When I order a vegan meal on a plane, it invariably comes with fat-free salad dressing. This annoys me more than I can say. It’s not just because I think fat-free salad dressing is basically inedible (which it is IMHO), but because somehow, vegan diets have become synonymous with low-fat eating. That’s not good for vegans or for the animals we want to help.
Given the fact that vegan eating is well outside the mainstream and very different from the way most Americans eat, it’s not surprising that many people view it as difficult and restrictive. (Most people view any dietary change as difficult and restrictive.) Making vegan diets as accessible as possible is an important part of activism.
I’ve written before on this topic but wanted to expand the discussion on unnecessary restrictions in vegan diets. By unnecessary, I mean that none of these restrictions have any particular health advantage and they are likely to have some disadvantages.
A gluten-free diet is an absolute necessity for those who have celiac disease, a permanent intolerance to gluten. It used to be a very difficult diet to follow but the rise in the number of excellent gluten-free foods is changing that, which is definitely a good thing. However, this autoimmune disease affects only one percent of the population so most vegans have no reason to eliminate gluten from their diets. In fact, a recent study in the British Journal of Nutrition suggested that gluten-free diets are associated with reductions in levels of beneficial intestinal bacteria and increased levels of harmful bacteria, which can affect resistance to disease. For those who don’t have celiac disease, it may be beneficial to include some gluten in the diet.
The use of very low fat diets is also questionable. Those who eat diets low in saturated fat , but include moderate amounts of monounsaturated fat have better cholesterol profiles than people who strictly limit all fats in their diet. Some research also suggests that including some fatty foods in meals is better for maintaining weight loss over the long term. And because fat makes food taste better, using it in vegan meals makes them more attractive to nonvegans.
Likewise, gentle cooking of foods has advantages. Some of the beneficial compounds in foods like lycopene (an antioxidant in tomatoes that protects against prostate cancer) are available only when foods are cooked. The vitamin A precursor beta-carotene is more readily available from cooked foods and is also better absorbed in the presence of some fat. It does tend to be more difficult to meet calorie needs from an all raw foods diet, which makes it a poor choice for children but a good one for those who want to lose weight. Other than that, there is not much evidence for any health advantage of eating all raw foods.
The issue of soyfoods—a staple in some Asian countries for at least 1,000 years—is a complex one and I’ve written about it elsewhere (like here, here, and here) It’s unfortunate that so many animal advocates have turned against soy when it is a food that makes it easier to be vegan. At the risk of sounding brag-y, my husband is kind of one of the world’s leading experts on soy and health, so I have access to a knowledgeable perspective on this topic. I eat two servings of soyfoods every day—sometimes a little more—mostly in the form of tofu and meat analogs. And based on the scientific literature, I feel comfortable doing so.
A vegan diet is a great choice for healthful eating and it is an essential choice for an ethical lifestyle. We need to make this way of eating as accessible as possible. Choosing to make a vegan diet restrictive in ways that have no health advantage and no advantage to animals doesn’t make sense.