By Sheetal Parikh, MS, RDN, LDN, Morrison Healthcare Dietitian – Region Support
It’s often a challenge to promote the benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets to my patients, colleagues, friends and family. Many have eaten beef and chicken their entire lives, usually for two or three meals each day. Decades of behavior and perceptions about the impact of a vegetarian diet are typically hard to change.
But the scientific facts about the health benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets are clear. People following these diets are healthier and often live longer. If you are interested in consuming more plant-based foods that are rich in nutrients, I want to share five myths about these foods that may help change your mind – and your health. Here goes:
A Vegetarian or Vegan Diet is Expensive. I estimate that 90 percent of my patients make this claim, but it’s simply not true. In fact, research shows that eating vegetarian foods is more inexpensive than eating non-vegetarian foods. According to a study in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, Canadian vegetarians save roughly $963.67 a year.
However, each person must invest some time in keeping the costs down. I stress to my patients and others that food will cost less if you plan your grocery shopping, buy from local produce and opt for seasonal foods. Fruits such as strawberries and watermelons cost less in the summer than the winter. Dried beans, oats and bananas cost very little, and there are countless vegetarian options to fill your needs for missing meat protein.
Vegetarians and Vegans Don’t Get Enough Protein. Most people believe they need to eat meat to get enough protein every day. Again, research shows that a well-planned vegetarian/vegan diet that includes all food groups and enough calories meets a person’s daily needs for protein and essential amino acids.
One of my patients argued that athletes couldn’t meet the protein needs on vegetarian diets, but he was shocked when I sent him a list of famous athletes that are vegetarian/vegan athletes. The long list includes Alex Morgan, captain of the US Women’s National Soccer Team and Carl Lewis, 10-time Olympic medal winners.
I also recommended that he watch the documentary, “Game Changer,” which shows that athletes can perform better on vegetarian/vegan diets. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that the human body’s daily protein requirement is 0.8 gram- 1.0 gram/kilogram of actual body weight. Planning and eating a variety of foods is the key to meet all the essential amino acids for a vegetarian to meet the daily protein requirement per day.
Here is a list of some plant-rich foods that can meet your protein needs:
Soy is Not Safe to Consume Every Day. Soy is a rich source of nutrients that has many health benefits. But some recent news coverage of soy foods shows that it contains isoflavones, which mimics the female hormone estrogen.
Isoflavones are commonly called phytoestrogens, which means “plant estrogens” because they can bind to the same receptors in cells that bind the hormone estrogen.
But it’s safe – and healthy — to consume a cup and half of soy products per day for adults and a half to one cup for children. One cup of tofu provides approximately 20 grams of protein, which is a significant amount of protein for anyone.
A Vegetarian Diet Guarantees Weight Loss. One of my patients’ preparation for bariatric sleeve surgery motivated her to eat vegetarian foods. To prepare for the surgery, I began educating her on which foods to eat and others to avoid.
But after four weeks, she was very upset. She stopped eating high-fat meats but hadn’t lost any weight and wanted to know why. Upon further discussion, it became clear she substituted meat with doughnuts, pop-tarts, French fries, white bread, juices and sodas – which are refined foods full of fat and sugar.
I explained again that she needed to eat whole plant foods such as whole grains, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, sprouts, fruits and vegetables. I gave her a seven-day vegetarian meal plan and explained how she could swap meat from her favorite recipes and substitute vegetables.
It worked! This next time I saw her, she lost six pounds in four weeks.
A Vegetarian Diet is Rabbit Food. It’s Boring and Doesn’t Fill Me Up.
When I hear these complaints, I ask questions to get a person’s opinions and perceptions about plant-rich foods. I often find that people have the following habits that help form these attitudes:
To change their habits, I recommend they start eating a vegetarian meal one day each week. For example, declare “Meatless Monday.” Once they get in this habit for a few weeks, I recommend switching from meat to poultry and fish, and limiting red meat to twice a week.
Next, we replace meat twice weekly with vegetables and eat fruits as a snack once a day. A slow and steady pace will give a person confidence that they can do this and sustain it for a lifetime. Otherwise, people tend to give up – much like what happens when people follow different diets for weight loss.
Once people begin enjoying vegetables, fruits and whole grains, they begin to see food differently. I often tell my patients that eating healthy is a mindful way of living that should be sustained for their lifetime. This means we should enjoy every bite and be aware of what we put in our mouth each and every day. Once we adopt this new lifestyle, we will be healthier while also helping Mother Earth by reducing our carbon footprint.