A recent article on BonAppetit.com, “I’m Sick of People Thinking Vegan Food is Healthy,” takes issue with the mock cheeses and meats in vegan restaurants that are meant to be palate-pleasers and imitative artistry. The author, Jason Kessler, points out that these items often make liberal use of oils, refined grains, and other less-virtuous ingredients which, while still adhering to the vegan-means-plant-based-and-cruelty-free precept, provide little to no nutritional value.
The article itself isn’t inherently condemning of vegan diets, and it’s not a bad reminder of what’s (not) healthy, but it does conflate a few approaches. The faux meats and cheeses offered in vegan restaurants (and sold in traditionally healthier food stores like Whole Foods) may be nutritionally questionable, but they do serve a purpose. In fact, they’re generally there to serve a few purposes: as accommodation for non-vegans dining, perhaps, with vegan friends; as comfort and a reasonable backslide for people just transitioning to a vegan diet; and as an occasional gleeful indulgence for established vegans looking for a decadent treat.
In other words, if you’re eating out at a vegan restaurant to be healthy, then by all means, order something healthy. (Where healthy means: plant stuff that is served in a state closest to whole.) Vegan restaurants tend to offer a broader range of plant-based whole food meals than other restaurants, and they can be a great place to experience foods you may have been otherwise unfamiliar with. Many people are still unfamiliar with quinoa, for example, or how to prepare kale at home. Vegan menus often offer variations on these ingredients that may be less superficially gratifying but far more nutritionally rewarding than that heaping bowl of mac-and-quasi-cheese.
If, however, you already follow a generally healthy vegan lifestyle, buffalo-style seitan and other junk food on a vegan restaurant menu can be a welcome splurge, and eating this kind of food once in a while probably does very little long-term damage to one’s health, while providing the vegan with a “cheat” option that’s still cruelty-free. And in the end, that once-in-a-while indulgence may help vegans stay vegan longer, which is a strategic win for health: there is considerable research to support a good many health benefits to a long-term vegan diet that’s based on (not exclusively limited to, but based on) whole-foods-style plant-centric eating.
So while the faux meats and pseudo-cheese on the vegan restaurant menu may not be healthy, per se, as occasional treats they’re not completely inconsistent with a healthy lifestyle.
Whatever your diet, your eating choices should be all about finding a balance that keeps you motivated for long-term results. At least that’s what I think. Which is why I splurged on a nachos plate and a BLT burger last week during my semi-annual visit to Chicago Diner, and I felt just fine about it the next day as I went right back to munching on super-nutritious (and still delicious) raw food. My dietary balance is heavily skewed toward raw vegan superfoods, but just happens to include a serving of veggie bacon now and then.