Fortunately, there are many alternatives, and, frequently, ‘cruelty-free’ is synonymous with healthy eating.
What I often find, however, is that vegans or those new to a plant-based way of eating will discover a particular brand or product and, because it is free of animal products, they will feel perfectly justified in gorging themselves upon it.
Vegan donuts are popping up everywhere, and I am grateful for their sugar-laden, finger-licking goodness! But their ingredients remain much the same: refined flour, margarine, and sunflower oil, all deep-fried and coated in heaps of sugar. One or two from time to time are absolutely fine, and you totally deserve these little indulgences, but justifying eating ten in one sitting because “they’re vegan” isn’t a great idea. We should maintain a healthy balance and respect for our food, regardless of its contents.
There is nothing at all wrong with having some burgers or sausages in your refrigerator for those evenings that you’re short on time and need a quick and easy meal.
Beyond Meat has burst onto the scene over the last couple of years, aligning with several fast-food chains to provide plant-based alternatives on formerly 100 percent meaty menus. This is excellent news. It’s better for the planet, doesn’t harm animals, and, to some degree, it’s healthier; but it isn’t healthy food. With 25 percent saturated fat and 15 percent sodium (salt), Beyond Meat’s burgers may contain zero cholesterol, but they are still highly-processed foods with poor nutritional value. Now, I commend Beyond Meat and all they have done. I am a big fan of their products and feel they are an excellent way to help people transition to a plant-based diet, or even realize that meat-free does not mean flavor-free. There is nothing at all wrong with having some burgers or sausages in your refrigerator for those evenings that you’re short on time and need a quick and easy meal. But thinking of these as a standard meal is a fast track to poor health.
We are inundated with options now, and eating vegan has never been easier, but we need to return to the words of Michael Pollan; eat food, not too much, mostly plants. If you don’t understand the ingredients, chances are they aren’t healthy. It does take a little while to educate ourselves, but plant-based meals are simple to make from scratch. Grains, such as rice and quinoa, offer excellent amounts of nutrition, and these can be topped with some tofu or plant-meat strips and a selection of fresh vegetables, tossed in a little soy sauce and drizzle of coconut syrup, and you have a delicious stir fry, packed with nutrients, in under 10 minutes.
It doesn’t get much easier than pasta and tomato sauce, but bottled, pre-made sauces - though also completely vegan - are often high in sodium and sugar, and can sometimes contain other undesirable ingredients, such as artificial flavors and preservatives. I always tend to give products a quick scan to check ingredients, especially sodium, where I aim for low content or none at all.
A can of chopped tomatoes, a drizzle of maple syrup, the juice of half a lime, a teaspoon of tomato puree and a few mixed herbs will give you the same result in just a couple of minutes. You can even add in extra flavor with some chopped olives, pickles or sun-dried tomatoes, and if you double up your recipe, it’s easy to freeze a batch or two in advance for those last-minute dinner moments.
It sounds time-consuming, even a little expensive, but once you have the basic ingredients and have done it a few times, you’ll find it cheap, easy, and so much healthier - and often tastier - than those bottles.
Creating food from scratch is easy, enjoyable, and, more often than not, far healthier than pre-packaged alternatives.
This is what Pollan means by “eat food”; he is referring to food that you understand and recognize, with ingredients you can pronounce, and served not for the eyes, but for the appetite.
The post-war, post-ration psychology to food was founded in a very different society. All things that had been so hard to come by or purchase became an indulgence, and food became a celebration. Though rationing continued for many years after the Second World War in many countries when steady supply resumed consumers were jubilant. Plates were piled high, options exploded, dinner tables groaned under the weight of opulent feasts - and why not? Food had been scarce for so long, this over-consumption could be more than justified. There was also the notion of ‘feeding up’, getting some flesh on your bones, and so on. Just as in Roman times when obesity was a sign of wealth and status, a curvy figure became the wealthy norm.
But today we know better.
We understand the notion of healthy balance, in the proportions of both our meal sizes and our physical shape. Let me stress that body positivity is not only wonderful, it should also be vehemently encouraged, but we are no longer living in those times when excess weight should be celebrated. It is a healthy balance that we should be celebrating, not catwalk-model proportions or Mr. Universe machismo - simply a shape that comes from a little exercise, a good diet, and conscious choices.
When Pollan refers to “...not too much,” he is not implying that we should starve ourselves, limit our diets or even forego our little indulgences. By ‘not too much’ he is addressing our habitual tendencies to eat more than we need, serve more than is necessary, and succumb to an imbalance of diet.
The US alone discards $160 billion of food annually. We waste almost 40 percent of all food produced.
This is financially redundant, grossly unnecessary and, when you consider the starving nations of the world, embarrassingly shameful. 
By piling our plates and demanding excessive serving sizes we are both leading ourselves into unhealthy overconsumption and contributing to a hugely detrimental waste problem, and this is even before we consider the likes of all-you-can-eat buffets.
This waste factor is one side of the issue. The other is the environmental impact it creates. That 40 percent of wasted food has required a massive amount of resources just to grow, manufacture, package, and distribute. Once cast into landfill, it then decomposes, releasing methane, a gas 25 times more effective than CO2 at creating global warming. In fact, “roughly one-quarter of man-made greenhouse gas emissions are created by food waste, and if food waste was a country, it would be ranked third after the USA and China in terms of greenhouse gas production.” 
This brings us to the third tier of Pollan’s statement: “mostly plants”.
A 2018 study showed that moving to a plant-based diet “could be the ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your environmental impact on earth”, reducing both our individual carbon footprint and the demand on agricultural land by approximately 75 percent. 
As we explored in a previous blog [BREAKING THE MYTHS | The Facts of a Plant-Based Diet], if Germany alone were to reduce its meat consumption only to the national dietary guidelines, it would save over 1.8 million acres of agricultural land.
The human body is designed to eat ‘mostly plants’; our digestive systems simply can’t cope with a diet heavy in meat. As a nation, and on average in most developed countries, we consume far too much meat - for our own health, as well as the health of our planet.
Michael Pollan’s words serve as a continual reminder that a balanced diet can achieve so much. This simple, psychological shift will improve our health, save us money, save the lives of animals and help to create lasting positive change for the wellbeing of the entire world.
So eat food - not too much - mostly plants, and if you want to go one step further, join our 30-Day Challenge and commit to a month of plant-based living.
Bryan is a 'self-taught' plant-based activist, discovering the benefits of eliminating animal products from his diet over 10 years ago. Since that time, he has advocated not only for a social shift in dietary and environmental awareness but also to reverse the construct that meat consumption is somehow tied to manliness and machismo.
Join our 30-day program and discover how Real Men Eat Plants!