Plant-Based Junk Food is Alive and Well

August 1, 2017 in Health by Joyce Bunderson

Today’s issue is one of those concerns that has been a question brewing in my mind, just below the surface for a long time. What I’m writing about today is the problem of unhealthful plant-based diets. I’ve personally known people, self-proclaimed vegetarians, who are grabbing products like Pop-tarts (white processed flour, filled with sugary hot fudge or jam.) Let me take this digression a little farther just to get a feel for what Kellog’s processes and calls Frosted Cherry Pop-tarts; you may notice that they have 410 calories; 33 grams of sugar and only 1 gram of fiber in the two pastries; this is what many people call breakfast on the run – some of these believe they are dedicated to a plant-based diet. After all, the wheat they processed into that white pastry flour is a plant and the sugar – well, it comes from Sugar Cane (a plant), right?

Just because Cheetos; potato chips; doughnuts; popsicles; French fries; Ramen; Ice cream and cookies; Nutella; and all the regular junk foods that non-vegetarians eat can be plant-based, does not mean that they are healthy. It really seems like a non-issue; but unfortunately, it’s not. Some people have gotten the idea that they can reap the benefits (lower risk of heart disease and diabetes) of a plant-based diet, just by cutting out animal products and taking in a lot of highly processed food that came from plants. This does not lead to health.

A new study was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and came out of Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. The study looked at over 209,000 people on a plant-based diet. Ambika Satija, the lead researcher, said that, “It’s apparent that there is a wide variation in the nutritional quality of plant foods, making it crucial to take into consideration the quality of foods in a plant-based diet.” Certainly there has been a plethora of research that shows that a diet filled with nuts, beans, whole grains, vegetables, and fruit is correlated with a decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

What Satija and her colleagues did was divide the people on a plant-based diet into three groups. The groups are described as follows:

  • A diet that maximized plant food intake but did not entirely exclude animal-derived nutriments. Being a flexitarian myself (eating some vegetarian meals and some animal protein, including fish, but concentrating on plant-based foods), I was glad to have this group included.
  • A solely plant-based diet that maximized intake of healthful plant foods (such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains).
  • A plant-based diet consisting mostly of unhealthful plant-derived food (including sweetened beverages, potatoes, sweets, and refined grains.)

I don’t think the researchers were probably shocked when they learned that consumption of unwholesome plant-derived foods, such as refined grains, had a negative impact on the heart. Just so there’s no confusion, the researchers remind us that the nutritional quality of plant foods is a crucial consideration in a plant-based diet. If you’re working on eating more plant foods, keep your eye on increasing whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and unsaturated fats. And if you’re a flexitarian like us, remember to include fish. Skip the Pop-tarts!