Panel member Michele Porter shares her views on the vegan food industry and the reality about eating healthily. (Scroll for Michele's spicy vegan bean burger recipe).
Tell people that you are vegan and they assume that you are super healthy, existing on a diet of mung beans, sprouts and kale... However, it's easy to eat just as badly following a vegan diet as that of your average westerner - think fast food, takeaways, ready meals, snacks with a two-year shelf life. This is mostly because of the intention behind the decision to eat this way. Many people choose to follow a vegan diet for economic and ethical reasons (to save the planet or to save the animals), so their main concern isn’t nutrition or their own health.
January 2020 saw the highest uptake ever of the Veganuary challenge - 400k worldwide -, in which people give up meat and dairy for the duration of January and eat a vegan diet instead. I was momentarily happy to hear this until I visited my local supermarket just after new year. Two whole chiller cabinets were decorated with brightly coloured pictures of vegetables and marketed as 'healthy options' for Veganuary. They contained an enormous selection of burgers, sausages & ready meals, mostly made with highly processed meat alternatives - I tried really hard to find something made with actual vegetables or beans, and couldn't. It seemed to me that the contents of the ‘healthy vegan’ chiller cabinet were aimed at people who usually ate fast food and ready meals and liked the idea of being healthier without having to deal with actual vegetables or cooking.
Among this array of ready-made processed foods were things like Caribbean jackfruit - yes, jackfruit is an actual plant, but this stuff was covered in a sugary, oily sauce containing so much unnatural processed stuff, most of which was unrecognisable on the ingredients label - this is the problem.
People tell me that they've been 'good' when they chose a vegan burger over a beef burger, when in reality neither have any substantial nutritional value and both have been highly processed and contain ingredients that trigger the body’s inflammatory response. The only real way to get a burger with some nutritional value (whether meat or veggie) is to make it yourself from scratch, or buy it from someone who does.
Someone excitedly told me that she was being 'healthy' when she ate Oreos, because someone had told her they were vegan. Yes they are vegan, but not deliberately. A lot of biscuits are accidentally vegan and they are far from nutritious.
I had a comment on a social media post last week from someone telling me that she is proud to be a ‘junk food vegan’ because that is her choice and she enjoys it. I don’t have a problem with people like this who are knowingly choosing to eat unhealthy food. My issue is with the food industry, which tricks people into buying a vegan cottage pie or vegan burger by leading them to think it’s a healthier choice. By the way, there are some healthier options for ready-to-eat vegan foods (check out brands like Strong Roots), but they are harder to find and shouldn’t be eaten regularly.
So, what to do? Transitioning to a whole-foods, plant-based diet is not an easy thing to do for anyone, let alone for someone who is unorganised and doesn’t really cook. It involves meal planning, meal prep, shopping for perishable foods at least twice a week and cooking from scratch. This is because it involves real, fresh food; real ingredients that don’t have a shelf life of two years; real ingredients that grow mold if unused after a few days. Yes, it’s more work than a junk food diet, but it doesn’t have to include soaking beans for days on end and making your own muesli!
I work with people who are ready to improve their health by making lasting changes to their diet, and I also encourage shortcuts where possible. This makes the changes more likely to stick. We are all busy, we are all stressed and if we can buy a tin of ready-cooked cannellini beans rather than soaking them overnight and having to cook them before adding them to a dish, then why not do that! The people who come to me have already made the decision to change, and I think that that is the hardest part.
Michele's Spicy vegan Bean Burgers
1 tin black beans
250g cooked brown rice (use a pack of pre-cooked rice as a shortcut)
half onion finely chopped
1 tbsp flour (any kind, I use brown rice flour)
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp garlic powder
half tsp salt
Fresh chopped herbs like Coriander/Parsley (optional)
Fresh chopped Chilli (optional, if you like it spicy)
In a food processor add the rice, onion, flour and spices and blitz until fairly smooth.
Add optional herbs and drained black beans, pulse gently - you just want the beans to break up a bit, but still keep a bit of texture. Mould into 4 burger shapes (make into a ball then flatten) Place on a roasting tray lined with baking paper and cook in 180ºc for about 35 minutes until firm and a bit crisp on the edges. Can be frozen after cooking - freeze flat.
Sweet Potato Wedges:
Sweet Potatoes, washed and quartered (no need to peel), mix in a bowl with 1 or 2 tbsp olive oil, black pepper, 1 or 2 tsp smoked paprika, 1 or 2 tsp dried oregano. Roast on a tray in the oven 200ºc for between 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending how crispy you like them. Turn them over with a spatula half way through. Salt before serving and scatter with fresh herbs (parsley, coriander etc) if you want them to look fancy!
Michele helps people to make changes to their food/eating/cooking habits through an 8 week group program, The Real Food Reset. She is a Nutrition Coach at Love's Kitchen.