Confronting the Myths

So what have you heard about the vegetarian diet? 

According to Roy Morgan Research (2006) 1,538,000 people in Australia aged 14 and over agree that “the food I eat is all, or almost all, vegetarian”. That equates to 9.1% of the population aged 14 and over.

Many people are faced by many myths about the vegetarian diet that often frightens them and causes them to steer very carefully away from such an idea.  The most obvious myths will be addressed in this section of our website.

Myth No. 1

You will become iron deficient

FACT: Many people follow a vegetarian diet and are not deficient in iron.  It is not a guarantee that a vegetarian diet equals iron deficiency and neither is it a guarantee that if you eat meat you will always have sufficient amounts of iron.  However, if you do not make good choices in relation to the food that you eat there is a possibility of this happening. There are many good sources of iron in a plant-based diet.  For example, oranges (especially the pith), green leafy vegetables, legumes, dried apricots, cashews and pistachios and chickpeas.  Eating a good variety of these types of foods generally provides enough iron for the body, unless there is another reason why you are iron deficient.

Other causes of iron deficiency can be increased need.  Menstruating women and pregnant and breastfeeding women need more iron than your average person. 

Exercise increases the body’s need for iron.  Iron can be lost through sweating and those who undertake an intensive physical training program may need to consider the iron supplies.

Inability to absorb iron can also be a factor for iron deficiency.  You may be receiving adequate supplies from your food but if you are not absorbing it there will be a deficiency.  Consuming Vitamin C along with an iron containing food can help with absorption of iron.

Myth No. 2

You will not be able to get enough protein

FACT:  A meat-based diet provides a complete protein which contains all the amino acids necessary for the body.  It has been said that complete protein is not to be found in the vegetable world, however this is not true.  Not only are there some foods that contain all your amino acids required to build good protein, but the plant-based proteins are of a higher quality.  Quinoa and Soy Bean are the main grains that provide a complete protein.  Fruits and Vegetables and grains and nuts provide the body with incomplete amino acids, however if a good variety is eaten the body has more than enough amino acids to perform its necessary functions.

Myth No. 3

Infants, Children and Teens cannot meet their nutritional needs on a vegetarian diet

FACT:  Infants, Children and Teens are at a demanding time in their lives, nutritionally speaking, where their bodies are growing new tissues and their brains are expanding their learning capabilities. At this time greater amounts of nutrition of the best quality are needed.  Meeting the needs of these age groups requires careful planning to ensure they receive adequate amounts of nutrition.  It may require more thought and planning than an average diet, however these age groups can receive all the necessary nutrients needed from a plant based diet.  If you are unsure of how to plan a balanced diet for your child/teen a health care provider or dietician can be of excellent help to you.

Myth No. 4

You should not follow a vegetarian diet if you are pregnant or breastfeeding

FACT: Similarly to Myth No.3, you need to plan wisely and carefully for your diet when pregnant or breastfeeding.  However those following the average diet also need to plan wisely and carefully as there are many vitamins and minerals that are needed to give optimum health to the mother and baby during this time.  A plant based diet is well able to support the needs of the mother and baby.  Blood tests are helpful during this time.  Occasionally you may need to take B12 supplementation if following a plant-based diet. It is always prudent to check your iron, folate, B12 and vitamin D levels are in the healthy range beginning about 3 months before conception and periodically throughout the pregnancy regardless of which diet you are on.

Myth No. 5

A vegetarian diet is guaranteed to be healthy

FACT:  Clinical research has shown that people who follow a vegetarian diet live longer than their meat-eating counterparts 1.  A vegetarian diet has also shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and other lifestyle diseases.

However, a vegetarian diet can be extremely unhealthy if it subsists mainly of bread, pasta and junk food.  There is a difference between being a healthy vegetarian, having an abundant variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds and a meager vegetarian who simply throws away meat from the plate and replaces it with a vegetable protein substitute. Such meager diets can be very deficient in the minerals and vitamins that are daily required by the body. Deficiencies such as Vitamin B12 and Iron may occur with such limiting diets.

The best approach to a vegetarian diet is variety, variety, variety.  Regular intake of a variety of grains (rice, quinoa, millet, oats, wheat), dark green leafy vegetables, fruits and other vegetables, beans and legumes and fortified soy milk or cereals will be your best option.  

While health is closely connected with diet, health is also closely connected with exercise and overall good lifestyle.  See our Eight Laws of Health Section for a holistic approach to overall health.

Myth No. 6

If I follow a vegetarian diet I will be skinny and look sick

FACT: There are some vegetarians who find it difficult to put on weight.  There are many vegetarians who are overweight.  There are many vegetarians who are a good, healthy size.  The size and weight of vegetarians is difficult to generalize as each person has a different metabolism and responds to foods and diet in a different way.  However, if you are a vegetarian and eat largely of junk food, carbohydrates and fatty foods the likelihood is that you may actually be overweight.  If you are vegetarian and eat only small servings of salads and vegetables and worry constantly about the food that you are eating, the likelihood is that you will not be having an adequate supply of good nutrition and may lose weight and become malnourished.  The recommended diet is plenty of variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts, adequate supplies of good fats and good proteins and plenty of common sense.  You may lose a little weight when starting a vegetarian diet (most people think this is very positive), but if you are gaining weight rapidly you may need to evaluate and plan more thoughtfully.

If your vegetarian diet contains dairy products you receive plenty of saturated fat in whole milk, cream and cheese.  If you are following a vegan diet you will not be consuming any animal-derived saturated fat, however you can still overdo it with unsaturated fats such as olive oil and other oils.  Remember, there are as many calories in oils per tablespoon as there are in butter.

Myth No. 7

If I follow a vegetarian diet I will never get a heart attack

FACT:  Although in studies undertaken in America it was seen that vegan vegetarians almost never get heart attacks 2, there are other factors that can give rise to heart disease.  Genetic factors can be familial hypercholesterolaemia, which is a genetic condition where from the time you are in the womb you have extremely high cholesterol readings.  This is caused by a malfunction in the DNA of the liver and can cause heart attacks in very young people irrespective of lifestyle.  People may also be pre-disposed to high blood pressure. 

Some General Information obtained from The University of Rochester Medical Centre – Vegetarian Diet – Myths v Facts  http://www.urmc.rochester.edu

 

  1. Eat To Live, Fuhrman J, MD, Little, Brown and Company 2005, p76.
  2. Eat To Live, Fuhrman J, MD, Little, Brown and Company 2005, p75.

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