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.