Vegetarian meals are gaining in popularity — even among regular meat-eaters. As more and more individuals reduce their meat intake, one essential question remains: Are vegetarian and vegan diets healthy? The answer is yes. If appropriately planned, vegetarian or vegan diets can be healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.
But many myths still surround the health implications of a vegetarian diet. Learn the facts when it comes to plant-based diets.
Myth #1: Vegetarians and Vegans Have a Hard Time Getting Enough Protein
As meat has become synonymous with protein, many consumers struggle to identify non-meat sources of this dietary building block. But adequate protein needs easily are attained through a well-planned diet. And plant-based protein typically contains more fiber and less saturated fat, factors that are cornerstones of a heart-healthy diet. There are many versatile plant-based sources of protein that fit into a healthy eating plan: legumes (beans, lentils, peas and peanuts), soy products, whole grains, nuts, seeds and (for lacto-ovo vegetarians) low-fat or fat-free dairy and eggs.
Vegans should consume more protein than their meat- and dairy-eating counterparts. That's because protein from whole grains and legumes has lower digestibility than animal protein. Protein from plant foods is encased in plant cell walls, which are hard to penetrate and digest. For familiar, high-protein vegan options, try bean burritos, tofu and vegetable stir-fries, or lentil chili.
Myth #2: 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. Some vegetables such as spinach and rhubarb are good sources of calcium, but they also are high in oxalates, which decrease calcium absorption, so include a wide variety of other leafy green vegetables more often.
If you are forgoing dairy, ensure that you get the recommended dietary allowance of calcium by spreading your green vegetable intake throughout the day and choosing 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.
Myth #3: Eating Soy Increases Risk of Breast Cancer
For vegans and vegetarians, incorporating soy in the diet is an easy way to meet both protein and calcium requirements. Despite news reports to the contrary, there is no proven soy-cancer link. There is evidence that girls who consume soy in childhood and adolescence have a lower lifetime risk for breast cancer; soy in adulthood doesn't appear to have that effect. No matter your diet preference, variety is key. Swapping animal-based protein for soy is a good way to add variety to your meals. Aim for less processed sources such as tempeh, edamame and tofu.
Myth #4: 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. Pregnant women, for example, need more iron; expectant mothers should eat plenty of iron-rich foods and include a source of vitamin C to help increase absorption (iron is not absorbed well from plant-based sources). Try these iron and vitamin C combinations: beans and salsa, broccoli and tofu, black-eyed peas and collard greens.
For infants, children and adolescents, a vegetarian diet can promote normal growth. As with adults, vegan children may have slightly higher protein needs because of how the body digests plant protein. However, these needs typically can be fulfilled if the diet provides enough calories and diversity of foods.
And while most competitive athletes require increased energy, protein and nutrient needs for optimal performance, there's no reason they can't get everything they need nutritionally from plant sources. All it takes is a little diligence in menu planning.
Myth #5: Just Because Something Is Vegetarian Means It Is Healthy
The "vegetarian" or "vegan" label doesn't automatically equal good health. While some cookies, chips and sweetened cereal might be vegetarian foods, they also are likely high in added sugars and oils. Meatless eaters might find it easy to load up on processed foods such as veggie burgers, but lesser processed options should make up the bulk of a vegetarian diet.
So what is the best way to ensure a food is a good choice? Read the label. Look for low levels of saturated fat, added sugars and sodium. These key nutrition label components are much better indicators of a food's health than whether or not it is vegetarian. Being a healthy vegetarian eater means loading up on veggies, fruits, whole grains and lean proteins.