In the complex, polarizing world of nutrition and diets, people tend to favor black and white rules to answer their questions. But simple answers are not available nor possible in this highly nuanced field. Certain foods receive healthy or unhealthy labels depending on whether or not they are acceptable within a certain diet or adhere to a particular nutritional code. Many dishes that proclaim to be vegan, for instance, are automatically assumed to be healthy, but such arbitrary designations should raise suspicion.
The focus on plant-based food in the vegan diet is a positive development, but just because something is touted as plant-based does not mean it is necessarily clean for our bodies. One beet burger at a popular vegan food chain, by CHLOE., for instance, contains all-purpose flour, vegetable oil and sugar, all of which can have detrimental effects on one’s health. Additionally, a popular brand of Veganaise — vegan mayonnaise — contains safflower oil and brown rice syrup, which is essentially a different name for sugar.
Such ingredients are often quietly added to so-called health foods to improve taste or shelf life, undermining nutritional value. Similarly, a muffin from gluten-free brand Udi’s is made with sugar and canola oil, other ingredients which do not seem to be actual food, and contains 23 grams of sugar per serving. To put this in perspective, the American Heart Association recommends that women ingest no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day and that men ingest no more than 38 grams. Essentially, it is best not to rely on added sugar as a regular component of one’s daily diet.
This, of course, does not mean that all vegan foods are suboptimal for one’s health, as veganism’s focus on vegetables and legumes can certainly benefit one’s overall wellbeing. One study from McMaster University, for instance, found that those who consumed three to four servings of vegetables, fruits and legumes per day had a lowered mortality risk. Likewise, another study found that those who consumed one serving of green, leafy vegetables per day had a higher cognitive performance than those who did not. Eating such wholesome, real plant-based foods like vegetables and fruits can significantly benefit one’s overall health and wellbeing. The problem is focusing too strongly on overly simplistic labels attributed to foods. After all, there are many examples of refined carbohydrates, ice creams, sweetened beverages and fried foods that can all accurately be labeled “vegan.” A vegan, gluten-free muffin is still a muffin and should be regarded as such.
Vegan choices are present all over our campus as well. But as NYU continues to try to accommodate various diets, it too has succumbed to the labeling fallacy. Vegan cauliflower mash, for instance, with the “eat well” indication next to the title, contains cane sugar, carrageenan, vegetable oil and a colorant. All of these additional, questionable ingredients undermine the assumed nutritional value of the dish. Perhaps it would be more beneficial if NYU focused on the quality of the individual ingredients it uses, as opposed to the name of the diet it is trying to accommodate.
Many people choose to adopt veganism for ethical, environmental or religious purposes, which is understandable and respectable. However, even veganism may not be the most ethical diet, as plant harvesting often involves unfair treatment of laborers, many of whom are children. Pest control methods and farming practices have also been known to harm insects and animals. Hence, veganism does not automatically indicate that a certain food was produced in a cruelty-free manner.
Everyone’s body is different, and thus everyone’s diet should be personalized. The tribalistic culture surrounding nutrition today is misleading and can potentially be dangerous, as people blindly adhere to rigid guidelines or fall victim to the latest trend.
The best way to navigate the confusing and ever-changing maze of nutrition is to listen to one’s own body. Eating real food that nourishes the body, soul and mind is the healthiest way to live, and this approach does not rely on sensationalist labels to decide what is healthy or not. We all know our bodies the best, but the food industry continually tries to convince us otherwise. This is why we need to take initiative when it comes to health, never ceasing to explore and experiment in order to discover what works best for our own bodies and lifestyles. True nutrition is not the result of blindly adhering to a certain diet; it is, rather, a continuous and imperfect learning process that evolves and morphs just as we do, with the occasional ice cream sundae thrown in.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 11 print edition. Email Matigan King at [email protected]