Message from the RDs: 5 Common Misconceptions about Vegetarian Diets by Mark LeVine

As the health benefits of a plant-based lifestyle become more prevalent, vegetarian food options have been gaining popularity. In fact, according to a 2016 poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group, 37% of Americans eat at least one vegetarian meal per week.

As many people continue to reduce their intake of meat, many also continue to wonder: are vegetarian diets healthy? The answer is yes. If planned properly, vegetarian diets can be healthy, nutritious, and provide many health benefits in the prevention of certain diseases.

Many are still skeptical, and there are many myths that surround the health implications of a vegetarian diet. Here are 5 common ones.

It’s challenging for vegetarians to eat enough protein.

It is very easy to consume enough protein on a plant- based diet, as long as a person eats a variety of foods throughout the day. Almost all foods contain some protein, except alcohol, sugar, and fat.

Good sources of protein include: legumes (lentils, beans, peas), soyfoods (tofu, tempeh, edamame), seitan, meat substitutes (veggie burgers, plant-based crumbles), milk (dairy and non-dairy), nuts, seeds, grains (rice, millet, quinoa), bread, and vegetables.

To build strong bones, you must include dairy in your diet.

Dairy is not the only food that can help build and protect strong bones. A number of nutrients are needed for bone health, including calcium, vitamin D and protein. Each of these nutrients can be found in plant foods such as kale, broccoli, bok choy, calcium-set tofu and fortified soymilk.

Other options are calcium-fortified foods such as non-dairy milk, ready-to-eat cereals, orange juice and tofu. In addition to following a nutrient-rich diet, weight-bearing exercise such as yoga, running, brisk walking and strength training is an essential component for increasing bone strength.

Vegetarians don’t get enough iron.

It has actually been found that iron deficiency is no more common among vegetarians than among the general population. There are several reasons why it is easy for a vegetarian to get enough iron:

Many commonly eaten foods are high in iron: dark leafy greens (kale, collards, bok choy), beans, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, tahini, fortified cereals, etc.

There are a variety of fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C, which greatly increases absorption of iron. Adding a vitamin C-rich food, such as tomatoes, bell peppers, or citrus fruit to a meal increases iron absorption.

Vegetarian diets are not appropriate for pregnant women, children or athletes.

A well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can meet the nutrient needs of people from all stages of life, including pregnant and lactating women, children and athletes. It’s just about making sure you get the nutrients you need. There’s no reason they can’t get everything they need nutritionally from plant sources, all it takes is a little creativity in menu planning.

If something is labeled vegetarian, it must be healthy.

Just because a label says that it is “vegetarian”, doesn’t mean that it is actually healthy. Many so called “vegetarian” foods, notably veggie burgers, cereals, cookies, and chips, are probably loaded with sugar, sodium and oils. Vegetarians can easily rely on processed foods for convenience, but reading labels and looking for products that are low in saturated fat, sugar, and sodium can help determine if it is a healthier option.

Overall, sticking with real, whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts/seeds, beans, and whole grains are your best bet.