Though just 5 percent of Americans consider themselves vegetarians, at least half eat meat-free at least some of the time. So, a lot of us think we know a thing or two about how a vegetarian diet works and why it’s a good choice (or not). But the truth, as with so many choices in life, is complex. Fortunately, that makes it a lot more interesting, too, so we spoke with dietitians and doctors to get the real beef on eating plants.
Myth #1: Vegetarian diets are always healthy
The truth: Cutting out meat doesn’t automatically make your diet healthy. Plenty of studies show that a diet high in meat—especially red meat—can up your risk for heart disease and cancers like colorectal cancer. There’s also solid evidence that fruits and veggies are good for you, and vegetarian diets have many health benefits. However, a study from the American College of Cardiology found that vegetarians with diets high in sweets, refined grains, and juice showed no heart-health benefits compared with meat eaters. “Many foods that qualify as vegetarian aren’t nutrient-rich,” says Lainey Younkin, R.D., owner of Lainey Younkin Nutrition. Sugary processed foods may be vegetarian but lack fiber, protein, and healthy fats, she adds. Veg or no, aim to eat whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, good sources of calcium, and whole grains, and go easy on sodium, fat, and sugar, says Nyssa Entrekin, R.D., associate director of Healthy Food Access at The Food Trust.
Myth #2: Veggie burgers are a much healthier choice than meat burgers
The truth: It all comes down to the quality of the veggie burger. Many veggie burgers are highly processed and high in sodium, which can put you at risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. Store-bought versions can contain a big chunk of your recommended daily total amount of salt. The solution: Choose veggie burgers that are “minimally processed and made of vegetables, a whole grain, and beans,” Entrekin says, and look for ones low in sodium and high in protein. Even better, you can make your own, she says. That way you not only control the salt, but also take in high-protein, high-fiber nutritious whole foods like beans, soy, tofu, and quinoa.
Myth #3: It’s tough to get enough protein and iron without meat
The truth: Not so. Vegans and vegetarians who eat a quality plant-based diet get more than enough protein, according to 2019 review of multiple studies. Many vegetarians eat high-protein animal products like eggs and dairy, but there are also protein-packed plant-based options like almonds (6 g per oz), quinoa (8 g per cup, cooked), and black beans (1 cup, cooked, has 15 g of the roughly 50 g of protein most adults need in a day). “Beans and other legumes such as split peas, chickpeas, and lentils are the protein superstars of the plant kingdom. We should ideally enjoy them every day,” says Michael Greger, M.D., a founding member and fellow of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. Iron is slightly trickier to get on a vegetarian diet, so be sure to combine iron-rich plant foods like beans, lentils, nuts, and spinach with something high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, broccoli, chard, strawberries, or bell peppers for better iron absorption.
Myth #4: You need meat to build muscle
The truth: You don’t need meat—you need protein, which you can get from plants. In fact, a scientific review of available research found no difference between consumption of soy protein and animal protein in terms of gains in muscle mass. The trick is to make sure you’re getting all the essential amino acids your body needs to form protein for muscle, nine of which come only from food. Look for complete proteins, which contain all nine, or mix and match to get the full set. Some great veggie complete-protein pairings: rice and beans, pasta and peas, and whole-wheat bread and peanut butter. Complete proteins are also present in eggs, dairy, edamame, tofu, quinoa, chia seeds, and buckwheat, Entrekin says.
Myth #5: Going vegetarian is healthy only for you
The truth: It’s bigger than that. Not eating meat—or eating less of it—is good for the planet. A study in the journal Scientific Reports found that if every American ate 25% less meat, that would lower greenhouse gas emissions by about 1%. If everyone in the country went vegetarian, that would equal a reduction of about 5%. It might not sound like much, but every little bit helps. The issue is the methane and carbon dioxide cows emit. “Cattle are the number one agricultural source of greenhouse gases worldwide,” says Grace Chen O’Neil, M.D., an emergency and lifestyle medicine doctor and secretary of the Vegan Society of Hawaii. Other ways in which eating less meat helps: Raising fewer livestock reduces deforestation, says Peter Stevenson, chief policy advisor for Compassion in World Farming. The demand for soy for livestock is huge—77% of global soy is used for animal feed—and that has led to the expansion of farmland into forests and other habitats, he says. Then there’s waste: Animal waste “produces runoff that pollutes our waterways, harms aquatic and marine animals, destroys topsoil, and contaminates the air we breathe,” Dr. Chen O’Neil says.
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