By Karen Hawthorne
As a sign that veganism has shifted permanently into the mainstream, KFC Canada‘s recent test-run of plant-based “popcorn chicken” in Mississauga, Ont., seems as good as any. When meat alternatives are being sold by the bucket, it’s hard to argue they are still the domain of urban elites.
But the mass market’s embrace of plant proteins (The Economist called 2019 “The Year of the Vegan”) also coincides with reports that developed countries are getting fatter — not slimmer. Which raises an obvious question: Are vegan diets as virtuous as they seem?
According to a recent op-ed by Frédéric Leroy and Martin Cohen, academics at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the University of Hertfordshire respectively, the health benefits of a vegan diet depend on careful nutritional balance. For example, attention to Vitamin B12 consumption or the appropriate intake of long-chain fatty acids.
Maintaining that balance can be difficult, however. And when vegans fail, they write, the negative health impact can be significant.
Not everyone wants to eat lots of lentils and rice all the time
Moreover, Leroy and Cohen point to a study of 218,000 subjects from over 50 countries which found that “the consumption of meat and dairy can be associated with less — rather than more — chronic disease.”
But other research shows clear benefits to a vegan lifestyle. A study published in The Journal of Nutrition, for instance, documented both lower levels of fat and higher levels of antioxidants among those with a plant-based diet. These are the compounds in foods which help delay cell damage attributed to the aging process.
A study presented this fall by the Washington-based group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine also showed the potential for veganism as a treatment for obesity. Participants who followed a 16-week vegan diet experienced significant changes to gut microbes linked to improved body weight, body composition and blood sugar control.
Pamela Fergusson, a registered dietitian and devoted vegan in Nelson, B.C., sees the positive impact in her practice. One of her clients, a teacher in his 30s, came to her two years ago obese and concerned by a family history of heart disease. Inspired by the 2011 documentary Forks Over Knives on Netflix, however, he was committed to trying a vegan diet. One year in, he had lost 27 pounds and his blood tests were normal.
A vegan diet also “makes you feel more clear-headed and able to focus,” Fergusson adds, partly because it doesn’t take so much energy for your body to digest.
When it comes to weight loss, though, Dr. David Jenkins, director of the Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, says the fibre and “volumetrics” of vegan foods are the critical advantages.
“We love chewing and all the sensations that go along with eating, so we want to eat a lot of food,” he says. “But when you compare a steak to a plate of vegetables, you can have the same volume of food but there’s a vast difference in calories.”
Jenkins, a vegan for almost 20 years, is an industry pioneer when it comes to research and clinical trials on diet and health. He developed the concept of the glycemic index to show how different carbohydrates affect blood sugar (or glucose) levels, and which foods are best for people with diabetes.
But GI also affects how quickly we get hungry again after eating. Whole, unrefined plant foods are helpful to weight loss in part because they have slow-release carbohydrates that leave us feeling fuller longer. Vegetables that retain water when cooked, such as dried beans and peas, tend to increase satiety as well.
“I’ve put people on plant-based diets who found they felt full and sufficiently hydrated,” says Jenkins.
Liquids in and of themselves, mind you, are no substitute for solid food. It’s that predilection to chew again, he says.
“When you’re having wine with your steak dinner, you tend to move on to the Crêpes Suzettes and then the next course of foods that are excessively stimulating. Whereas lentil soup is extremely pleasant, you’re not driven to eat more and more.”
I’ve put people on plant-based diets who found they felt full
So what about those plant-based KFC “popcorn” bites?
Veganism has come a long way when it comes to broad appeal. “It has its own movement and there’s a lot of innovation in the space, including foods like vegan ice cream and plant-based burgers,” says Fergusson.
That’s a boon to those who would never have considered a vegan diet in the past — as long as plant food isn’t shorthand for junk food.
“Not everyone wants to eat lots of lentils and rice all the time, but as long as we choose whole foods more often and enjoy others in moderation it works,” Fergusson says.