Spotlight on the Vegetarian Diet: 6 Myths That Deserve to Be Busted

Around this time every year, at least some portion of Americans consider trying a new diet as they take on their 2014 fitness and food resolutions. Following the most indulgent time of the year, a meat-free, sugar-free, or dairy-free diet can seem appealing to some of the most mainstream eaters, and that may have something to do with their favorite jeans that no longer fit or that little black New Year’s dress that has yet to zip.

Many diets have become increasingly popular this year, including the paleo regimen and gluten-free food plan, but one that has especially pulled some to the other side recently is that of vegetarianism. The Vegetarian Times reported this year that 7.3 million Americans are now vegetarians — that means that 3.2 percent of U.S. adults follow a vegetarian-based diet.

Although a significant percentage of Americans now don’t consume meat, there is still a considerable amount of evidence that shows just how misunderstood the vegetarian diet is still. So we’re spotlighting the zero-meat regime and debunking myths that vegetarians encounter daily. Here are six misunderstandings about vegetarians that deserve to be busted.

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1. Vegetarians don’t get enough protein

This is probably the most widespread myth about vegetarianism and one that non-meat eaters regularly bring up. Meat is well known for its high protein content, but what many fail to understand is that beans, grains, nuts, and green vegetables are all full of protein, too.

Women’s Health provides the example of chickpeas, just one type of legume that is stacked with protein. A one-cup serving of chickpeas alone equals about a third of women’s daily protein requirements — 46 grams of proteins per day — and that is just one example of a food that typically frequents the meals of vegetarians. As long as non-meat eaters consume a healthy amount of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, then getting enough protein is typically never an issue. In fact, many Americans consume twice as much protein as they need, leading to bigger issues down the line.

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2. Vegetarians never feel full

That brings us to our next myth: that vegetarians never feel full. Many consumers have a hard time believing that vegetarians ever feel satisfied because they never eat the protein-loaded meat that satiates them. Wrong. Vegetarians can reach a point of satiety, too — they just do it via a plant-based diet.

A vegetarian diet is usually a high-fiber one, because vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are all full of fiber. High-fiber foods provide volume and take longer to digest, making consumers feel full longer without the help of meaty calories.

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3. All vegetarians who avoid meat are animal-rights activists

This is another big one. Yes, some vegetarians do not eat meat in support of animals’ rights, but many others avoid the food for a number of other reasons. According to Vegetarian Timesmore than half (53 percent) of current vegetarians eat a vegetarian diet to improve their overall health, while 54 percent cite animal welfare reasons, 47 percent cite environmental concerns, 39 percent cite “ natural approaches to wellness,” 31 percent cite food safety concerns, 25 percent cite weight loss, and 24 percent cite weight maintenance.

It’s clear that the reasons behind vegetarianism are not as black and white as many like to make them seem. Some consumers commit to the vegetarian lifestyle for the health benefits; some staunchly stand behind the rights of animals. Others cite a variety of reasons, but what is clear is that not all vegetarians avoid meat for ethical purposes.

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4. Being a vegetarian means following a carb-rich diet

Another myth debunked: Not all vegetarians crave pasta like carbs are going out of style.

Now that the total number of vegetarians in the U.S. is rising significantly, restaurants and venues are becoming better about accommodating a wider variety of diets. They offer more meat-free options and are more willing to remove a meat or ingredient from a dish as long when it’s requested. However, the problem is that many times the easiest way for restaurants to offer a seemingly “hearty” vegetarian option is to do so via the spaghetti or pasta route, and the truth of the matter is not every vegetarian wants pasta for every single meal.

Most vegetarians are used to thinking out of the box and are accustomed to reaching satiety by consuming foods other than the typical potatoes and pasta fare. They can enjoy a satisfying meal without loading up on carbs — they’re just waiting for chefs and restaurants to understand that, too.

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5. All vegetarians feel the need to eat fake meat to replace the real thing

Even grocery stores don’t trust that vegetarians can get by on their plant-based diets without at least trying things like tofu, tempeh, mock meat, and veggie burgers. More retailers now serve a variety of meat substitutes that attempt to imitate real meat’s taste and texture. Even Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFM), a vegetarian mecca, makes its own vegan General Tso’s chicken, as if to suggest that vegetarians really want the real thing but can’t have it, so they might as well settle for second best.

The truth is, though, that not all vegetarians crave a meat substitute or are constantly looking for something that can placate for their meat fix. As Women’s Health points out, vegetarians existed long before these meat knockoffs did.

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6. All vegetarians are healthier than their meat-eating counterparts

Consumers often believe that vegetarians are healthier than their meat-eating counterparts because they avoid the fatty protein source that often makes up a significant portion of non-vegetarians’ diets. However, what they forget to consider is how vegetarians replace these protein sources in their diets. It is possible for vegetarians to follow unhealthy diets if they consistently substitute high-fat or high-carb foods for the meat that carnivores instead enjoy. For example, a diet of of carbs and cheese certainly isn’t a healthy one even if it is a vegetarian one, so vegetarianism doesn’t necessarily always equate to healthy.

Even the University of Rochester Medical Center is reluctant to credit the vegetarian diet for better health. It is true that people who follow a vegetarian diet are relatively healthier than those who don’t — vegetarians tend to have a lower incidence of obesity and fewer chronic health problems including some cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes — but it’s still difficult to determine whether the vegetarian diet or the overall lifestyle deserves the credit for better health.

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