For several years, I ate a plant-based diet, which apparently was an invitation for others – often strangers – to share their opinions on everything from my protein intake to my hypothetical future children's welfare.
Some even went so far as to suggest that my staying away from meat was useless in my ultimate goal of reducing my environmental impact and fighting for more humane livestock standards.
“The cow's already dead,” they’d say. “Why shouldn’t you eat it?”
Despite their growing popularity, plant-based diets are still surrounded by a number of myths – and it’s time to debunk them once and for all.
1. A plant-based diet is devoid of certain essential nutrients.
“But… how do you get enough protein?”
This was probably the first thing most non-plant-based eaters said to me the moment I told them I was a vegetarian, and vegans have it even harder. But a plant-based diet is far from devoid of essential nutrients.
While most people focus first and foremost on protein, it turns out that this nutrient is the least of our worries.
The authors of the recently released “Clean Protein” point out that fiber, not protein, is the key problem that most people have in their diet. Most people eating a Standard American Diet are actually getting far more protein than they need, and those enjoying a plant-based diet generally get more than enough from grains, vegetables, pulses, nuts, and other foods. Unless your doctor tells you you're not getting enough protein, just by eating enough healthful calories, you're probably getting enough.
There are, however, nutrients that plant-based dieters do need to be careful about getting, like vitamin B-12, which non-plant-based eaters get from meat, dairy, and eggs, and iron, which many people get from red meat or offal. But fortified plant-based dairy foods, nutritional yeast, leafy greens, and supplements can help those enjoying a plant-based diet get enough of these essential nutrients.
2. A plant-based diet is unsafe for children.
“It’s fine for adults to eat plant-based, but don’t force the lifestyle on your kids!”
Some well-meaning busybodies criticize folks who feed their kids a vegan diet, with one case in Italy going so far as to threaten the parents of vegan kids with jail time. But the truth is that just like adults, kids can thrive on a well-balanced plant-based diet, providing parents, in cooperation with their pediatrician, are keeping an eye on essential nutrients.
Organic Authority’s own Jill Ettinger writes about her decision to raise her daughter vegan – from conception to present – and explains that with support from her pediatrician, her daughter is a “strong and healthy eater” and that, thanks to vitamin supplements, she is getting all of her essential nutrients and more. She also raises the important element of the nutrients that are lacking in most children's diets, whether they eat a plant-based diet or not.
"As most parents can attest, kids are generally lousy eaters," she writes. "They gravitate toward carbs, fat, and protein—because these are the primary foods they need to grow—and all of which are abundant on a balanced vegan diet."
3. A plant-based diet doesn't make a real difference.
“The cow’s already dead – might as well eat it!”
There are many reasons to opt for a plant-based diet, but one of the most prevalent is reducing one's environmental impact or fighting in favor of humane livestock standards. This reasoning can lead others to claim that one individual’s decision to stay away from meat has no consequence.
But evidence showing the contrary continues to pile up.
One very current example is the increasing consumer demand for plant-based dairy, which is one contributing factor to dairy giant Dean Foods’ recent decisions to terminate contracts with dairy farms and invest in plant-based company Good Karma. A similar wave of consumer demand in 2015 led to a host of fast-food restaurants and retailers pledging to sell only cage-free eggs, essentially eradicating caged eggs from the American culinary landscape.
While choosing to forego meat that has already been slaughtered certainly won’t bring the animals back to life, a decision to eat less meat, more ethical meat, or no meat at all reduces demand for these products and forces producers to change tacks. One person can indeed make a difference.
4. Cooking plant-based is harder than cooking meat-based.
“Who has the time?”
One major misconception of a plant-based diet is that it takes more time or effort to cook plant-based foods. This is a huge myth: cooking plant-based can be extremely simple and will likely even cut down on your grocery bill.
The major adjustment isn't time, but rather adjusting the way that you conceive of your plate. If you grew up eating a meat and two veg, a plant-based plate may look a little foreign, but discovering new plant-based recipes will soon change your expectations, and what's more, many plant-based recipes are actually quicker and easier to prepare than meat-based recipes.
Some may opt for plant-based meal kit services like Purple Carrot, while others will rely on simple, delicious plant-based recipes like vegan cauliflower curry, vegan BBQ pizza, or vegan sweet potato nachos. Either way, cooking plant-based can be as simple (or as involved) as you like.
5. A plant-based diet is automatically healthy.
“You’re just eating that way to lose weight.”
I was constantly faced by the misconception that my vegetarian diet was actually a cover for a desire to lose weight, but it turns out that plant-based diets are not always healthier than meat-based ones. After all, French fries, white bread, chips, and some candies are all plant-based foods that aren’t necessarily good for you.
Just like people eating a meat-based diet, plant-based eaters need to make efforts to ensure that their diets are well-balanced. Relying on leafy greens, legumes, pulses, and brightly colored fruits and vegetables is the best way to eat, regardless of whether you’re also eating meat or not. Studies have shown that eating this sort of plant-based diet can reduce your risk for metabolic diseases, heart disease, and more.
6. It’s hard to eat plant-based when you’re eating out or with friends.
“I don’t want to be a bother.”
Eating plant-based at home is one thing, but some naysayers claim that it’s inconvenient or just plain rude to impose your eating preferences on your friends.
But more and more Americans are eating plant-based at least some of the time, with a recent poll showing that 37 percent of Americans opt for plant-based meals sometimes, if not all of the time.
Most restaurants in the United States will have at least one – if not several – plant-based options, and as for dinner parties, it’s fairly easy to ask your friends to serve at least one plant-based dish.
If you’re invited to a dinner party, just let the host know what you don’t eat (include a helpful list of all foods you avoid – some folks unaccustomed to plant-based diets may not think about eggs or butter when preparing an otherwise plant-based main). If you’re really worried about inconveniencing people, offer to bring a delicious plant-based dish to share.
7. Plant-based diets are unnatural.
“Cavemen evolved to eat meat – if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me!”
This myth is doubly unfounded.
First and foremost, even if our forebears did eat quite a bit of meat, it wasn’t in the quantities that most Americans consume, nor was it produced the way that most meat is produced today.
Global meat consumption has tripled over the last four decades, and the meat that we do eat is more often than not produced on factory farms, where poor conditions have led to the overuse of antibiotics and hormones to beef up production. In addition, most livestock today is fed an unhealthy diet ranging from corn for ruminants to candy for hogs – not the idyllic, ethical norms of yore.
But even more than this, it turns out that not all of our ancestors evolved to eat meat. A 2017 study in the journal Nature found that our Pleistocene relatives were actually vegan.
So the next time someone challenges your plant-based diet, gently fill them in on the truth. Who knows? You may even convert some of them!
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