Plant-based diets have been associated with many health benefits, including a reduced risk of obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. So it might naturally follow that vegetarian fast food, which is inherently plant-based, would be more nutritionally appealing than its traditional relatives.
The truth is that, although the notion works in many cases, it’s not a guiding food principle you can count on.
“Just because a restaurant or fast food menu item says it’s vegetarian or vegan, it doesn’t mean that it’s automatically ‘healthy.’ It can have just as much, if not more, calories, saturated fat and sodium as non-vegetarian options,” said Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian and author of “Plant-Powered for Life.”
It makes sense. After all, ingredients contribute calories, whether plant-based or not. And while fiber and protein can be higher in vegetarian meals, thanks to plentiful amounts of beans, vegetables and whole grains, so can things such as saturated fat and sodium, depending on how the food is prepared (fried vs. grilled, for example) and the amount of cheese and condiments a meal contains.
“Vegetarian and vegan food options that are deep-fried, covered in cheese or creamy sauces and piled over huge portions of fries, rice, wraps or breads may not be the healthiest option on the menu,” Palmer said.
For example, Veggie Grill’s Fala-Full sandwich — two pitas filled with falafel, hummus, pepperoncini and schug and tzatziki sauces, with a side of tabbouleh — has 1,100 calories, 10 grams of saturated fat and more than a day’s worth of sodium (2,380 milligrams). That’s more than double the calories, 2½ times the sodium and the same amount of saturated fat as a McDonald’s Big Mac. (A Big Mac has 540 calories, 950 milligrams of sodium and 10 grams of saturated fat).
On the other hand, the Veggie Grill’s grilled “chickin’ ” sandwich made with soybean, wheat and pea-based protein has only 530 calories, 900 milligrams of sodium and 3 grams of saturated fat.