Updated: Oct 3, 2019
So, you have adopted a vegan lifestyle and you are wondering how to make your meals EVEN healthier! Maybe you went vegan for ethical reasons, and are now realising that (although morally great) vegan food doesn’t always = healthy food. I’d argue that, in general, it is still healthier than the non-vegan alternatives, but I can’t deny that it is entirely possible to eat very unhealthily as a vegan.
I had a similar realisation about a month after I went vegan for ethical reasons. As I’ve spoken a bit about on the “About Me” section of the Herbivore Health website, I kind of assumed my health might take a bit of a hit when I became an ethical vegan. I was very pleasantly surprised to find out I was wrong (and trust me, I am not usually pleased to find out I’m wrong!). I now truly believe that a whole food plant based diet, which excludes all animal based foods and incorporates whole plant foods such as grains, legumes, vegetables and fruit is the healthiest diet for humans.
“That’s all well and good”, I hear you say, “but I’m still fairly new to this and I have been substituting vegan versions of my favourite animal foods!” That, my dears, is the purpose of this post. Jonny and I eat whole food plant based probably 95% of the time (we do enjoy the occasional vegan burger) so we have some top tips for healthy food swaps that will help you clean up your vegan diet and optimise your healthy eating!
1. Frozen bananas as “nicecream” instead of vegan ice cream
Ok, so this one is only first so that I can big up our recipe of the week (see link here)! But seriously, for many of us the lack of sweet treats can be a major factor in not sticking to healthy diets, but this thankfully is a delicious (and cheap) way to treat yourself without messing up your health and fitness goals! I’m extremely grateful that vegan ice cream exists, but it isn’t exactly healthy. Making this swap means that you don’t feel like you are missing out on one of your favourite foods while still working towards your goals! Win, win!
2. Black bean patties instead of vegan burgers
We all love the convenience of just popping a vegan burger in the oven and it being ready in 15-20 minutes, but I think we often forget that, just because it is vegan, does not mean it is healthy! Vegan burgers are often heavily processed and high in unhealthy fats. A healthy alternative is to batch cook your own bean burgers (recipe to follow soon!) and freeze them. You can then cook them when you want, without worrying about adverse effects on your health! And instead of reaching for the vegan cheese, why not put sliced avocado on your bean burger in a whole wheat bun?! Just as delicious and satisfying without the negative effects on your health!
3. Red split lentils instead of soy mince
When I went vegan I was thrilled to learn that soy mince makes a delicious bolognaise. We do still have soy mince occasionally, and many soy mince brands aren’t terrible for you, but it is still a heavily processed food and often contains a lot of salt. We therefore try to avoid using it in most of our cooking and instead have found that a good alternative is to use red split lentils instead of the soy mince as a whole food, healthy alternative. The lentils will soak up the flavour of the sauce you are cooking them in and provide a low fat, protein rich meal!
4. Hummus instead of margarine
We love hummus. LOVE it. Shop bought hummus does contain some oil and salt, and isn’t exactly a whole food, but it still has more nutritional value than margarine. We often make our own hummus without oil or salt (recipe to come), but it is fine if you want to use shop bought (just remember to keep in mind that it is quite calorific). We love to use hummus on our toast, baked potatoes and on our bean burgers – basically we love any excuse to eat hummus! If you find margarine difficult to give up, like Jonny did, this is a delicious alternative!
5. Tofu based sauces instead of vegan mayonnaise
I am thrilled that vegan mayonnaise exists, but again it has very little in the way of nutritional value and just adds empty calories to your meal. One of my favourite things to do lately is blend up silken tofu in a food processor and add in other components for a sauce (the pesto work particularly well as did the sour cream). Have a play about with ingredients and flavours to see what works for you. Not only does this mean you still get to enjoy sauces with your food, but the tofu adds a protein kick to your meal!
6. Air popped popcorn instead of crisps
I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, but crisps and salty popcorn were two of my weaknesses. I don’t really eat them much anymore – over time my taste buds have changed and now crisps just taste oily to me – but I replaced them with air popped popcorn. You need an air popper to be able to make this, but it provides a low calorie snack that can satisfy your cravings! I don’t particularly like that taste of it plain, but I do like putting nutritional yeast on (using a light mist from a water sprayer to get it to stick) – why don’t you experiment to find your favourite flavour!
7. Whole wheat or lentil pasta instead of white pasta
Whole grains are good for you, so despite that fact that pasta is processed, if you switch from white pasta to whole grain, you will be getting much more nutritional value from your meal. A common misconception about healthy eating is that it is all about what you DON’T eat, when in fact what you DO eat is extremely important. If you make sure you are taking every opportunity to pack in as much goodness to your diet as possible, you will be promoting your overall health and will help support your fitness goals.
8. Tea or infused water instead of fizzy drinks/alcohol
This is one I am still working on. I don’t tend to drink fizzy drinks and am cutting back on the alcohol, but I want to go further (both alcohol and fizzy drinks are not only empty calories but are actively bad for your health). One thing that I have been doing is drinking my favourite tea (peppermint and liquorice) when we are sitting down watching a film at the weekend rather than having a glass of wine. I think a lot of the time it is habit that has us reaching for the wine/beer. Breaking that habit and replacing it with a healthy alternative is a great way of promoting your health. Another thing I like to do is put a bottle of water in the fridge and add fresh mint leaves and cucumber to give it a bit of extra flavour and nutrient boost!
These are just some ideas of ways to improve your nutrition and overall heath by simply swapping out foods rather than changing your habits completely. You don’t have to do them all at once, but taking these small steps will help support your health and fitness goals and are still delicious ways to enjoy your food!