Myths and Misconceptions
Veggie Myth: Veggies have a less varied diet than meat-eaters.
It’s true that vegetarians miss out one food group – meat – and that vegans miss out another – dairy products. That does not mean that their diet is less varied. The American Dietetic Association states that “Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits...as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fibre, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals” - not a picture of a diet lacking in variety! Within the vegetable group for instance we have the tubers, roots, leafy vegetables, legumes (pulses) as well as foods considered as vegetables but which are actually fruits - the cucumber family and sweet pepper family for instance. Many “normal” diets are actually made up of only four food groups - meat, dairy, wheat (eg bread, toast, pasta etc) and sugar. These foods are then given different names and hey presto it looks like the diet is varied! Take dairy products - aliases include full-fat milk, semi-skimmed, skimmed milk, butter, cream, cheese, yoghurts, ice-cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, milkshakes, milk-based pasta sauces etc etc. Eating these foods looks like the diet is varied but it’s all just baby cow milk.
Veggie Myth: You need to eat red meat to get iron.
Two of the world’s most prestigious health organisations - the American Dietetic Association and the British Medical Association - both state that iron deficiency anaemia is no more common in vegetarians than meat-eaters. Iron is found in many everyday animal-free foods like wholegrains, beans, green vegetables, dried fruits, fortified cereals - even cocoa! The real issue surrounding iron is iron absorption and many factors affect this. Cow’s milk, for instance, not only contains no iron, drinking the stuff or eating cheese can actually halve the amount of iron the body does absorb. Vitamin C is also a key player in the iron absorption story. Found only in plant foods like fruits and veg, this vitamin greatly increases iron absorption. Veggies almost always have higher intakes of vitamin C than meat-eaters.
Veggie Myth: Milk is the only source of calcium and is crucial for bones.
Calcium is found in lots of non-dairy foods including beans, dark green leafy vegetables (eg broccoli, watercress), nuts (especially almonds), seeds (especially sesame) and dried fruits. Many foods are fortified with calcium like cereals, white bread, soya milks and even orange juices. Plant sources of calcium are also more than adequately absorbed by the body. Unlike cow’s milk, plant sources of calcium don’t come loaded with generous amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol but they do contain other vital minerals like magnesium and boron.
Bone health is not just a question either of taking in adequate amounts of calcium. As well as factors like exercise, making sure the calcium actually stays in the bones is also vital. Animal protein-rich diets actually encourage the body to lose calcium - one study found that subjects on a vegetarian diet had less than half the calcium losses than those on a typical meat-based diet. Studies looking at the role of cow’s milk and bone fractures have shown that people who derived more calcium from cow’s milk actually had more fractures than those who drank little or no milk. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables also contribute to the maintenance of bone mineral density.
Veggie Myth: Animal protein is the best source of protein.
Protein is needed for growth, repair of body cells and helping to protect against infection. Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids and our diets must provide the body with what are termed the eight essential amino acids in order for protein requirements to be met. Meat-free diets are easily able to supply these essential amino acids since most foods contain protein. By eating a range of plant-based foods you will automatically get all the AA’s you need. The other advantage of plant proteins is that unlike animal proteins they come packaged with a plentiful supply of energy-giving carbohydrate and fibre without hefty dollops of saturated fat and cholesterol.
Veggie Myth: Vitamin B12 is only found in products of animal origin.
This vitamin is needed for the maintenance of a healthy nervous system and normal blood formation. It is also important (along with folic acid and vitamin B6) for helping to keep the arteries healthy. A daily intake is essential but it is most definitely not the case that only animal products contain this vitamin. A whole range of everyday foods are fortified with B12 such as yeast extracts, margarines, soya milks, breakfast cereals and soya products. Dairy products and free-range eggs are also a source of vitamin B12. Research now suggests that the vitamin B12 added to fortified food products is actually better absorbed in the body than the B12 from meat, poultry or fish.
Veggie Myth: Fish is the only source of the essential ‘good’ fats in the diet.
Just like protein fat is absolutely essential in the diet - but it’s no good eating just any kind of fats. We don’t need to eat any saturated fats (mainly found in animal products and processed foods) but we certainly do need to eat unsaturated fats. These are a source of omega-6 and omega-3 fats and it is the omega-3 fats that are particularly sparse in most people’s diets. Whilst oily fish like salmon and herring are a source of essential fats they are not the only foods to provide them. Rich sources of essential fats are easy to come by on plant-based diets. Seeds (especially linseed), nuts (especially walnuts), dark green vegetables and beans (especially soya) and plant oils are all rich in both types of essential fat.
Is there an advantage to eating plant sources of essential fats over fish sources? Depends whether you like to take your essential fats with a dollop of mercury or other harmful toxin! Fat acts very much like a sponge, soaking up environmental contaminants very easily. The watery world that is a fish’s home is increasingly becoming polluted by toxins like mercury and dioxins. Oily fish are predatory and each step up the food chain means a further concentration of harmful toxin load. Eating plant sources of fat - which are at the bottom of the food chain - means toxin concentration is much less.
Veggie Myth: Children need meat to grow.
The American Dietetic Association is unequivocal about this: they state that vegetarian diets provide for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, infancy and childhood. In fact, a balanced vegetarian diet offers positive health advantages over the “normal” diet eaten by kids today. Medical problems like obesity and type II diabetes are becoming more common among children: these are just two of the many illnesses that are less common among vegetarians. Famous paediatrician, Dr Benjamin Spock said: “Children who grow up getting their nutrition from plant foods rather than meat have a tremendous advantage. They are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer.”