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When Plant-Based Diets Go Wrong

Why you need to worry about ultra-processed foods and what you can do to clean up your diet.

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There are many reasons why people decide to phase out meat from their diets. Environmental and animal welfare concerns are two biggies, but a desire to improve health is likely the leading motivator for replacing beef with beans. With a rising tide of endorsements from the Hollywood elite and social media influencers, more people than ever are embracing what is widely become known as a plant-based diet. With this comes the overarching belief that as soon as you welcome more plants and less meat into your kitchen it’s going to add years of healthful living to your life. But we should not be so quick to think that switching to a plant-heavy diet is a nutritional home run. There is more than one way to eat lousy, even if you’re flipping over plant-based burgers.

A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition that divided more than 21,000 people into four groups — meat-eaters, pesco-vegetarians (those that consume fish), vegetarians, and vegans — found using 24-hour dietary recall records that with a higher avoidance of animal-based foods there was an increase in daily calories hailing from ultra-processed foods (UPFs). For instance, meat-eaters obtained 33% of their calories from UPFs, whereas 40% of the energy in the vegan’s diet hailed from UPFs. It was also discovered that the younger someone was when they eschewed animal flesh the more likely they were to eat more UPFs. The study authors concluded that vegetarian and vegan diets are not necessarily nutritious because of the potential adverse health impacts of UPFs.

When you take into account the growing availability and, in turn, reliance on industrial plant-based meat, egg and dairy substitutes as well as packaged snacks aimed at the no-meat crowd it’s not exactly mind-blowing that the growing legion of plant-only people are potentially eating too many nutritionally suspect UPFs. We want things that taste good and also taste like what we are giving up. Yet, the health consequences of doing so too often can be dire.

Related: Want to Live Longer? Embrace a Plant-Based Diet

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

Steer your wheels through the bread, cereal and frozen food aisle of any supermarket and they are everywhere — ultra-processed foods far removed from what nature intended. Exactly what this term refers to depends on who’s asked, but most health experts define UPFs as any food that has been substantially altered from its natural state.

But not all packaged food should be lumped into the UPF category. Technically, any alteration, including pasteurizing, fermenting, juicing, or extracting oil from olives or nuts, is processing. Overall, these are relatively minor changes that we can call “minimally processed.” Everything from tofu to olive oil to sourdough bread to canned tomatoes falls into this category. So, unless you’re only eating raw foods and drinking milk straight from udders, a good chunk of your diet is technically processed. While these foods are processed by definition, each still retains its basic structure, and the ingredient list can be short and easily understood without a food chemistry degree. In other words, most dietitians like myself would still consider them “nutritious.” Chopping and freezing broccoli certainly does not turn into junk food.

The negative impact on the quality of our diet and overall health stems from the degree of alteration – the more foods are fried or baked into something crispy, pumped full of sugar, or sent through an extruder to make it remarkably meat-like the more it will work against not for your health.

UPFs undergo multiple industrial procedures and are combined with ingredients that would not be found on a farm or in your kitchen. These can include everything from artificial and refined sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup, emulsifiers, fats such as palm oil, artificial flavors, and a host of mystery ingredients like hydrolyzed protein. These are used to alter taste, texture, and shelf life. (There is a reason why they taste so good and why we keep going back to them.) In the end, the food is often unrecognizable from its original form. Faux burgers made with pea protein isolate are a far cry from real peas picked at the farm or from your backyard and it can be easy to forget that mashed potatoes come from the same vegetable used to make a bag of salty chips. We can comfortably deem bacon and hot dogs as nutritional villains, but the reality is that the plant-based world is full of equally sketchy UPFs.

What is worrisome is that many of the new-generation plant-based UPFs come with aggressive marketing campaigns aimed at convincing consumers that they are good for us. After all, they are made from plants so what’s not to love? But make no mistake, “bleeding” burgers, fake-out chicken nuggets, no-cow jerky and protein deficient coconut yogurt enriched with sugar and emulsifiers can and should be considered UPF. The current definition for the term plant-based remains hazy. So companies can slap a “plant-based” label on anything and collect a health halo. But did you think plowing through a bag of crispy pigless pork-rinds or tub of moo-free chocolate ice cream was good for you?

Related: Added Sugar Is Probably a Bigger Problem In Your Diet Than You Think

Why Worry About UPFs?

There is mounting research suggesting that the more of these highly adulterated foods we eat the more our health becomes endangered, even if beef never passes through our lips.

Individuals with the highest consumption of UPFs over an eight-year timeframe had about a 58% higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease than those with lower intakes, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The findings were based on 24,475 men and women age 35 and older. A separate investigation in the same journal determined that half of the calories in the typical American diet hail from UPFs and with every 5% increase in calories from UPFs there was worsening heart health. (This study reported that UPFs make up about 59% of the energy intake in the American diet, and contributed nearly 90% of the added sugars we eat.) When the amount of UPFs in a diet increases, it crowds out more nutritious foods resulting in a net loss of health-hiking fiber, vitamins and minerals. Not especially surprising, a link between UPFs and the risk for being overweight has been uncovered. Often, these highly engineered foods are dense in calories and can contribute to unwanted weight gain.

It’s important to remember that nearly all of the health perks associated with a plant-based lifestyle can be traced back to the consumption of mostly whole foods. Case in point: Men who consumed more plant-based foods had a 25% reduced risk of heart disease, compared with those eating more animal-based foods, while for women the decrease was 11%, according to research recently presented at the meeting of the American College of Cardiology and World Congress of Cardiology. But the association between plants and heart health did not come to fruition for people eating more unhealthful plant-based foods like sweets and refined grains. Similarly, healthier plant-based choices were linked with maintaining healthy blood pressure, blood lipids, and blood sugar numbers, whereas consuming unhealthy plant-based foods was associated with developing levels of these health markers that can raise the risk for certain diseases like diabetes.

Related: Are Alternative Meats a Convenience or a Curse?

Eat Plants, Be Healthy

So the conclusion here is pretty simple: If you want to reap the rewards of a plant-based lifestyle you’ve got to go back to basics and eat mostly whole foods like legumes, nuts, whole grains, vegetables and fruits along with minimally processed items. This instead of no-chicken “chicken” nuggets and sugary energy bars. Diligent label reading can also help you choose products with fewer ingredients with tongue-twisting names. Cooking at home from scratch also goes a long way toward reducing the amount of UPFs that sneak into your diet. For instance, make your own granola bars after raiding the bulk bins instead of turning to packaged granola bars made with questionable ingredients. And yes, fall back on making your own veggie burgers.

Now, there is no reason to be militant about all this and banish UPFs from your diet entirely. That can foster an unhealthy relationship with food. Besides, those modern-day plant burgers do taste great and are worth the occasional splurge for a backyard BBQ. It’s just that they should make up a smaller percentage of our diet than research suggests they currently do. Hopefully, that’s not too hard to swallow.