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There are a lot of fallacies about plant-based eating, and the rules for being a vegan or vegetarian can be confusing. Those who follow the former practice typically don’t eat fish, meat, or poultry, while the latter follows the no-meat rule and also excludes dairy and eggs (though things vary from person to person). These distinctions may make integrating a veggie-centric diet into your life seem daunting, but many have taken the leap. In fact, 10 percent of Americans now identify as vegan or vegetarian (that’s about 16.5 million—an all-time high). Here, four Denver-area chefs and nutritionists bust some of the most common plant-based eating myths to help you integrate more meat-free habits into your life.
1. Being a vegetarian or vegan is always healthy.
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Sure, when you think of “vegetarian” or “vegan” fare, you might picture bushels of carrots and leafy kale. But there are a lot of junk foods (like fries, potato chips, and even Oreos, for example) that are technically vegan but far from nutritious.
“I think people assume that having a vegan diet is always going to be a healthy option, but it’s not,” says Sarah Bond, a Denver-based nutritionist and vegetarian blogger at Live Eat Learn. “There’s something that we like to call, ‘French fry vegetarians and vegans.’ You can be vegan and still eat French fries every day, and you’re not going to be healthy.”
To make sure your veggie-based diet stays healthy, Paula Florencia, kitchen manager at the Corner Beet, says to be mindful when you shop and to prioritize whole foods over those that are processed and packaged. “Reading ingredient lists [and] just being aware of what the oils do to our health is the best way to go about it,” she says. “[Also,] learning how to meal prep and learning a little more about what you can build from buying fresh produce.”
2. You can’t get enough protein on a plant-based diet.
Meat, eggs, fish, and dairy are all strong sources of complete proteins. But eating plant-based foods, including soy, quinoa, chia seeds, and hemp, can still get your body this vital nutrient. Though, there is a catch. “Vegans need 20 percent more protein than omnivores because plant proteins are not unitized as efficiently by the body as animal protein,” says Cynthia Heiss, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition at Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU).
“The body must have all nine essential amino acids to make body proteins, but some plant foods are lacking in certain essential amino acids,” she says. “But eating a variety of plant sources, especially a legume with a grain, for example, will give you all of the essential acids you need.”
But it’s not just protein. When following a vegan or vegetarian diet, you need to be mindful that you’re getting enough iron, calcium, and vitamin B-12, Heiss says. These can be harder to get when eating plant-based. A simple hack is looking for fortified foods.
“A lot of breakfast cereals are fortified with various vitamins and minerals, and many breads and pastas are made with enriched flour containing iron and B vitamins,” says Micah Battson, a lifelong vegetarian and assistant professor in MSU’s nutrition department. “Some plant-based milks, orange juice, and even tofu often have calcium added to them and sometimes vitamin D as well. So as long as [people are] OK with those types of foods in their diet, that’s an option to make sure they’re getting enough of certain vitamins and minerals. Just be aware that many processed foods contain higher amounts of added sugar and salt, and may be lower in fiber, compared to their whole-food counterparts.”
3. The lifestyle is expensive
Rice and beans—staples in vegan and vegetarian cuisine—aren’t just good sources of amino acids, they’re also easy on your wallet. “A lot of the classic ingredients in these diets are beans and rice and grains, which are some of the most affordable ingredients in the grocery store,” Bond says. “So if you go shopping with intention, it can be a pretty affordable way of eating.”
If you’re looking to save money, Battson recommends buying in bulk and prioritizing canned and frozen options, which are often just as nutritious as their fresh (and often-pricier) counterparts. So, choose a can of peas or frozen fruits instead of heading to the produce aisle.
4. Vegan and vegetarian food is bland
Don’t take vegetarianism to mean that all you do is snack on raw carrots and broccoli all day. Plant-based foods are anything but rabbit food—if prepared with the right spices, seasonings, and textures. “The way that the food is cooked and seasoned has a huge impact on our desire to want to eat those foods, and that also goes to countering what can be the blandness of certain foods,” says Battson, who recommends experimenting with different types of cuisines and recipes until you find what works for you.
5. It’s OK (or definitely not OK) to eat honey
As a vegan or vegetarian, whether you eat honey is totally up to you. Heiss says many vegetarians, and even some vegans, will eat honey, especially if it’s locally sourced. But strict vegans might avoid the sweetener.
“There are a lot of different reasons that people turn to a vegetarian [or vegan] diet,” Heiss says. “One reason is they don’t want to exploit animals. … so using bees to make honey that we then consume as a food would then be considered off-limits. But other people who are vegan may not feel that way.”
If you’re on the fence about honey, try agave nectar, maple syrup, or date syrup, all of which are vegan-friendly.
6. Becoming a vegan is difficult
If you’re looking to transition to a plant-based diet, you don’t have to switch immediately from eating burgers to tofu bowls. Local products like Pescky Chicken and Crummies are made to imitate ground beef, pork, and even chicken wings (they’re great local alternatives to national brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods). “I’d say if someone is trying to become vegan, start with those, because it takes the bite off of it,” Bond says. “Especially if you’re still craving those classic foods like burgers.”
While these foods are reminiscent of animal-based favorites, they aren’t the healthiest diet staples. So as you make food swaps and build your new diet, don’t neglect your whole grains, fortified foods, and, as Bond puts it, “eating the rainbow” of fruits and veggies.
“The bottom line is that a vegetarian diet can be very healthy if well planned,” Heiss says. “Yet, there’s no one dietary strategy that fits everyone. Many do really well on a strict vegan diet, whereas others don’t. We all have different physiologies.”
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