Thinking about going vegan? While cutting out animal products altogether can be pretty tough, there are some established health benefits, says Maggie Michalczyk, RD, based in Chicago. “Being vegan eliminates a big source of saturated fat from the diet and (hopefully) adds more fibrous vegetables to the diet in its place. So there is a lower risk for things like high cholesterol and heart disease [on a plant-based diet],” she says.
That said, it’s important to note that going vegan doesn’t necessarily make you any healthier than a carnivore — nor is it a guarantee that you’ll immediately lose weight. If you’re ordering crispy tofu from your favorite Chinese takeout spot every night, you’re far worse off than a carnivore who’s having a lean piece of chicken breast for dinner. Many of the “vegan” products on the market contain highly processed ingredients or excess levels of sugar and and sodium, Michalczyk says.
Here are a few vegan products you need to watch out for — plus, some healthier alternatives.
Products like “no-chicken chicken nuggets” aren’t as healthy as they may seem. “Often, these substitutes are high in sodium,” Michalczyk says. Check the label: if something has 400 mg or more of sodium per serving, that’s a no-go.
You should also watch out for artificial ingredients, preservatives, and processed oils. Products “that contain a lot of preservatives are most likely are low in every other nutrient vegans need (protein, vitamin B12, minerals like iron, etc.),” says Michalczyk.
Look for packages that list beans or legumes as the first ingredient, she says. Beans and legumes are two healthy sources of pure plant protein, as well as quinoa and hemp. Quinoa is great because it contains the amino acid lysine, which makes it a complete plant-based protein, and hemp is packed with protein and fiber to fill you up.
For a healthier alternative, Michalczyk likes Beyond Meat grilled chicken strips ($27.86 for 9 oz.).
Generally speaking, deli meat is pretty bad for you. So it’s no surprise that vegan deli meat isn’t great for you, either. “Many meat-free alternatives are high in sodium and, in some cases, sugar,” Michalczyk says. “Looking for ones that contain 400mg of sodium or less is the better option.”
Michalczyk says she’s impressed with brands like Tofurky, which have “highly recognizable ingredients.” She also recommends Lightlife Chickpea & Red Pepper Veggie Deli Slices. “These are especially fun because they have veggie forward combinations like chickpea and red pepper and white bean and kale,” she says.
Tofurky Hickory Smoked Deli Slices, 5.5 0z.
Get this: in some cases, vegan desserts might be even worse for you than a traditional chocolate mousse or strawberry cheesecake. “When manufacturers take out butter and eggs, they often put in starches, gums, [and] pectins to achieve a similar consistency and texture,” Michalczyk says, and these can increase the sugar and calorie count.
Her top picks? Häagen-Dazs Non-Dairy Coconut Caramel Frozen Yogurt . “They have a very good variety of dairy-free flavors, which is different from other non-dairy ice cream makers,” she says.
Haagen-Dazs Non-Dairy Coconut Caramel Frozen Yogurt, $4.37 (available for in-store pickup at select locations)
“This creamy milk yogurt alternative can quench that yogurt craving for vegans, but it’s important to watch the portion size because it is very high in saturated fat, with basically no protein,” Michalczyk says. Plus, “more and more fast-casual restaurants are stocking coconut yogurt in to-go cups that are two to three times bigger than a typical portion size,” which means you can often overdo it on the calories without knowing it.
If you really want that coconut yogurt fix, stick with a 1/2 cup serving of coconut yogurt, Michalczyk says. “VEGA plant-based yogurt (cashew milk) is great. Plus it has 13 grams of plant protein, which is something you don’t see with the other coconut yogurts out there,” she says.
She also likes So Delicious Dairy-Free Coconut Milk Yogurt ($57.36/24 oz. pack of 6)
As MensHealth.com previously reported, contrary to popular belief, not all frozen meals are bad for you, and frozen vegan meals are no exception. It’s all about choosing the right ingredients, says Michalczyk. “Look for meals that contain whole grains, vegetables, and beans. Frozen foods are notorious for their high sodium content, but a lot of brands are taking big measures to reformulate its products with lower sodium,” she says. Always look for meals that have less than 600mg of sodium.
It’s also important to watch out for carbs, Michalczyk adds. “Since protein can be a nutrient of concern for vegans, it’s going to be important for meals to incorporate plant sources of protein and not just carbs,” she says. That’s why she loves Amy’s Brown Rice & Vegetables Bowl, which is light in sodium and contains 9g of protein.
Amy’s Brown Rice and Vegetables Bowl (light in sodium), $4.79
We hate to break it to you, but veggie chips can be just as bad for you as real chips. (They’re fried and topped with salt. Are you really surprised?)
Look for kale, beet, or carrot chips that don’t contain any extra seasonings, which may pack on sugar and calories, Michalczyk says. Better yet? Make them at home in your own oven or air fryer with olive oil and a little bit of salt to save tons of calories, sodium, and fat.
Rhythm Superfoods Beet Chips (pack of 4), $15.93
Made from wheat gluten, seitan isn’t inherently bad for you, but
“if the label of the seitan you are buying contains a lot of sugar (5-10g or more) and a high amount of salt (above 400mg), chances are there are other ingredients incorporated into it that you don’t need in your diet,” Michalczyk says. Instead, she recommends West Soy Seitan, which has under 400mg 0f sodium and only 2 mg of sugar.
West Soy Seitan (8 oz.), $4.02