A 2013 survey by Public Policy Polling found that around 40 million people in the United States identify themselves as vegetarian. The term ‘vegetarian’ has historically been a subject of prejudice, misconceptions and ridicule. However, the majority of people who decide to forgo meat do it out of compassion for all living things, respect for the earth and dedication to a healthy lifestyle.
Keep in mind that the term ‘meat’ does not refer to red meat only. It is also used as a generic term for pork, poultry, fish and seafood. As with any diet, planning of balanced meals is always important. Here are a few myths about vegetarian diets:
Myth #1: Vegetarian diets are lacking in certain nutrients, especially protein.
A balanced diet focusing on beans, whole grains and vegetables contains adequate amounts of protein, calcium, iron and most other nutrients. A plant-based diet is also helpful in reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease, preventing cancer and strengthening immunity.
Myth #2: Vegetarians only eat salads. Vegetarian diets are boring and do not include many choices.
A vegetarian diet is typically rich in a wide variety of whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Full of color and flavor, a vegetarian plate often displays a diversity of cuisines.
Myth #3: Special groups such as infants, children, pregnant women and athletes cannot survive on vegetarian diets.
Well-planned total vegetarian or vegan diets meet all recommendations for nutrient intakes and are appropriate for all age groups and activity levels. The key word is ‘well-planned.’ Donuts and potato chips are technically meat-free, but such foods would not be considered part of a balanced diet.
Myth #4: Grocery shopping for a vegetarian diet can be tedious and expensive.
Simple meatless meals can be prepared using staples from your regular grocery store. There is no need to shop at expensive specialty stores. Your grocery bill may in fact be smaller as meat is one of the most expensive foods people eat.
Myth #5: Vegetarians only eat carbs and tend to eat a lot of “fake meats.”
The worst thing you can do is substitute fake meat for real meat and call yourself vegetarian. Fake meat is made using processed soy or textured vegetable protein and is labeled as vegetarian (i.e. “vegetarian” hot dogs, sausages or bacon). The idea is to embrace a plant-based lifestyle where your plate includes several foods, and the center of attention is not meat. Your best bet is to eat a variety of plant-based foods daily, including fortified whole grains, fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, beans and legumes, tofu, and fortified soy milk or low-fat dairy products.
Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN, is a clinical dietitian at WakeMed Cary Hospital and the state coordinator for the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. With questions regarding plant-based diets or vegetarian nutrition, contact Parul at firstname.lastname@example.org. To schedule individual nutrition counseling sessions, call Cary Hospital Outpatient Nutrition Services at 919-350-2358.