Is going vegan the healthier way to eat?

With so many highly-processed vegan food products on the market, does rejecting meat mean a better diet any more?
With so many highly-processed vegan food products on the market, does rejecting meat mean a better diet any more? Photo: Anna Kucera

 Eating a vegan diet is healthy right? Fruit, vegies and piles of chickpeas. Well, maybe. Decades ago when I first became a vegan, the lack of products meant it was cook or starve and a vegan diet was usually wholefood, nutritious and high fibre.

Now, with the Australian vegan market expanding – we're reportedly the world's third fastest-growing, based on Euromonitor International data – it's a different story. From vegan pecan pie or rocky road to vegan Aperol spritz doughnuts, vegan tripe, vegan parmesan or plant-based burgers that "bleed", the choices mean going vegan doesn't require narrowing your choices.

When The Cruelty Free Shop owner Jessica Bailey launched in 2001 finding products to stock was a struggle. "Now we have 3500 products and more are coming in all the time," says Bailey, who has two retail stores and an online shop.

Vegan pastries from Melbourne bakery Weirdoughs.
Vegan pastries from Melbourne bakery Weirdoughs.  Photo: Peter Tarasiuk

With chocolate her biggest seller and fridges stuffed with 50 vegan cheeses, many coconut oil- based, she says: "It's a myth that vegans are healthy and don't drink. People just have to realise that as with meat-eaters, these things are treats, they should not be things you eat every day."

Medical research gives the vegan diet a big tick, with the World Health Organisation and Australian Dietary Guidelines advocating more plant food and less of what's now arriving in the vegan world. The US Centre for Biotechnology reports evidence those eating large quantities of fruit and vegetables live longer than those who do not. It says vegan diets have been associated with reduced incidence of obesity, vegans have a lower incidence of heart disease, vegan diets may prevent and help treat Type 2 diabetes and it is highly probable a vegan diet is less likely to cause cancer than other diets.

But those compiling the American Dietetic Association and Australia's dietary guidelines, noting a vegan diet as nutritionally adequate and healthy, presumably were not thinking of vegan cheesecake brownies, vegan fish and chips and fried chicken, or celebrating Chinese New Year with vegan Peking duck croissants. Is a vegan diet no longer a passport to good health?

People associate gluten-free or vegan with healthy when it is not necessarily healthy.

Clinical nutritionist Elizabeth Pattalis

"I do see vegans struggling with their weight and cholesterol if they are having a lot of these not very healthy options," says Melbourne dietician and nutritionist Lucy Taylor. She has new clients who eat mock meat at every meal. "I tell them that's not the most nutritious option."

Sydney clinical nutritionist Elizabeth Pattalis, a vegan for four years, agrees: "I think you can definitely be an unhealthy vegan and I see more of that happening." She cites more processed foods and vegan going mainstream – at Hungry Jacks and McDonald's for instance, and vegan ice-cream Cornettos. "People associate gluten-free or vegan with healthy when it is not necessarily healthy."

Some vegans overload on the saturated fats of coconut, says Pattalis, who advises new vegans about healthy choices and reading food labels for fat and sugar levels.

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Taylor, a vegan for five years who eats a wholefoods diet and sees mostly vegan clients, believes the line-up of fake meats and cheeses in supermarkets gives a false impression. "A lot of people when they first go vegan they move to these transition foods – hotdogs and fries et cetera. That's what they think vegans eat. I try to explain that these are transition foods. Longer term I try to encourage people to adopt a wholefood, plant-based diet.

"I see the phenomenon of people seeing new vegan food and meals and reaching out to try them because now we can – for example Dominos vegan pizza. They would not have ordinarily eaten that food."

Ruby Shine, co-owner of Melbourne patisserie Weirdough, says it aims to be fun, cool and inclusive, calling itself plant-based, not vegan. But vegans are super-excited when they discover what's available.

Vegan fig pizza with dairy-free blue cheese from Gigi's in Newtown.
Vegan fig pizza with dairy-free blue cheese from Gigi's in Newtown. Photo: Supplied

Bailey, whose newsletter is usually headlined by a sweet product, agrees: "People get most excited about sweet things. That seems to be the thing that the buzz gets going on Facebook and everyone shares it on social media."

Shine notes: "Vegan itself is not actually healthy, it can be and it definitely has that image. I have a lot of vegan friends who are not healthy. It depends on that person.

"Once upon a time vegan was like a plate of vegies," she says. But her business is a dessert bar, its products are treats and now vegans, like everyone else, must make choices.

Simeon Van der Molen is the founder of vegan burger and hot dog startup Moving Mountains.
Simeon Van der Molen is the founder of vegan burger and hot dog startup Moving Mountains. Photo: Supplied

So is a vegan diet healthier?

Nutritionists say that's no longer a simple question.

Bailey, a long-time vegan, says the lack of animal fats means "the vegan diet is always going to be healthier" and Pattalis believes that's true – mostly. But it depends whether you compare a healthy, wholefood vegan diet with a meat and dairy-eating equivalent.

"A mock chicken schnitzel compared with an actual chicken schnitzel – I actually think they would be pretty close. [You have to take into account] animal fat and similar additives with the coating, preservatives or whatever. I still think the vegan one would come out in front."

Melbourne nutritionist Lucy Taylor agrees much depends on what the vegan eats. For instance, some vegan cheeses are basically flavoured coconut oil, while others are from nuts.

Taylor says a vegan making healthy choices eats fewer cholesterol-raising saturated fats, but notes: "You can live off vegan ice-cream and pizza and hot chips. I'm not sure it is any better in the end. You can get just as much saturated fat and salt and sugar."

Rather than opting for processed foods and comparing nutrition labels she says better choices include brown rice, pulses and chickpeas, vegetables and fruit. "I encourage them to make food from scratch."