I’ve seen a lot of articles and social media posts lately about people who made the change to plant-based eating, only to find that it did not work for them. As interest in plant-based, vegetarian, and vegan lifestyles increases, misinformation and lack of information have also seemed to become more pervasive. It worries me when these articles or posts are published, because it skews the reality of plant-based and vegan eating, and it highlights what is true for eating habits in general: uninformed eating of any kind will likely fail you.
Now, I am not here to say that there aren’t reasons that certain dietary lifestyles may not work for some people. I am not using a single blog post to categorically state that one way works for everyone and no one should ask questions. What I do want to do is clear up some misconceptions and hopefully offer a gentle reminder that when making a change in your life, it’s important to do your homework.
Myth #1: You have to eat “fake meat” if you’re vegetarian or vegan.
I actually read recently that someone tried a vegan diet for a week but they didn’t like it, in part because they had to eat alternative meats in order to get enough protein. Now, we’ll address the protein myth in a bit, but issues with alternative meats seem to be getting more attention so I think it’s important that this also be addressed.
I find alternative meats to be handy for certain recipes. I occasionally like things like plant-based pepperoni and sausage on pizza. Generally, I don’t find them to be all that necessary on a daily basis, mostly because over the years, I’ve been able to adjust what really tastes and feels good to my body. But I do enjoy them from time to time, and I know many people get a lot of nourishment from alternatives like tempeh, tofu, and seitan.
There’s been a huge amount of concern and big headlines of “but is it actually healthier?!”, particularly with the more processed varieties like store-bought veggie burgers (versus alternatives such as tofu, for instance). Here’s the deal-no one is advertising alternative meats as a health food in the same vein as, say, an apple. It is a healthier option than meat in many ways (and there are healthier alternatives than others), and there’s also no false advertising regarding the ingredients. Is it processed? Yes. Is that good for your body? Probably not if you eat it all the time. This doesn’t mean that it should be discarded as an option to reduce meat consumption, as meat consumption is linked with numerous health problems, especially if it’s eaten frequently.
My recommendation? If you like it, enjoy having it. Also, be on the lookout for additional ways to format your meals, with whole food ingredients you maybe haven’t tried, because it’s very likely you don’t actually need the meat as much as you think. But if you do? Look for the brands that have an ingredients list that is generally on the shorter side and contains items that you know and can pronounce (which is really what I recommend for all foods and nutrition labels).
Myth #2: You won’t get enough protein.
I feel like this topic has been talked to death, but somehow it continues to be a strongly publicized myth. The reality is that most Americans consume double the recommended protein intake every day-for most people, the protein concern might actually need to be in the opposite direction of what it is. My viewpoint is that a part of the reason there is so much focus on protein is that we associate it with feeling full and satisfied. And while protein absolutely plays a role in that, what we forget in that conversation is that fiber is actually crucial to satiation. There is minimal fiber in meat, but there is a ton in veggies, fruits, and whole grains. So if you’re feeling low on protein, that might be true, but you may also want to hone in on your fiber intake, as well as fat intake from sources such as nuts, seeds, and avocado. A well-planned plant-based or vegan routine should not result in being hungry all the time.
And luckily, if you are low on protein, it isn’t just in meat-it can be found in a lot of veggies, beans, lentils, grains, nuts, and seeds. With these foods also containing fiber and other vital nutrients, it’s a no-brainer to get your protein from non-animal sources.
Myth #3: I have to eat a lot of processed foods.
So, this is related to Myth #1, but I wanted to separate it out, because there are a lot of processed foods beyond alternative meats. I’ve seen so many people say “I tried going vegan but I felt terrible so I had to stop.” Now, feeling terrible could be occurring for many reasons, but my first question is always to take a look at what they’ve been eating. And I see daily routines that include so much processed food and little to no whole foods-it’s no wonder they felt terrible! Just as you can eat all processed non-plant foods and feel terrible, the same goes for the plant foods.
Vegan cheese is a big one that I hear mentioned a lot, because it’s processed and has a lot of hard-to-pronounce ingredients (though some brands are coming out now that have fewer problematic ingredients). I definitely consume vegan cheese for pizza and if I want it on top of pasta, and I enjoy it. I don’t have it frequently enough for it to feel icky in my body, and in my opinion, that’s the sweet spot. But what I have found to be even more helpful is learning how to make my own! Enter: the amazing cashew. Cashews are a vegan’s hero, in my opinion. They can be blended with nutritional yeast and spices to make a delicious parmesan, or add some milk or water and suddenly you have a creamy cheese sauce. You can blend them up for various dips, sauces, dressings, and desserts!
When I first went vegan, I had no idea how much could be homemade and taste way better than a many store-bought alternatives. I learned to get creative in the kitchen, read a bunch of recipes for inspiration, and trust my gut. Eating a lot of processed foods when plant-based or vegan isn’t a necessity-you just have to do the research to learn about your options!
Myth #4: I have to eat a bunch of raw foods.
As I said in the last section, my first step with people struggling with any food routine is to understand what they’re eating. This not only includes the specific foods, but also in what forms. It may not be widely known, but while everyone reacts differently to cold, raw foods, generally, they are harder for the digestive system to process. And if you’re like me, I have a constitution that prevents me from eating almost any cold, raw food. I realized this when I became a patient of Traditional Chinese Medicine many years ago-I learned that because of the many different antibiotics I took starting when I was very young, coupled with chronic anxiety and a history of disordered eating patterns, my digestion had become pretty weak. And for a long time, I ate mostly smoothies and salads, putting further strain on my system. Once I started reducing the amount of cold foods in my routine, my digestion was much happier. Now, I still insist on having a smoothie most mornings (though I use fresh fruit instead of frozen, and I add some warming spices like ginger or cinnamon to counteract some of the cold), but that is generally the only uncooked thing I eat on a regular basis, and that works for me.
Now, this is not true for everyone. But it is one of my primary concerns when I hear someone’s story about going vegan and the result was a poorly functioning digestive system. If you prefer to try a raw vegan diet first, go ahead! It works for some. But if you notice your body is not having it, please listen to that and try a different way before throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Myth #5: I won’t get all my nutrients.
We’ve all heard this one. And this myth about the frail, protein-starved, nutritionally-deficient vegan is problematic not only because of how it skews the picture of the typical vegan, but also because it completely sidesteps the fact that so many people eat nutritionally-deficient diets, including those who consume animal products. Vitamin D and omega-3 are two nutrients that are commonly associated to be low with vegetarians and vegans (which can be true without supplementation, I’m not discounting that), while the reality is that many people, even the non-veg folks, are deficient and may need to supplement or make dietary changes. Further, the more animal products one consumes, the less likely it is that enough nutrient-dense plants are consumed (there is a concept of “crowding out” in the nutrition world, which means if we eat more of certain food groups, the natural result is that we will eat less of other food groups, as we only have so much room in our bodies for it all!). When we’re talking about vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, for example, the vast majority are best consumed via whole plant foods. While vegans and vegetarians do need to supplement certain nutrients (vitamin B-12, especially), this does not mean that meat eaters are automatically nutritionally healthy. And this myth around what comprises quality nutrition is extremely concerning, as the misinformation carries the risk that many people will think that they are eating in a nourishing way when they are not.
When I first went vegan, I did it slowly, which was helpful, but initially without much research. I think I was about 3 months in when I realized I should probably be taking a vitamin B-12 supplement. That prompted me to do even more research to ensure that my daily food routine was helping me rather than hurting me. (This research is actually also what led me to a career in nutrition-I enjoyed learning so much, I figured I’d follow that passion!) And since then, I’ve been able to build a food plan for myself that truly gives my body what it needs. You can start a plant-based or vegan routine and not get proper nutrition, just as you can do on the standard American diet. Optimally, every person is taking a look at what they’re eating and making sure the food is meeting their nutritional needs. Headlines claiming that a vegan lifestyle is categorically nutritionally deficient may be to spark interest in the reader, but they are skewed when it comes to the facts.
Now, there may be some people who are unable to maintain a strictly vegan lifestyle-often, this is because the digestive system, for one reason or another, is unable to fully access the nutrients from the plant foods, and so while they may be consuming adequate nutrition, their bodies cannot utilize it properly. But this is an important distinction to make, because from my experience, these are the people who have worked with practitioners and tried various routines before concluding that a solely plant-based or vegan routine would not work for them. This is vastly different than other stories of folks who try an uninformed diet for a short amount of time and make overarching conclusions about it.
My purpose here is not to be dismissive of concerns about plant-based or vegan eating, but rather to speak to those concerns, to dispel common myths, and to provide more adequate information than is often provided. No one food routine is right for all people. This is just as true in vegan circles (for instance, my envy of people who can tolerate raw foods more often than I can, even though we’re all still consuming plant foods). And ultimately only you can decide what food routine works best for you, your lifestyle, and your body. But without adequate knowledge, and with so much misinformation out there, how can anyone make a truly informed decision?
As a holistic nutritionist, I want to help people know that there are more and less efficient ways to become plant-based or vegan, if that is something that they might like to pursue. There are so many benefits to eating more plants and fewer animal products — you just have to make sure you have the right information.
Originally published at https://www.kindlivinghealth.com on March 26, 2020.