Ever since the 2011 documentary Forks Over Knives put plant-based eating in the spotlight, the popularity of veggie-forward diets has only increased over the years.
According to Nielsen, nearly 40% of Americans are now “actively trying to eat more plant-based foods”. While a staggering 94% of Americans are willing to eat more plant-forward meals, states a recent report published by the Earth Day Network and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Today, over 40% of U.S. households are consuming plant-based milk while 14% of households are eating plant-based meats, notes the Good Food Institute (GFI).
However, as plant-based diets become more mainstream, misconceptions that surround veggie-forward eating have also multiplied.
Here, four nutrition experts debunk some of the most prevalent myths about plant-based eating:
Myth 1# Plant-based eating is the same as veganism and vegetarianism. “A vegan diet completely excludes all animal products in the diet and often lifestyle, including dairy, eggs and meat,” tells Alexis Joseph, Columbus-based nutritionist and founder of Hummusapien. While “a vegetarian diet includes eggs and dairy but does not include meat, poultry and fish,” she explains. Plant-based eating, however, means adopting a diet that prioritizes whole plant foods. “But It doesn’t have to mean eliminating any nutrient or food group altogether,” notes Jaclyn London, registered dietitian and head of nutrition and wellness at WW (Weight Watchers). “There’s more than one way to adopt a more plant-based style of eating, but the keyword there is ‘more’—more vegetables, more fruit, more whole-grains plus nuts, seeds, legumes and plant-derived oils,” adds the nutritionist.
Myth 2# It’s hard to get enough protein on a plant-based diet. “Protein needs are grossly overstated in America, which is fueled largely by the diet industry,” says Joseph. “Eating less meat doesn’t mean you’re going to suffer from protein deficiency,” tells the registered dietitian. “Protein is found in all foods. It’s impossible not to get enough protein if you’re eating a balanced diet,” she points out. “Even foods like oats, whole-grain pasta, vegetables and fruit of all types will provide some amount of protein, even if nominal,” adds London. To up your protein intake, load up on beans, legumes, peanut butter, soy milk, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds to your daily diet, suggests Claire Power, plant-based nutritionist and founder of Healthy French Wife. Power also suggests trying vegan protein powders made of pea, hemp or brown rice protein.
Myth 3# Plant-forward eating is expensive. If your diet predominantly consists of unprocessed plant protein foods like beans, lentils, nuts and seeds then a plant-based diet can actually be cheaper than a typical meat-heavy diet, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Superfood Swap and The Flexitarian Diet. To make your meals more budget-friendly, stock up on seasonal produce and indulge in expensive plant-based foods—like vegan cheeses, yogurts, faux meat and burgers—only occasionally and in small amounts. “It will not only keep the costs down but will also help you focus more on getting nutrients from natural plant-based foods,” tells Blatner.
Myth 4# All plant-based foods are healthy. Just because something is plant-based doesn’t mean it’s automatically healthy. “There are vegan versions of almost everything these days, but vegan isn’t synonymous with healthy,” says Joseph. “Those foods are fun and I enjoy them too, but they shouldn’t make up the bulk of your diet,” she tells. The best strategy to eat healthy on a plant-based diet is to focus more on whole foods, tells Blatner. “If something comes in a package, read the ingredient list to see if it contains items that you would use in your own kitchen,” suggests the nutritionist. “The more C.R.A.P. (chemicals, refined sugar/flour, artificial additives and preservatives) it contains, the more processed and less healthful food is,” she points out. A healthy plant-based diet is one that is both balanced and diverse, says Power. Ideally, it should be high in whole-grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, fruits and veggies and very limited in processed foods,” she adds.
Myth 5# Plant-based meals are not very filling. On the contrary, “many people feel less hungry on a whole-food plant-based diet than they do on a typical American diet, which tends to be low in fiber and high in sugar,” states SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University. A plant-based meal can be very satisfying provided it’s well-balanced. “Plant proteins are very filling. In fact, they may keep you more full than animal protein because, in addition to the staying power of protein, they also have filling fiber,” tells Blatner.
Myth 6# Going plant-based means swearing off meat forever. “A plant-based diet is mostly plants, but there’s still room for foods like meat, poultry, eggs, cheese, yogurt and fish,” tells Blatner. In fact, “research suggests that following a flexitarian diet—increasing plant-based foods and reducing, but not eliminating, animal foods—yields similar health benefits as a vegetarian diet, like reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes,” says Joseph. Meaning, indulging in cheese or some chicken here and there isn’t going to make or break your health, assuming you don’t have an extreme medical condition that requires giving up a particular food group altogether.
Myth 7# Plant-based diets are very restrictive. “The definition of ‘plant-based’ is often misinterpreted and in some cases, can be extremely misapplied,” says London. Plant-forward diet involves making more of your meals veggie-based and eating more natural plant-based foods in general. “Anything that feels restrictive won’t benefit you in the long-run, so if trying a more plant-forward style of eating makes you feel limited, then you may want to reassess your approach,” suggests London.
Myth 8# Plant-based diets aren’t suitable for children.
Yes, they are, says Power. However, it’s important to ensure that the bulk of their diet is made of natural plant-based foods like fruits veggies, whole-grains, seeds and nuts, notes the nutritionist. Also, “parents need to be mindful that their kids get enough calcium, protein, zinc, iodine and iron from food sources as well as supplement their diet with a Vitamin B12 supplement,” she adds.
Why plant-forward eating is good for you?
Adopting a diet rich in natural plant-based foods has an array of benefits for your health as well as the environment. “Regularly consuming foods high in plant proteins (like beans, legumes and tofu) versus animal protein can help prevent and reverse a slew of chronic conditions, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease,” says Joseph. Additionally, “these nutrients also help support healthy cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels,” notes the nutrition expert. Research also suggests that a healthy plant-based diet may help prolong the lives of those living with chronic kidney disease (CKD).
Moreover, “plant-based foods are packed with fiber and phytonutrients that support immunity, combat inflammation and feed the healthy bacteria in your gut,” says Joseph. And as an added bonus, “plant proteins are far more affordable and far better for the planet than animal proteins,” she points out. Eating more whole plant foods reduces your carbon footprint, lowers habitat destruction and saves water. “Twenty servings of vegetables have fewer greenhouse emissions than one serving of meat, with beef and lamb having the highest emissions,” tells Joseph.
Plant-forward eating tips for beginners
If you’re considering switching to a plant-based diet, try these nutritionist-backed tips to ease into the habit effectively:
- Start small. “In order to transition to a more plant-centric diet, I always recommend starting small. Overturning your entire diet in a day is overwhelming and lessens the likelihood of you sticking with it,” says Joseph. Instead of jumping to extremes, pick two small changes to implement each week, she suggests.
- Make smart swaps. “Flipping the ratio of veggies-to-meat in your everyday meals and snacks is the simplest place to start, like doubling the veggies in your pasta, adding bean-based chili to your weekly repertoire or making breakfast-for-dinner using extra sauteed veggies,” suggests London.
- Gather easy recipes that you can make on your busiest days. Blatner recommends compiling a bunch of quick and easy plant-based recipes that you can whip up when you’re too tired or hard-pressed for time. Alternatively, you can prepare make-ahead meals over the weekends that you can reheat and enjoy throughout the week.
- Don’t beat yourself up. “It’s okay to fail here and there—progress is better than perfection,” says Power. So if you slip-up, don’t be hard on yourself. Remember, patience and consistency are key to forging new habits.
Last but not the least, speak with a registered dietitian or nutritionist before starting any new diet. “There is nothing more personalized than health,” says Joseph. Anyone with a history of disordered eating should proceed with extreme caution when following a diet, especially one that eliminates or limits intake of particular food groups, she adds.