The Substitute

Scrolling through my Facebook feed, which is daily flooded with posts by fellow health coaches, I came across more than one share of a post titled “Healthy Food Substitutes for a Vegan or Vegetarian Lifestyle.” It linked to the website of a company that is “committed to making only the best plant-based foods and supplements.”

My combination of passionate real foodie and insatiable inner editor shuddered. Repeatedly.

Maybe it was the word “make” used in reference to food? In my mind, real food (as opposed to what Marion Nestle calls “UFOs” – unidentified food-like objects) is “cooked” by familiar, loving hands in a home kitchen, not “made” by a faceless company.

But maybe it was the word “substitute?” Consider the title of the article: “Healthy Food Substitutes for a Vegan or Vegetarian Lifestyle.” I’m probably nit-picking, but to me it sounds as though we are to substitute something healthy (but not a food – ah, maybe it’s the supplement angle?) for food to achieve a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle. My inner editor made a note to self: maybe “Substituting Healthful Plant-based Foods for Animal Products for a Vegan or Vegetarian Lifestyle?”

The article begins, “Finding food substitutes is a part of any pursuit of a healthier life….” Really? And now I’m done nit-picking.

This is why I struggle with the word “substitution” when talking about food, particularly when someone is seriously considering changing their diet: finding a substitute for a food is reminiscent of replacing Coke with Diet Coke, meat with meat analogs, whole wheat with hyper-processed gluten-free grains and starches. Is the substitution really more healthful? Of course, if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, taking out the gluten is a must – but is replacing it with refined ingredients the answer? And can you really pronounce and recognize every single ingredient in those faux chicken nuggets and breakfast sausages? And Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, refers to some interesting studies that indicate that diet sodas may actually be worse for us (and more fattening in the long run) than regular sodas.

Full disclosure: I have experimented with vegetarianism, even flirted with veganism. But I love cheese too much to be a vegan, and I feel much better when I incorporate small amounts of animal products in my diet. (Stay tuned for more discussion of animal products.) We do eat vegetarian meals a few times a week and occasionally a vegan one.

This is all to say, I have tried those lifestyles, and through trial and error, I have found that being more omnivorous and eating locally and seasonally is the perfect mix for me. But I have the utmost respect for those who live a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle – at least for those who aren’t “junk food vegetarians.” (Did you know Oreos are vegan?)

I’ve also struggled with sugar addiction and toyed with being gluten-free, and it’s in those experiments that I came to the conclusion that substitution is not the answer.

In my opinion, it’s not a feasible strategy for changing one’s diet. Why? Because if you crave sugar and replace it with artificial sweetener, not only are you putting highly processed and potentially harmful substances into your system, you are not eliminating the craving – you are simply feeding it with a less healthful option, tricking the mind into thinking that it’s eating what the body has learned to desire.

To me, it’s a matter of retraining the palate and rewiring the brain: the goal is not to satisfy the craving but to eliminate it. (More on sugar and cravings in a later post.)

Likewise gluten: I have learned that no gluten-free version of a traditionally gluten-ful (?) baked good is ever going to satisfy me. You may well disagree, and that’s your right, but 99% of the time, I would much rather pass on bread than eat a gluten-free version. Again – for me, it’s a matter of eliminating something rather than trying to find a substitute. I do admit to partial failure on going gluten-free: I will eat bread on occasion when it’s a really good homemade or artisanal loaf; otherwise, I don’t think it’s worth it – I have little trouble saying no to sandwiches, wraps, pasta, pastries.

But back to the vegan/vegetarian question. To my mind, believing that one needs to substitute something for animal products just lends credence to the idea that the omnivorous diet is the “correct” one. To really change our eating/lifestyle, there needs to be a paradigm shift: I’m not replacing meat with beans – I’m eating beans because they are good for me; I’m not replacing cow’s milk with almond milk – I’m drinking almond milk because it’s delicious and nutritious; etc. Start with whole foods, learn which of these foods are nutritious (most of them), find what you consider delicious, and forget about replacing things item-for-item on an omnivore’s plate.

So if you are finding eating healthier difficult or you are considering changing your diet and can’t seem to do it, try changing your approach: instead of finding a substitute for something you want to eliminate, find something delicious and healthful and just eat it – not because it’s a substitute, but precisely because it’s delicious and healthful. Splitting hairs? Maybe, but try it!

I think my teenage daughter unwittingly nailed it as she browsed a vegan cookbook full of food porn-quality pictures: “No! Why? Why do you have to call it ‘Zucchini Pasta with Marinara?’ Zucchini is not pasta, and it never will be, even if you cut it into pasta shapes. Want to eat it? Fine, just don’t call it pasta!” Yes – to me, “Zucchini Ribbons with Marinara” sounds delicious. “Zuchinni Pasta with Marinara?” Not so much.

Drop me a comment about your experiences with changing your diet and what you think about substitutions – I’d love to hear from you!


  1. I really like this. It brings to light the subtle difference between actual change and just replacing one thing for another and calling it good. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: My take on going gluten-free | Simply: Health Coaching

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