Medical myths: Vegetarian and vegan diets
Written by Tim Newman on November 1, 2020 — Fact checked by Harriet Pike, Ph.D.
Following a plant-based diet is becoming increasingly popular. While this is widely regarded as a healthful choice, many myths abound. In this edition of Medical Myths, we dig into the details.
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Until fairly recently, vegetarianism was generally considered a fringe lifestyle choice in the United States, and veganism even more so. Anything on the fringes of society tends to inadvertently encourage myths and misconceptions.
Also, deciding to avoid animal products sparks rage in some people. This anger manifests for a range of reasons, which are beyond the scope of this article and discussed in full here. Suffice it to say that if a sizable group of the population is against something, conditions are ripe for myths and half-truths.
Overall, vegetarianism and veganism are misunderstood. As today is World Vegan Day, it seems an appropriate time to address some of the most common myths.
1. Plant-based diets are always healthful
In recent decades, an increasing number of studies have demonstrated links between red meat consumption and poorer health outcomes. For instance, processed and red meat intake is associated with colon cancer, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
This might suggest that a diet without meat is better for the body. But, just as not all meat is red, not all vegetarian or vegan diets are healthful.
To use an extreme example, if an individual only ate potato chips, they would be vegan, but certainly not brimming with vitality, energy, and health.
As with any other diet, it depends entirely on what an individual consumes.
Additionally, lean white meat and fish are not associated with the same health issues as processed and red meats.
And certain meat substitute products can be high in salt. In 2018, Action on Salt, a “group concerned with salt and its effects on health,” carried out a survey of meat substitutes.
They investigated products from several major retailers in the United Kingdom. When they looked at burgers, they found that the average salt content of beef burgers was 0.75 grams (g), compared with 0.89 g for vegetarian burgers, including bean burgers. According to their findings, a veggie burger has “more salt than a large portion of McDonald’s fries.”
2. Vegetarianism guarantees weight loss
Sadly, no. As the section above makes clear, not all vegetarian and vegan diets are equally healthful. It is incredibly easy to consume thousands of calories each day without any of them being associated with animals.
The key to weight loss is a healthful diet and regular exercise, and neither requires the avoidance of animal products.
It is still worth noting, though, the evidence that following a plant-based diet is associated with weight loss. For instance, a review published in Translational Psychiatry explains:
“We found robust evidence for short- to moderate-term beneficial effects of plant-based diets versus conventional diets […] on weight status, energy metabolism, and systemic inflammation.”
This finding held true for healthy participants, people with obesity, and individuals with type 2 diabetes.
To give another example, another review, published in BMJ Open Diabetes Research and Care, looked at the impact of plant-based diets on people with diabetes. Among other benefits, the authors found that these diets were associated with a “significant improvement” in weight.
3. Vegetarians and vegans cannot get enough protein
This is perhaps the most common of all the myths that we cover today. But it is still a myth. In the world of food, protein abounds.
For people who eat them, dairy products and eggs are high in protein. Vegans also have an array of options, including seitan, tofu, lentils, chickpeas, many types of bean, spelt, spirulina, quinoa, oats, wild rice, seeds, and nuts.
Even some vegetables contain protein, including spinach, asparagus, broccoli, artichokes, potatoes, peas, brussels sprouts, and sweet potatoes.
4. You can’t build muscle without meat
This myth follows on from the protein myth above. In short, the most important nutrient for building muscle is protein, which can easily be found in abundance beyond the animal kingdom.
5. Dairy is essential for strong bones
Dairy is not essential for strong bones, but calcium is. In fact, calcium is important for a number of bodily functions, including maintaining blood pressure, muscle contraction, transmitting signals along nerves, and blood clotting.
Vegans, therefore, need to ensure that they take in enough calcium from plant-based sources.
As with protein, there are plenty of places to pick up calcium, including soy-based foods, beans, lentils, peas, spinach, turnips, figs, flax, chia, sesame seeds, seaweed, and some nuts — almonds, in particular.