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Dr Ali Hill takes a look at some of the myths surrounding plant-based diets.

15th May 2018
Health, psychology and sociology

During National Vegetarian Week, Dr Ali Hill, Registered Nutritionist and Course Leader in Applied Human Nutrition at Solent University, takes a look at some of the myths surrounding vegetarianism.

Myth 1: All vegetarians eat the same food

There are actually lots of different types of vegetarians. Some don’t eat any animal products (vegans), where as some will eat fish but not meat (pescatarians). Lacto vegetarians will have milk or milk products, not eggs. Ovovegetarians will eat eggs but not milk. Lacto ovo vegetarians will eat both eggs and dairy, but won’t eat meat. There’s also been a rise recently in use of the term flexitarian, which describes people who limit the amount of meat they have or sometimes follow a vegetarian diet.

Myth 2: Vegetarians don’t eat meat because of animal welfare

This is a really common myth. But there are actually lots of different reasons people give up or limit the amount of meat they eat. Ethical reasons is one, but more recently there has been increasing concern about sustainability issues and the carbon footprint of meat production. Some people just don’t like the taste or texture. Others don’t eat meat due to religion or cultural backgrounds, or any other number of different reasons.

Myth 3: Vegetarian diets don’t give you enough protein / aren’t good for athletes

Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. The pattern of amino acids in meat exactly matches what we need as humans. Plants may be missing one or more amino acids, so don’t quite meet our needs. But there’s a way around this – vegetarians need to make sure that when they eat cereals such as wheat, rice and oats, they also have pulses, such as chickpeas, beans and lentils. The cereals are lacking in one amino acid called lysine, but are high in another amino acid called cysteine. Pulses lack cysteine but have a lot of lysine. By eating both together in meals such as beans on toast, pitta bread and hummus, or rice and chilli, you actually get the right levels of amino acids you need. And most people get more than the amount of protein they need in their diet anyway. 

In terms of athletes, there are a number of elite athletes who are vegetarian or vegan. This includes Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton; Olympic silver medalist Lizzie Deignan; and Germany’s strongest man in 2011, Patrik Baboumian. This shows that vegetarian diets can have enough protein even for top level athletes. It just takes planning, which is no bad thing when it comes to an athlete’s diet.

Myth 4: Vegetarians don’t get enough iron

Iron is important to help transport oxygen around the body. If you don’t have enough you might feel tired, and even become anaemic. While it’s true that we absorb iron from animal sources better than we do plant ones, you can actually increase how much you take up from plant sources. All you need to do is have something that has Vitamin C in it at the same time, such as citrus fruit, dark green leafy vegetables or peppers. You can also find breakfast cereals in the shops that have added iron in them. So a small glass of orange juice with your Weetabix can help you absorb the iron more efficiently.

Myth 5: It’s more expensive

A lot of people think that fruit and vegetables are expensive. But they’re not. Fresh, frozen, dried canned or juiced fruit and vegetables all count towards your five a day.

If you’re having juiced fruit and veg you need to limit it to 150ml a day because of the amount of free sugars juices contain.

It’s definitely worth making use of your freezer to keep the prices down. You can batch cook when you have more time, and freeze portions for quick mid-week meals. But often, frozen veg is cheaper than fresh, lasts for longer, and produces less waste as you have longer to use it before it goes off, so you’re less likely to throw it away.

Myth 6: Vegetarian food is healthier / good for weight loss.

A healthy diet is not as simple as whether or not you eat meat. Replacing a bacon bap with a veggie burger and chips isn’t a healthy change. You can have a vegetarian diet that’s high in calories, fat, salt and sugar, which clearly isn’t healthy. You still need to think about what you’re eating if you want to lose weight. However, fruits and vegetables are higher in fibre, which means you’re more likely to feel full after a vegetarian meal than a meat-based equivalent.

The key for health is making sure you have a balanced diet that includes a range of fruit and veg. Think about eating a rainbow, as fruit and veg with different colours has the broadest range of nutrients - applicable whether you’re an omnivore, vegan, or anything in between.