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Myths About the Vegetarian Diet

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Myths About the Vegetarian Diet

Vegetarian and plant-based diets have become increasingly popular. You only have to visit the nearest grocery store or stop in at a fast-food restaurant to see how many vegetarian and vegan options there are. Ipsos Retail Performance reports that, “Since 2004, the number of Americans turning plant-based is up to 9.7 million, growing from about 290,000 over a period of 15 years.” In 2020, The Good Food Institute noted that plant-based milk surpassed $2 billion and accounts for 40% of the total plant-based food market. Looks like plant-based eating is here to stay.

While some people choose to be vegetarian or vegan (definitions below), others are aiming to eat more plant-based foods and meals, but may still consume animal foods. There’s plenty of research to back up the benefits of eating plant-based foods, but at the same time, there’s a lot of confusion around them, as well. Let’s debunk a few of the most common myths surrounding plant-based eating.

Understanding the different types of vegetarian diets

Because it can get confusing, here are terms that you might come across and what they mean:

Vegan diet

This is entirely plant-based — no meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, or dairy. Most vegans avoid honey, as well.

Vegetarian diet

This is also a plant-based diet, but some people may also eat dairy and/or eggs.

Flexitarian diet

This is mostly a plant-based diet, but sometimes includes meat or fish.

Plant-based or plant-forward diet

A style of cooking and eating that focuses primarily on plant-based foods, but may include some animal foods, as well.

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Vegetarian and vegan myths and facts

Myth #1: You won’t get enough protein if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Fact: Many people believe that unless you eat animal foods, such as meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs, you can’t get enough protein. It’s true that these foods are rich sources of protein, but they’re not the only sources. Many plant-based foods, such as beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds, grains, and plant-based milks supply plenty of protein to meet your dietary needs (minus the saturated fat, too!). Even some vegetables contain protein.

Myth #2: A vegetarian eating plan is always a healthy eating plan.

Fact: We tend to think of vegetarian eating plans as being super-healthy, brimming with fruits, vegetables, and beans. The reality, though, is that many foods that are considered vegetarian (meaning, they may contain eggs and/or dairy foods) or vegan (they contain no animal products) are not that healthy. For example, some cookies, potato chips, French fries, sweetened cereals, nondairy “ice cream,” and certain veggie burgers may be high in added sugars, saturated fat, sodium, and/or chemical additives. While there are healthier options, it’s important to read the Nutrition Facts label and ingredient lists before assuming a vegetarian or vegan food is a “health” food.

Myth #3: People with diabetes shouldn’t follow a vegetarian or vegan eating plan.

Fact: First, there is a lot of research that plant-based diets are associated with low rates of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, and some types of cancer. Second, while some plant-based foods tend to be higher in carb than animal foods (think whole grains, beans, fruits, starchy vegetables), with a little bit of planning and balance, you CAN go vegetarian or even vegan! The key is to be sure to get enough protein and include a protein at each of your meals. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that one can get enough protein by eating a variety of plant-based foods. The American Diabetes Association also supports a plant-based eating pattern as an option for those with type 2 diabetes.

Myth #4: You can’t get enough calcium or iron from a plant-based diet.

Fact: Yes, dairy foods, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese are great sources of calcium, but you can get calcium from plenty of plant foods including broccoli, kale, spinach, bok choy, Swiss chard, beans, lentils, almonds, chia and flaxseeds, and some grains, including amaranth and teff. Soy foods are generally high in calcium, too, including soy milk, edamame, tofu, tempeh, and natto. Other types of plant-based milks may be fortified with calcium, as well. It’s important to make sure you get enough vitamin D if you are not consuming dairy foods; if you think you’re not getting enough calcium and/or vitamin D, speak with a registered dietitian or your health care provider about taking a supplement.

When it comes to iron, research indicates that vegetarians who eat a varied and well-balanced diet are not at any greater risk of iron deficiency anemia, according to a study published in 2013 in The Medical Journal of Australia. Other studies indicate that iron deficiency anemia is not necessarily any more common than people consuming animal foods, although vegans tend to have lower iron stores. Of course, variety is key when it comes to getting enough iron. Whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, dried fruit, iron-fortified cereals, and leafy green vegetables can supply adequate iron. And eating these foods with a food rich in vitamin C helps to enhance iron absorption. As with calcium and vitamin D, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough iron and talk with your health care team if you have questions or concerns.

Myth #5: It’s hard to figure out how to eat plant-based meals.

Fact: Making any kind of dietary change isn’t easy, whether it’s cutting back on carbs, eliminating gluten, or … eating more plant-based meals. As with most change, it can help to start small. One way to do this is to research plant-based recipes and meal ideas that you think you and your family might like (it’s OK to shy away from tofu, although you might just like it!). “Experiment with a meatless meal once a week,” says the American Heart Association. Then, add more days as you get used to it. The “Meatless Monday” campaign is a great way to ease into plant-based eating. Their website provides a number of recipes and you can search by meal and ingredients to find appealing recipes.

When you make changes to your eating pattern, you may notice an impact on your diabetes. Checking your blood sugars regularly will help you see how plant-based foods and meals affect your blood sugars. And because plant-based eating can sometimes lead to weight loss, you may notice lower blood sugars. If you do notice that your blood sugars are higher or lower than usual, let your provider or diabetes educator know. You may need a change in your diabetes medication.

Want to learn more about plant-based eating? Read “Vegetarian and Vegan Type 1 Diabetes” and “Adopting a Vegetarian Meal Plan.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter, DiabeticConnect.com, and CDiabetes.com

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