Nutritional Pearls: Vegetarian Fast-Food Items are Not Necessarily Healthy

  • There is a “health halo” around vegetarian food. People seem to think that if it is vegetarian, it is good for them.

    I do not blame them because with all the media hype about this, that, and the other diet, it is easy to think that there is a healthy diet for everyone.

    We do know that eating more plants is better for you, but that does not mean you have to be vegan (no animal products whatsoever) or even lacto-ovo vegetarian (still eating dairy products and chicken eggs). The evidence shows that you can still eat protein from animals and have a terrifically healthy diet.

    The Research

    Scientists affiliated with Harvard University noted this and wondered if the vegetarian options available at fast-food restaurants were really better for you than the other options on the menu.1

    To assess the nutrition of vegetarian options, the authors utilized a database of nutrition information from restaurants, limiting their exploration to the years 2012 to 2018. They further limited their analysis to 36 fast food chain restaurants in the United States with the largest sales volumes.

    The authors analyzed the vegetarian options with respect to the total number of vegetarian main course options available at each restaurant chain, then considered the vegetarian options’ comparative nutrient density, caloric density, and the number of fats and sodium per serving. They further compared the vegetarian options to the non-vegetarian options within each chain as well as across restaurant chains.

    The Results

    Unfortunately, the authors found that fast food is still junk, even if it is vegetarian.

    On the one hand, vegetarian options at fast food restaurants tended to be lower in calories, saturated fats, and protein (after adjusting for the number of calories each serving contained) when compared with non-vegetarian options. Additionally, vegetarian items were “significantly” higher in sugar. More immediately, an example of a vegetarian meat alternative sandwich had 1080mg of sodium, while the beef-containing version of the same sandwich had 980mg sodium.

    What’s the Take Home?

    Do not be fooled into thinking that because something is “vegetarian” or even “vegan” it is necessarily better for you. Read the nutritional information as well as the ingredients to accurately evaluate whether a vegetarian option is better for you than the alternative. You may be surprised.


    1. Dunn CG, Soto MJ, Hua SV, et al. Availability and nutrient composition of vegetarian items at US fast-food restaurants. Acad Nutr Diet. 2021;121(7):1306-1311.e8. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2021.01.010


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    Timothy S. Harlan, MD, is a board-certified internist and professional chef who translates the Mediterranean diet for the American kitchen with familiar, healthy recipes. He is an assistant dean for clinical services, executive director of The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, associate professor of medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans, and faculty chair of the Certified Culinary Medicine Specialist program.