U.S News Rates Vegan Diets (and Gets a Few Things Wrong)

U.S. News brought together a team of  nutrition experts to rank popular diets commonly used for weight control. According to the report, the best diets were “relatively easy to follow, nutritious, safe, and effective for weight loss and against diabetes and heart disease.”

At the head of their list were the DASH and Mediterranean diets — not too surprising since these are well-studied approaches to eating that have a good track record for protecting against disease. The surprise was that a vegan diet ranked pretty low on the list (below Slimfast and Jenny Craig!) While it seemed that the review committee tried to do their homework regarding vegan diets, they definitely got some things wrong.

For example, the committee determined that vitamin D is found mostly in animal foods. That’s not true. Aside from fish, the only good sources of vitamin D are foods that are fortified with it. Most omnivores get their vitamin D the same way that vegans do—from fortified foods, supplements and sun exposure.

To the reviewers’ credit, however, they didn’t pick on protein, but agreed that vegans are likely to get enough and also noted that there are plentiful sources of calcium for vegans.

I think that where the review really falls short is in its assessment of practical issues like eating out and cooking. They recommended “entrée salads” (ugh—the “vegans eat rabbit food” approach to meal planning) as a best bet for eating out instead of listing the many types of restaurants that are likely to have plenty of vegan options. And they ranked the diet as “really restrictive,” which may be true for some vegan diets, but certainly not for all. They also suggested that being vegan can be a lot of work, and that there are no “time savers.” Apparently these reviewers have never had a Field Roast sausage or opened a can of vegetarian baked beans!

The panel also ranked vegan diets as “moderately pricey” which, again, is probably true for some vegans, and not for others. Plant milks and veggie meats are more expensive than cow’s milk and animal flesh (thanks to animal agriculture price supports) but beans are cheaper than meat. Fresh vegetables are expensive, but that’s an issue for anyone trying to eat more healthfully, not just vegans.

Despite these criticisms, the panel said a lot of nice things about vegan diets, so I was kind of surprised to see the diet ranked so low. (And why was it ranked lower than Eco-Atkins, which is a more restrictive version of a vegan diet?!) The reviewers recognized that vegan diets are rich in fiber and potassium (two nutrients that fall short in many American diets, according to their report) and that it’s a way of eating that can be beneficial for preventing heart disease and diabetes. They gave a sample menu that looked reasonably appealing, agreed that there are many, many recipes available, and provided a list of possible desserts that would make anyone want to be a vegan.

I’m sure that they were primarily concerned that people who adopt a vegan diet for weight management and who aren’t familiar with this way of eating could fall short on nutrient intake. And that is certainly a valid issue. Vegans do need to understand how to obtain sufficient calcium, zinc, iodine, omega-3s, and vitamin B12 (and, along with the rest of the world, sufficient vitamin D). It’s not true that it requires a lot of work to do this; it is true, though, that it requires a little bit of knowledge. That’s why spreading the word about how to plan healthy vegan diets is crucial activism. Helping nutrition professionals gain a better understanding of vegan diet planning is important, too.

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20 Responses to U.S News Rates Vegan Diets (and Gets a Few Things Wrong)

  1. Heather November 3, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

    A huge problem I see here is that *no* diet has a great statistically significant success rate for a long enough period of time. Many studies that assess the success of a ‘diet’ tend to assume success rates with very very low actual numbers (meaning only a few pounds lost over a time period of only about a year). Weight watchers, I believe it was, for instance, had an average weight loss of 8lbs that people had kept off for a year. And since most people gain back lost weight within the first 5 years.. .well, you get the point. With vegetarianism a single study showed an average of 20lbs difference, but most of the studies showed a difference of only 5-10lbs.

    And, honestly, promoting veganism for health is the worst way to go about it.. because you can be perfectly healthy and not vegan which makes a health argument simply illogical and inconsistent. More so, I should also point out that weight does not equal predictability of health.

    • Ginny Messina November 4, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

      Heather, I agree on all points! I thought it was interesting that one of the criteria the panel used was “long term success.” I don’t think *any* diet has been shown to be successful over the long-term. I didn’t address that in my post because the post was getting too long–but will write about it in the future.

    • Michelle November 11, 2011 at 9:01 am #

      I disagree. Have you read “The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-term Health”? According to that book, which was written by a Ph.D. scientist with many years of experience researching nutrition and disease, eating animal products (including milk and eggs) is associated with high rates of “diseases of affluence” (e.g., heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and various cancers). These diseases, while relatively common in the U.S., are quite rare in rural China, where most people eat a whole foods, plant-based diet. Thus, promoting veganism for its health value may be the way to go….

  2. Mike November 4, 2011 at 4:53 am #

    The write-ups on the vegan and Eco-Atkins diets state: “Fortified soy milk along with wheat gluten and soy products are good sources [of B12].” I, for one, have not noticed B12 in gluten or soy products aside from fortified “mylks.” Perhaps someone should point them to some proper sources of B12? (My email went unnoticed.)

    • Ginny Messina November 4, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

      I noticed that, too. Maybe they were thinking of fortified veggie meats, but it doesn’t come across that way.

  3. Mac November 4, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    There seem to be a relative few (even some vegans) who realize that nutritional yeast – that rich, “buttery & cheesy” staple of vegan cooking – contains well over the adult RDA for B-12 in just 2 tablespoons. I understand there are some vegans who eschew yeast, but for those of us who use it, it’s a fabulous source of flavor and nutrition.

    • Ginny Messina November 4, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

      Yes, I think nutritional yeast is a wonderful way to get B12. It’s so versatile and easy. Wish more people knew that.

      • Adam November 4, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

        you do have to make sure the nutritional yeast is fortified with the B12 though, it doesn’t inherently contain it

      • jj November 4, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

        But, only certain types of nutritional yeast are fortified with B12, am I right in thinking that? Where I live (in northern Canada) I can only find nutritional yeast in a bulk food store, and have no idea if it is fortified.

        • Ginny Messina November 4, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

          Yes, it has to be grown on a B12-rich medium. The most widely-available one is Red Star brand Vegetarian Support Formula nutritional yeast. A lot of the bulk nutritional yeast sold in co-ops is this type–but you do have to ask if it isn’t labeled.

          • Matt November 5, 2011 at 11:10 am #

            Years ago, a famous vegan / animal activist had his health deteriorate. He knew it couldn’t be B12 deficiency, because he ate the right nutritional yeast. He then read Jack Norris’ B12 article, decided to try a B12 supplement, and got better.

  4. Gretchen November 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    Great write-up GInny! I wished the big magazines would get all of their facts straight before publishing articles such as this. I so agree that virtually none of the “diets” have long-term success rates…LIFESTYLE switches do, and I see the plant-based diet as a lifestyle, not a short-term way of eating.

    • Ginny Messina November 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

      Thank, Gretchen. It’s unfortunate when veganism gets defined as a weight loss diet, because then I think people don’t view as a lifestyle change for the long term. Weight management has to be a long term commitment, and of course veganism is an ethic that should last forever!

  5. Matt November 5, 2011 at 11:12 am #

    Interesting re: time savers. Microwaving a Boca Burger or Amy’s dinner is pretty darn quick! But people who aren’t familiar with the diet just don’t know. And I fear that vegans can sometimes hurt the image meat eaters have of veganism, with fancy, elaborate, whole-food recipes with ingredients no one has ever heard of. This can just make veganism seem foreign and impossible to meat eaters.

  6. Frank November 5, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    Interesting to see the ‘votes’ where people click yes or no if this diet helped you. There is a landslide of votes for yes for vegan diet outdone by only vegetarian diet. The other diets either aren’t working or few people who read US News uses them.
    I voted yes for vegan!

  7. Lisa F. (The Valley Vegan) November 6, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    I always chuckle about the idea that veganism is time consuming! I find it no more time consuming to reach for the soy milk instead of the cow’s milk in the dairy section… It’s no more time consuming to stir fry my veggies just because I’m not adding meat (which takes more time to cook properly)… I find it no more time consuming to grill a piece of tofu than it takes someone to grill a piece of chicken (and my tofu won’t kill me if it’s not fully cooked!)… Overall, I think it takes less time to cook since I’m not adding in the time it takes to cook meats!

    As a weight loss plan… Veganism isn’t necessarily a sure fire, easy bet! I have been vegetarian since 1990, vegan since 2007, my weight issues are easier to contain without the added fats & cholesterol of my lacto-vegetarian days, BUT I still have to work to at it any time I want to shed a few pounds – watching calories, diligent exercise – while still being very careful about my protein, calcium, B12, etc..

    Someone trying to lose weight with veganism as their “diet” may not be paying attention to nutrition as closely as an “actual” vegan. My mother once tried losing weight by adopting my vegan “diet” and soon found herself B12 deficient – but wouldn’t accept that it was the “diet” that caused it! Frustrating, because I want people in my life to be healthy, but I want them to understand that veganism isn’t a “diet” it is a lifestyle that requires some research & information in order to stay healthy.

    Eating out? I have dedicated my blog to revealing the fact that there is great vegan food at mainstream restaurants. I REFUSE to eat salads when out to eat, and will only “lower” myself to eating pasta w/veggies if there truly is no other option (which is exceptionally rare, I might add).

    (sorry: this post ended up longer than I expected!)

  8. Kaitlyn@TheTieDyeFiles November 9, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    I definitely agree that activism on the part of us vegans is important. I cannot believe that veganism ranked below SLIMFAST! There’s not way that can be healthy. I think what bothers me most, though, is that this article places veganism on the same spectrum as these quick-fix weight loss diets when in actuality it’s a lifestyle and for most is based in ethics, long-term health, and environmental concerns.

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