"Having all these foods around is both good and bad," says Hayley Miller, registered dietitian at Hornstein, Platt & Associates. "It's great for people following diets to have more options, but I think the availability of these options could encourage people to eat products that we don't know enough about, health-wise."
Nutritionists agree that cutting out gluten or animal by-products can be a sensible and healthy decision - especially for those suffering from health issues - but the widespread adoption of these diets and the subsequent boom of alternative products may also lead adherents to make misinformed decisions.
Like the fat-free and sugar-free foods of generations past, gluten-free and cruelty-free foods seductively suggest that the consumer is getting something for nothing. This is not the case, says Stefankiewicz. "If they're not doing the diets because they have to, as in the case of celiacs, people sometimes go gluten-free to lose weight - and I've seen vegans do this as well - but they are sometimes surprised when they don't."
There are, after all, plenty of cookies, doughnuts, and french fries that can still fit the bill, thanks to modern kitchen science, and no matter what's not in them, these are usually calorie- and fat-dense foods. What's more, some gluten-free products are more caloric and less nutritious than their counterparts. Breads and pastas rich in tapioca, potato, and rice starches, for instance, often have less protein, more fat, and a higher glycemic index - not to mention fewer vitamins and minerals - than wheat-based bread and pasta.
Vegan eaters opting for too many fake cheeseburgers might be consuming too many calories as well, and there's also a risk of too much sodium or MSG, says Christina Ushler, registered dietitian and certified health coach at Rittenhouse Women's Wellness Center.
Beyond weight maintenance, vegan and gluten-free products are concerning to health professionals for other reasons as well - namely, what's in them. Sure, there's no wheat or eggs in those "healthy" cookies, but there may be substances in the ingredient list that are anything but whole or natural. Soy lecithin and cellulose gum are some of the most common chemistry-lab additives found in gluten-free foods - these are commonly considered acceptable, but no one would call them healthy per se.
By the same token, there are plenty of suspect ingredients in vegan foods. "Concentrated soy and soy isolates found in fake meat products could be harmful - you are basically consuming something your body doesn't recognize as food," Ushler says. (Tofu is not on the list to avoid, as it's closer to its original form - not as processed.)
Faux cheese, too, should be taken in small quantities. "We know that they have to put a stabilizing gum into the dairy-free cheese to make it melt, and that can sometimes lead to constipation and other gastrointestinal issues," Miller says. "And what does that do to our bodies over time?"
And then there's the issue of genetically modified crops (GMOs), among which soy is king. As the long-term health ramifications of consuming GMOs are still not known, nutritionists warn against relying on prepackaged soy-based proteins as a major dietary staple. That includes soy deli slices, sausages, and burgers.
The bottom line is that packaged foods are processed foods, as are many of the mass-produced dishes available at chain restaurants. When in doubt, Ushler and Miller say to read the ingredient list on the packaging or available nutritional information posted in the restaurant. If it doesn't sound like food, it might be cause to hesitate.
In an ideal world, nutrition experts say, people giving up entire categories of food are also embracing a whole-foods lifestyle, consuming fresh produce, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, including healthy fats from olives and avocados, which contain soluble vitamins and minerals. "With any diet you need to understand nutrition and health and really research what you're getting into before you commit to it," Miller says.
However, the reality is that busy working people tend to need shortcuts, Stefankiewicz says. "I take it for granted that I can go out and grab a salad for lunch. But people following these diets can't do that all the time. It's very difficult to be vegan or gluten-free."
Balance, as ever, is the key. Ushler is pleased that there are so many more alternatives now for her clients, but she encourages moderation in using them. "It's fine to have a soy burger once in a while or a vegan cookie, but it's also important to be knowledgeable and know what you're really eating."
The Ultimate Winter Couscous (not gluten-free)
Makes 4 servings
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch chunks
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch chunks
8 small shallots, peeled
2 cinnamon sticks
4 star anise
3 bay leaves
5 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon hot paprika
1/4 teaspoon chile flakes
21/3 cups cubed butternut squash (from a 10-ounce squash) or pumpkin
1/2 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped
1 cup chickpeas (canned or freshly cooked)
11/2 cups chickpea cooking liquid and/or water
1 cup couscous
Large pinch saffron
1 cup boiling vegetable stock
2 tablespoons harissa
1 ounce preserved lemon, finely chopped
2 cups cilantro leaves
1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Place the carrots, parsnips, and shallots in a large ovenproof dish. Add the cinnamon sticks, star anise, bay leaves, 4 tablespoons of the oil, ¾ teaspoon salt, and all the other spices and mix well. Place in the oven and cook for 15 minutes.
2. Add the squash, stir, and return to the oven. Continue cooking for about 35 minutes, by which time the vegetables should have softened while retaining a bite. Now add the dried apricots and the chickpeas with their cooking liquid and/or water. Return to the oven and cook for a further 10 minutes, or until hot.
3. About 15 minutes before the vegetables are ready, put the couscous in a large heatproof bowl with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, the saffron, and ½ teaspoon salt. Pour the boiling stock over the couscous. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave for about 10 minutes. Then fluff up the couscous with a fork. Cover again and leave somewhere warm.
4. To serve, spoon couscous into a deep plate or bowl. Stir the harissa and preserved lemon into the vegetables; taste and add salt if needed. Spoon the vegetables onto the center of the couscous. Finish with plenty of cilantro leaves.
- Adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi
Note: To make this recipe gluten-free, substitute gluten-free couscous or use cooked quinoa in place of the couscous and omit the boiling stock.
Per serving: 425 calories; 10 grams protein; 76 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams sugar; 20 grams fat; 3 milligrams cholesterol; 127 milligrams sodium; 10 grams dietary fiber.
Quinoa Collard Wraps with Miso-Carrot Spread (vegan and gluten-free)
Makes 4 servings
For the miso-carrot spread:
1 cup coarsely chopped carrots
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
1 small shallot, chopped
1 tablespoon white or yellow miso
1/2 teaspoon agave nectar, or to taste
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
For the quinoa collard wraps:
8 large collard green leaves
2 cups cooked quinoa
1 tablespoon tahini
Freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice, as needed
2 cups grated raw beets
1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and smashed with a fork
1 cup sprouts, such as pea sprouts or broccoli sprouts
1. To make the spread, in the bowl of a food processor or blender, combine the carrots, ginger, shallot, miso, agave nectar and vinegar, and process until fairly smooth, about 1-2 minutes. It will still have a somewhat chunky texture from the carrots. With the motor running, drizzle in the sesame oil and salt and process until thoroughly combined. Set aside.
2. Cut the white stalk from the end of the collard green leaves and discard. Rinse the leaves with warm water to bring them to room temperature. Lay them on a dish towel and use a paring knife to shave down the stalk, making it the same thickness as the rest of the leaf. This will make it easier to roll.
3. In a bowl, stir together the cooked quinoa and tahini, adding a bit of lemon juice if necessary so that the ingredients are evenly distributed.
4. On your work surface, arrange two of the collard green leaves head to foot, overlapping them halfway and creating a circular shape (this gives you more surface area), Spread a generous amount of the miso-carrot spread down the middle, then layer a quarter each of the quinoa, beets, avocado, and sprouts onto the leaves. Fold over each end, tuck one side under and roll like a burrito. Serve immediately, or wrap in plastic wrap and store in the fridge for up to 2 days.
- Adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen by Sara Forte
Per serving: 520 calories; 17 grams protein; 71 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams sugar; 24 grams fat; no cholesterol; 383 milligrams sodium; 13 grams dietary fiber.
Dairy-Free Lemon Crèmes With Oat-Thyme Crumble (vegan, gluten-free)
Makes 4 servings
1 12.3 ounce package extra-firm silken tofu
2 tablespoons fine or medium ground cornmeal
Pinch of sea salt
1/3 cup agave nectar, or to taste
Grated zest of lemon or Meyer lemon
3 tablespoons of lemon or Meyer lemon juice
For the oat crumble
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup natural cane sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled gluten-free oats
1/4 cup chopped raw almonds
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1. Wrap the tofu in a few layers of paper towels and set aside to drain for 10 minutes. In a food processor or in a bowl using a whisk, blend the tofu, cornmeal, salt, agave nectar, and lemon zest and juice until completely smooth, about one minute if using a food processor. Divide the mixture among four small bowls and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. This can be done up to a day in advance.
2. Preheat the oven to 350°F. To make the oat crumble, melt the coconut oil until liquid in a small saucepan or in the microwave. In a bowl, stir together the coconut oil, vanilla, sugar and salt. Add the oats and almonds and stir to coat everything evenly. Rub half of the thyme leaves between your fingers to release their fragrance and stir them in. Spread the mixture on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until dry and just toasted, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
3. Once the crèmes are chilled, sprinkle the cooled crumble on top, garnish with the remaining thyme, and serve.
- Adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen by Sara Forte
Per serving: 318 calories; 10 grams protein; 42 grams carbohydrates; 30 grams sugar; 14 grams fat; no cholesterol; 132 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.