Is Vegan Food Really Healthier?

by Jason Kessler, Bon Appétit

Romulo YanesWelcome to The Nitpicker. Jason Kessler loves to complain almost as much as he loves to eat. Join him on his journey through the imperfect universe of food.

There's a restaurant near my house in LA called Native Foods. It's busy every time I walk by. While other places struggle to bring in customers, this one is exploding, and not just in my neighborhood. In the past year, Native Foods has gone national. And guess what: It's completely vegan. No meat, no dairy, no animal products whatsoever. And it's not the only example of the vegan takeover.

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Meat- and dairy-free restaurants are all the rage these days, and a lot of carnivores are devoted customers. That's all fine with me. The only problem is, many people add vegan food to their weekly routine because they assume it's healthier. Those people are wrong and I'm sick of people thinking that all vegan food is healthy.

Some vegan food IS good for you. Vegetables, beans, and rice are all part of a well-balanced diet. If you combine those things together, you've got a perfectly healthy meal. That's not always what your typical meat eater is ordering at a vegan joint, though.

They're most likely going for the meat-swap-out dishes, like "chili" "cheese" fries or "sausage." There are a lot of quotation marks involved when you list the popular dishes at a vegan restaurant. In my experience, the stuff that tastes good is bad for you and the food that tastes like what you expect vegan food to taste like is healthy. Which brings us to buffalo wings.

My favorite thing to order at vegan restaurants is the buffalo "wings." At both Native Foods and their vegan rival Veggie Grill, you can get some pretty close facsimiles of actual wings. They're more like boneless buffalo wings, but the SAUCE is there, and that's the key. Vegan buffalo wings work because nobody's eating wings for the chicken. Coat anything in really awesome buffalo sauce, and you've got my attention. That's why "buffalo anything" will sell. Vegan restaurants have figured this out (Native Foods uses vegetable shortening in place of butter in their wing sauce), and now they can give me a satisfying dining experience without meat or dairy. That doesn't mean it's healthy, though.

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According to the Veggie Grill website, the "chillin' chickin'" has 20 percent of your daily sodium for every 100g of "chickin'." Add in the salty buffalo sauce and you've got yourself a sodium bomb fit for a king--a Burger King (zing!). There may not be as much fat or calories when you're dealing with plant-based substitutes, but there also isn't as much protein, either. I'm no nutritionist, but with so many people adding natural, organic ingredients to their diets, does it really make sense to go out for vegan only to introduce a ton of processed, fake foods?

If you've chosen to eliminate animal products from your diet entirely, vegan restaurants offer an opportunity to eat food like the meaty products you used to enjoy without the ethical concerns you're looking to avoid. But for everyone who goes to vegan joints because you think it's better for you, it may be time to re-evaluate what "better for you" means. You'd be making just as healthy a choice going to your favorite restaurant and staying away from the fried foods for a few meals. Cause let's be honest: Those fake crab cakes that don't taste anything like crab just aren't that good.

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