Whether you are vegetarian, vegan, or know someone who is, you have probably heard one of these myths. It’s time to reveal the truth about these all too common misconceptions and hopefully put them to rest once and for all. Let the myth busting begin.
7 Vegetarian Diet Myths – Busted!
MYTH 1: Vegetarian and vegan diets don’t have enough protein
Vegetarians (those who don’t eat meat, poultry, or fish, but may include eggs and/or dairy foods) and vegans (those who don’t eat any animal products) can easily meet their protein needs by consuming a varied diet that provides enough energy (aka calories). Beans/legumes, nuts, seeds, soyfoods, and seitan are all good plant-based protein sources. Milk, cheese, yogurt, and eggs are good sources of protein for vegetarians who choose to include these foods. Whole grains and vegetables provide small amounts protein that also help in meeting overall requirements.
MYTH 2: Quinoa is a good source of protein for vegetarians
Quinoa is a healthy grain choice for vegetarians and omnivores (quinoa is technically a seed, but nutritionally it belongs in the grain group). Like other whole grains, quinoa contains some protein, but quinoa is NOT a high protein food. One cup of cooked quinoa has about 8 grams of protein. Check out the protein content in these foods for comparison:
– 1 cup cooked whole wheat pasta: 7 grams protein
– 1 cup cooked oats: 5 grams protein
– 1 cup cooked brown rice: 5 grams protein
– 1 cup of cooked lentils: 18 grams protein
-1/2 cup firm tofu: 10-20 grams protein (protein content varies a lot by type and brand)
-1/2 cup tempeh: 15.5 grams protein
-3 oz seitan: 22.5 grams protein
As you can see, the amount of protein in quinoa is more in line with other grains than it is with protein foods like lentils, soy, and seitan. No one is calling pasta a protein, so let’s stop calling quinoa one.
MYTH 3: Vegetarians need to carefully combine proteins at meals
Decades ago, vegetarians were instructed to carefully combine proteins at each meal to make “complete” proteins. Plant foods low in one of the essential amino acids would need to be eaten with a complementary food that was high in that amino acid to ensure protein needs were met. We now know it is unnecessary to combine foods in this way. As long as a variety of plant proteins are eaten throughout the day, there is no need to combine specific foods at each meal.
MYTH 4: Vegetarians need to eat soy and soy causes cancer
Although soyfoods are a good source of important nutrients like protein, iron, folate, potassium, and (in some forms) calcium, eating soy is not required on a vegetarian diet. There is also no reason to avoid soy for fear that it is unsafe – unless of course you have a soy allergy.
Soy contains compounds called isoflavones, which are known as phytoestrogens or plant estrogens. There has been some concern that the phytoestrogens in soy could potentially increase the risk of hormone-related cancers. However, most research studies have concluded that soy consumption does not raise the risk of breast cancer or prostate cancer, and may actually be beneficial.
So how much soy is ok to eat? Most adults can safely consume up to 3 servings of soyfoods per day. According to the American Cancer Society, this amount is safe for breast cancer patients as well.
MYTH 5: Vegetarian = healthy
Plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. But simply avoiding meat is not enough to ensure these health benefits. No one would argue that a diet full of potato chips, ice cream, and cookies is healthy, yet all these foods are vegetarian. Foods like chips and desserts can fit into an overall healthy diet, but they can’t be the basis of one – whether you are vegetarian or not. To reap the health benefits of a plant-based diet (or any diet for that matter), focus on eating a variety of nutritious, whole foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans/legumes, nuts, and seeds.
MYTH 6: Going vegetarian is a good way to lose weight
Although vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than meat eaters, becoming vegetarian or vegan does not guarantee weight loss. As discussed in the above myth, vegetarian junk foods abound, and just replacing unhealthy non-vegetarian items with equally unhealthy vegetarian items will neither improve health nor lead to weight loss. In fact, transitioning to a plant-based diet without paying attention to portion sizes or nutrient balance can lead to weight gain, especially if protein foods are replaced with carbohydrates. In addition, just like meat-eaters, vegetarians can struggle with emotional eating, binge eating, and other disordered eating behaviors that may contribute to weight gain. Switching to a plant-based diet without dealing with the underlying issues will not result in sustainable weight loss.
MYTH 7: Vegetarians and vegans need to take lots of supplements
A well-balanced, plant-based diet can provide all the necessary vitamins and minerals except for vitamin B12, which is not present in plant foods. Dairy products and eggs contain some vitamin B12, so vegetarians who consume these foods regularly may not need a supplement. However, vegans and vegetarians with low intakes of dairy and eggs will need to eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 (such as fortified soy milk, fortified cereals, and nutritional yeast) or take a supplement to prevent deficiency.
Other nutrients that require attention on a plant-based diet are iron, calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. With some effort and planning, it is possible to get enough of these nutrients by eating a healthy, varied diet and getting some sun exposure (one of the main sources of vitamin D). However, some vegetarians and vegans may still benefit from supplementing their diet. In particular, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, athletes, and those with chronic medical conditions should discuss the need for supplements with their doctor and/or dietitian.