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Is vegan food REALLY healthier than meat? Top nutritionist ROB HOBSON compares plant-based ‘burgers’, ‘chicken’ and ‘meat’ pies with the real thing… and the results will surprise you
- Vegans eat more ultra-processed foods than meat-eaters, research suggests
- READ MORE: We were vegan… this is why we QUIT
Vegans have traditionally been a healthy bunch, feasting on beans, pulses, lentils, and other whole foods to nourish themselves.
But thanks to the food industry responding to the trend for plant-based eating, we have seen the rise of the ultra-processed vegan.
Yet diets high in red meat and processed meat (such as bacon and ham) also increase the risk of diseases such as colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease, coumadin uses and side effects and diabetes.
So, which is healthier – eating meat and meat products such as pies, bacon, ham and sausages, or replacing them with their vegan alternatives, made from an array of vegetable proteins and soy?
Here, Rob Hobson, registered nutritionist, advisor for supplement brand Healthspan and author of Unprocess Your Life: Break Free From Ultra-Processed Foods for Good, takes a look…
100% BEEF BURGER Vs PLANT BURGER (made with pea and rice protein)
Revealed: Vegans eat MORE ultra-processed food than meat-eaters
Vegans eat more ultra-processed foods than meat-eaters, according to a recent study from the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
Researchers analysed daily food intakes of 19,812 meat eaters, 646 pesco-veggies, 500 vegetarians, and 254 vegans.
They found those who ate the fewest animal-based foods consumed more UPFs (vegans’ diets were 39.5 per cent UPF; 37 per cent for vegetarians and 33 per cent for meat-eaters).
HOBSON’S VERDICT: The plant burger is a little higher in energy, but both offer a good source of protein.
The vegan burger uses a combination of plant proteins which provide all the essential amino acids in the same way beef does.
The beef option contains fewer ingredients and a preservative to help extend the shelf life of the product, whereas the vegan option requires stabilisers and emulsifiers to provide the right texture and mouthfeel (as well as extending shelf life).
The plant burger is unlikely to supply significant amounts of iron and B12 found in the beef burger.
Research published in the BMJ showed that higher intakes of emulsifiers including methyl cellulose (E461) was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease although more research is needed to prove cause and effect.
The plant-based option is no healthier nutritionally than the beef burger and is more ultra-processed.
The winner: BEEF BURGER
CHICKEN NUGGETS Vs PLANT-BASED NUGGETS (made with soy protein)
HOBSON’S VERDICT: The chicken nuggets used in this analysis are a very cheap brand, which is a lot more ultra-processed than some of the more expensive brands that contain fewer ingredients and additives.
Regardless of cost, vegan brands tend to contain more ingredients and additives.
Nutritionally the vegan options are only slightly higher in calories, but the nutrient profile is fairly similar (although they will lack some of the nutrient density of the chicken ones), given that many of the ingredients used in the vegan nuggets have very little nutritive value.
The winner: CHICKEN NUGGETS
HAM Vs MEAT-FREE HAM (made with soy and pea protein)
HOBSON’S VERDICT: Nutritionally these two products are not too dissimilar, other than the meat version contains more salt.
Like many UPF vegan foods, the ingredient list is much longer than the meat version and contains more additives required to create the right texture.
Carrageenan gum is used extensively in ultra-processed foods to help thicken and stabilise a product. There have been questions raised about the proinflammatory effect of this food additive and the impact it has on the gut microbiome as well, although more research is needed.
The World Cancer Research Fund advises limiting processed meat consumption as it is associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer by way of the nitrites used to preserve the meat.
A large systematic review of prospective studies found that processed meat consumption was associated with a 21 per cent increased risk of colon cancer and 22 per cent increased risk of rectal cancer.
I think there are pros and cons for both these products but personally, I would tend to steer clear of processed meat in this case.
The winner: VEGAN HAM
CHICKEN AND MUSHROOM PIE Vs VEGAN ‘CHICKEN’ AND MUSHROOM PIE (made with soy protein)
HOBSON’S VERDICT: There is little difference between these two versions of a chicken and mushroom pie.
Nutritionally, these are similar and carry the hallmarks of an ultra-processed food which is high in saturated fat, salt and sugar as well as having a very long ingredient list which contains additives you wouldn’t find in your own kitchen.
Flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate create an intense flavour or savouriness, in this case, which can make food super-palatable.
This is even more so when partnered with other ingredients like hydrogenated oils and soy lecithin which are used to create texture and mouthfeel, as they have a creamy texture and probably add to the flakiness of the pastry in these pies.
The super palatability of UPFs is why they are difficult to stop eating and a reason why UPFs are associated with overconsumption and obesity. Neither better than the other in this case.
The winner: NEITHER – BOTH ARE BAD
CHICKEN TENDERS VS VEGAN ‘CHICKEN’ TENDERS (made with soy protein)
HOBSON’S VERDICT: The nutritional profile of these two versions of chicken tenders is relatively similar, although the vegan option contains more ingredients.
Both contain either a stabiliser or thickener which is used to help improve the texture and stability of the food to retain the shelf life of the product.
Research has suggested that consuming high quantities of cellulose in particular may be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, but this is not definitive, and more research is needed.
However, the vegan option has a much longer ingredient list so I would be more inclined to choose the chicken option here.
The winner: CHICKEN TENDERS
Give your vegan diet some va-va voom!
Rob Hobson on how to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need on an all-plant diet…
For all the health benefits of veganism or plant-based eating, both plans can leave you low on key nutrients.
The key to eating well as a vegan is careful planning — batch cooking will ensure a store of home-cooked meals and prevent last-minute buys of UPFs.
Ensure your cupboards are stocked with plenty of beans, pulses, lentils, Quorn, tins of tomatoes, herbs and spices, too.
Even the most diligent vegan must plan carefully to ensure they are not leaving any nutrient gaps in their diet.
Tofu, for example, is a good source of omega-3. However, this form of omega-3 — or alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) — is harder for the body to process.
Eating only plants can also mean you’re not getting enough protein.
Some foods are sold as meat alternatives, like jackfruit burgers. Even though they’re essentially a protein substitute, some contain no protein.
Meanwhile, vitamin B12, which keeps blood, nerve cells and DNA healthy, does not exist in plant-based foods so must be taken as a supplement, such as Healthspan’s Elite Vitamin B12.
Also, the type of iron found in plant foods (non-heme iron) is not as easily absorbed in the body.
Calcium is another nutrient that may be tricky to get from a vegan diet if it is not well-designed.
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