Vegetarian myths debunked

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Sierra Upton loves animals, but never considered eliminating them from her diet. That is, until Upton started high school — her sister became a vegetarian and pressured her to do the same.

“She showed me the typical PETA videos where animals are being tortured, and immediately I thought it was horrific,” Upton said. “There was no way I said I could support something like that.”

As a vegetarian on a midwestern college campus where “Crunchy Chicken Cheddar Wraps” are more common than salads, Upton hears misconceptions about vegetarians and vegans all the time.

A few of these myths have truth to them, but a greater number are false. Here are four misconceptions and the truth about them:

1. Vegan is just a fancy word for vegetarian. 

There are actually different levels of vegetarian diets, each with it’s own set of rules. Amy Kennett, a graduate research assistant in the University of Kansas Medical Center dietetics and nutrition program, said four types are most common:

Pescetarian:  Pescetarians eat fish, dairy and eggs, but not red meat or poultry. It’s the least restrictive diet.

Lacto-ovo vegetarian: “The traditional vegetarian diet” allows dairy and egg products, but doesn’t include any meat and fish.

Lacto-vegetarian: These vegetarians are a step up from their lacto-ovo counterparts, and the closest to vegans. They eat dairy products, but no meat or eggs.

Vegan: Vegans don’t consume any animal products (meat, fish dairy, eggs and gelatin) and some avoid using animal-based products like cashmere, lip balm or wool. 

In high school, Upton’s mom stopped cooking meat, and her family became pescetarians. But as Upton sat down to meals with salmon and shrimp on her plate, she started to consider what it would be like to become a vegetarian.

“I decided, maybe a year after we made the decision to become pescetarian that eating fish wasn’t any different than eating beef, so I decided to become full vegetarian,” she said.

There’s only one thing holding her back from becoming a vegan.

“It will be really hard because I love cheese,” Upton said. “That is my weakness, and I have yet to find good vegan cheese.”

2. Vegetarians don’t eat protein. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends women and men 19- to 30-years-old eat five-and-a-half and six-and-a-half ounces of protein foods per day.

Nine amino acids essential for life are typically found in meat, but are not in plant protein sources. Experts once told vegetarians to eat “complement proteins” like rice and beans at every meal.

“It used to be the thought in the nutrition world what in order to maintain a healthful diet a person would need to eat a source of each essential protein at a meal,” Kennett said. “It is now known that as long as you eat the essential amino acids throughout the day you can maintain a healthful diet.”

It’s Upton’s biggest pet peeve when people question her protein intake, which she supplements with soy chicken and meatless hamburgers.

“I think everyone thinks that I don’t get any protein at all, so I’m completely unhealthy, or I’m going to die in, like, five years or something,” she said. “I didn’t become vegetarian for health reasons, but I do think it is healthier if you do it right. I think eating meat, the way that at least Americans eat meat is extremely unhealthy.”

3. Vegetarians are healthier than non-vegetarians.

This is partially true. In a 2009 study by the American Diabetes Association, researchers found people who adhered to a vegan diet had a lower BMI compared to other types of vegetarian diets. Non-vegetarians had the highest BMI of all diets.

Vegans also had the lowest prevalence of Type 2 diabetes at 2.9 percent, compared to the non-vegetarians at 7.6 percent.

Several studies backed up the USDA’s claim in its Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 that “vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes—lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality.”

There are some diet downsides, as well. Vegetarians sometimes have low levels of vitamin B12, which contributes to nerve and blood cell health, is typically found in meat products. Vegetarians must also keep a close watch on their iron, calcium, vitamin D and zinc levels.

Diet habits aside, Kennett said vegetarians aren’t automatically leaner than non-vegetarians.

“A vegetarian diet that includes of a wide range of protein sources, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is probably healthier than the traditional American diet,” she said. “However, it is important to remember that there are no bad foods and no good foods, but there are good diets and bad diets.”

4. It costs more to be a vegetarian.

A pack of non-organic strawberries at Dillons costs $2.99, compared to its organic counterpart at $4.99. However, a pound of beef costs anywhere from $4.49 to $7.99.

It’s not a huge difference, but it can add up. Over the course of a year, that pound of beef each week would cost about $325, whereas a pack of organic strawberries each week would ring in at $260, a savings of $65.

Upton thinks the higher price is worth the health benefits.

“Healthier foods definitely cost more,” Upton said. “At the same time, you’re paying that price for healthier foods, but you’re also not giving money toward meat, which I think is way overpriced anyway.”

Sierra Upton shares her thoughts about myths she’s encountered:

Find the transcript here.

Image credit Skånska Matupplevelser http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode

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