HEALTHY CHOICES WITH LIZA BAKER: Are “substitutions” a healthier option?


By Liza Baker

A few years ago, an article entitled “Healthy Food Substitutes for a Vegan or Vegetarian Lifestyle” was being shared widely in health coaching circles on social media. It linked to the website of a company that is “committed to making only the best plant-based foods and supplements.”

Every time I saw this link shared, my combination of passionate SOLE 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—no, definitely—nit-picking, but to me it sounds as though we are to substitute something healthy (but not a food—aha, 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? 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. In the interest of peace at our dinner table, 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. And 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. (And honestly, I’m still working on that sugar thing myself.)

It’s a matter of retraining the palate and rewiring the brain: the goal is not to satisfy the craving but to eliminate it.

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.

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 in fact the “right” 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, SOLE foods, find what you consider delicious, and forget about replacing things item-for-item on an omnivore’s plate.

If you are finding eating healthfully 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. “Zucchini Pasta with Marinara?” Not so much.

Stay tuned: over the next few months, we’ll take a look at some practical strategies for eliminating certain foods—not by substitution but rather by replacement with something more nourishing.

Ann Arbor’s Liza Baker, a WLAA health columnist, is a full-time Integrative Nutrition® health coach, cookbook author, part-time consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four. Her work is grounded in the belief that women can live happy, healthy lives, meeting all our obligations and honoring our own wildest, sweetest dreams. Her programs support women 40+ who feel that the only way out of their overscheduled lives involves a plane ticket, a wad of cash, and a change of identity. Liza coaches them in identifying and interrupting the patterns that contribute to overwhelm and in establishing simple, sustainable new habits that will help them not just survive but thrive in what—contrary to popular belief—can be the happiest, healthiest decades of our lives. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and exercise, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work at and join the (Sorta) Secret Sisterhood, her membership site for women over 40, at

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