Just how healthy are vegetarian and vegan fast food options?

Just because something is vegetarian doesn’t make it healthy [Photo: Getty]
Just because something is vegetarian doesn’t make it healthy [Photo: Getty]

McDonalds has finally introduced a vegetarian option to its Happy Meal range, the first ever in the company’s 63-year history.

Yep, vegetarian children can now chow down on a red pesto goujon tortilla wrap garnished with tomato ketchup and shredded lettuce. Nice!

The goujon is made from a mixture of yellow split peas, tomato, arborio rice and sundried tomato pesto, all covered in breadcrumbs.

In fact, the new menu addition is almost entirely vegan – all its ingredients are vegan friendly and dairy free, but the tortilla passes through the same toaster as milk-containing burger buns.

And McDonalds aren’t the only fast-food chain expanding their options for non-meat eaters, Greggs has now officially launched a vegan sausage roll, made with butter-free pastry and a ‘bespoke’ Quorn filling.

While it’s undoubtedly great news that non-meat snackers are being offered more choice, its important to understand that just because fast food is vegetarian or vegan doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthier.

Of course, plant and vegetable-based diets have been associated with many health benefits, including a reduced risk of obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

So it’s understandable to assume that vegetarian and vegan fast food, might be more nutritionally beneficial and less calorific that their meat alternatives, but the truth is that though that might be the case in many examples it’s not a principle that applies universally.

“Although in general a vegetarian diet can be healthy and low in saturated fat and higher in fibre, this does not mean that all vegetarian food is healthy,” explains Helen Drake, nutritional therapist at Cytoplan.

“The issue with vegetarian fast food is that it can often be high in refined grains and therefore sugar, so often has a higher fined carbohydrate content, this has implication to blood sugar regulation which is a driver of weight gain and insulin resistance,” she continues.

Dietician, Ro Huntriss, the expert behind the V Plan, a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle and diet plan says that though people often assume vegetarian options contain less calories in fact the can often be the same if not higher than a meat-based meal.

The number of calories a vegetarian or vegan fast food option might contain will often come down how it is prepared (for example fried rather than grilled) and what has been added to it.

For example veggie fast food that has been deep-fried, covered in cheese or creamy sauces and those that come with rice, wraps or bread may not be the healthiest options.

“Vegetarian products can be lower in saturated fat but often the salt levels are similar and dependent on what is added to the vegetarian product, calories can be the same if not higher than a meat-based meal,” Ro Huntriss explains.

The fact is that just because a food is vegetarian or vegan doesn’t automatically make it a better nutritional choice.

Case in point the humble french fry, which is veggie, but not necessarily the healthiest option to be heaping on your plate.

“Remember too that cookies, ice cream and sugary drinks are vegetarian, but it doesn’t mean they are healthy,” Ro adds.

Not all vegetarian fast food is created equally [Photo: Getty]
Not all vegetarian fast food is created equally [Photo: Getty]

So how do the new fast-food additions stack up nutritionally?

Greggs new vegan sausage roll contains 19g of fat, 9g of which saturates it also contains 311.08 kcal per roll.

Their famous meat version on the other hand contains 22g of fat, 13g of which saturates and at 329 kcals it’s only slightly more calorific.

When it comes to McDonalds the new veggie happy meal that contains just 209 kcals, 4.8 g of fat of which just 1g is saturated.

Similarly the four chicken nuggets in a meat-eaters happy meal contain 173 kcals, 8.9 grams of fat, of which 1.2g are saturated.

Surprisingly, the McDonald’s Big Mac has fewer calories and less sodium than both the company’s veggie burger options, so it definitely pays to do your research if you are choosing vegetarian options for calorie-counting reasons.

“Many fast food outlets, such as McDonalds, provide their nutritional information online, check it out as you may be surprised at what you find,” Ro says.

When it comes to choosing healthy vegan fast food options nutritionist Rick Hay recommends looking for those containing plenty of vegetables.

“I like the vegan or veggie meals that are more natural – the ones that use chickpeas, beans and lentils or tofu or tempeh as a base,” he says.

“Veggie fast food helps the digestive process as it tends to be higher in fibre and this too can help to regulate blood sugar levels. Also veggie food often delivers more nutrient density and variety to the diet which is great for immune function and cardio vascular health,” he adds.

Experts also advise steering clear of veggie/vegan options smothered in creamy or buttery sauces, which actually makes good health sense, whether you’re a meat-eater or not.

Of course as Ro points out people don’t always make their food choices for health reasons.

“We should also remember that people choose vegetarian options for other reasons aside from health, to include ethical and environmental reasons, so a veggie burger would always win over a beef burger when considering things from this perspective.”

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