Many people switch to a vegetarian diet because they want to lose weight. It's true, vegetarians generally control their weight better than those who eat meat. Trying to lose weight on the typical American diet can be downright impossible-meat and dairy are high in fat and calories, and unless you starve yourself, losing weight will be an uphill battle. However, the building blocks of a healthy vegetarian diet-whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables-are low in fat and calories and high in fiber. Another benefit, vegetarians have a reduced risk for a number of chronic diseases, including: heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and some types of cancer. But despite the bevy of benefits a vegetarian diet provides, people are still shying away. Some say it's too hard, others are afraid they won't ever be able to eat out again. The truth is, with a little practice, following a vegetarian diet can be very rewarding, in more ways than one. The following is a collection of the ten most popular myths often heard about going vegetarian, along with reasons why they're still just myths.
1. ALL VEGETARIANS ARE ALL SLIM
Giving up meat doesn't necessarily mean you will be thin. You can eat Twinkies and drink Diet Coke all day and still call yourself a vegetarian. No matter what you eat, you still have to be careful about what you eat to lose weight and keep it off. Oil and dairy products can be included in a vegetarian diet, but they are very high in fat and low in carbohydrates, so they must be used in moderation. People who continue to use large amounts of oil to cook with, or replace meat with cheese, butter, oils, and eggs, and a lot of high-fat vegetables, such as avocado, can wind up eating more fat and cholesterol than someone who drinks skim milk and eats small amounts of meat. Even unwanted pounds don't magically melt away on a vegetarian diet, although studies do show that vegetarians tend to be leaner than non-vegetarians. If you are choosing a vegetarian diet to lose weight, you need to eat foods high in complex carbohydrates and fiber and low in fat.
2. VEGETARIANS EAT TOO MANY CARBOHYDRATES
Many current weight loss diet books are coming out saying that starches make you fat. But the numbers show otherwise. A large size potato has 150 calories; a cup of rice has 200; a cup of grated cheddar cheese has 450 calories; and a cup of creamed chipped beef has 420. Which do you think will make you fat? In spite of all the hype, there has never been a single, well-conducted study to prove that people lose weight faster on a high-protein diet than on a high-carbohydrate diet with equal calories. "The bottom line is that carbohydrates do not add weight to your body. Dietary fat leads to body fat. In other words, the fat you eat is the fat you wear," says Dr. John McDougall, M.D., author of The McDougall Program for Maximum Weight Loss (Dutton, 1994).
What is so great about carbs is you can eat as much as you want, and not gain weight. Carbohydrates are the most efficient forms of energy that we can consume. Meat, cheese, and oil have virtually no carbohydrates and will not satisfy your appetite.
3. VEGETARIAN DIETS AREN'T BALANCED
The food guide pyramid tells us that we should eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, regardless of whether we eat meat or not. The average meat eater consumes one or fewer servings of vegetables a day, except for maybe a greasy french fry or two, and no servings of fruit. Most vegetarians eat a diet based around whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Which seems more balanced to you?
It's easy to get everything you need from a vegetarian diet-protein, calcium, vitamins, and minerals. There are just a few things you should know before you begin.
The American Dietetic Association (ADA), a well-respected organization dedicated to informing the public about health and nutrition, writes in the Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets, "that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases." The following tips from the ADA will help get you on the right track:
There's so much to choose from. Select a variety of foods, including whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and, if desired, dairy products and eggs. If dairy products and eggs are used, choose lower-fat versions of these foods.
Unrefined is finer. Use whole, unrefined foods whenever possible and minimize intake of sweetened, fatty, and heavily refined foods.
Variety is vital. Mix-and-match your fruits and vegetables to ensure you're getting all the necessary nutrients.
The missing elements. There are only two nutrients a vegan (someone who doesn't eat dairy or eggs, and sometimes even honey) might not get enough of-B12 and vitamin D. To be on the safe side, vegans should include a regular supplement source of vitamin B12 in their diets along with a source of vitamin D if sun exposure is limited.
4. VEGETARIANS DON'T GET ENOUGH PROTEIN
In reality, the average American takes in twice the amount of protein he or she needs and the majority of it is full of fat and artery clogging cholesterol. Among 80,000 Americans surveyed in 1982, and again 10 years later, people who were most likely to gain weight were frequent meat eaters. Who was most likely to have lost weight? People who ate a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (19 or more servings per week), walked four or more hours a week, or ran one to three hours a week (American Journal of Public Health, May 1997).
It's not difficult to get adequate protein on a vegetarian diet, even if you don't eat dairy products or eggs. "Plant sources of protein alone can provide adequate amounts of essential amino acids if a variety of plant foods are consumed and energy needs are met," says the ADA. Good sources of protein are peanuts, almonds, potatoes, avocados, green leafy vegetables, soy foods, legumes, seeds, nuts, and nut butters. All meat and cheese substitutes made from soy are high in protein, but be careful-these products can also be high in fat. Choose low-fat versions.
5. VEGETARIANS DON'T GET ENOUGH CALCIUM
Somehow word got around that the only good sources of calcium are milk and cheese, and if you don't get enough of either one, you'll have weak and brittle bones. If this is true, then why do vegetarians, even vegans, have fewer cases of osteoporosis than non-vegetarians?
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published its largest study ever made on osteoporosis in 1983. Researchers found that by 65 years of age, female vegetarians had 18 percent bone loss and non-vegetarians had 35 percent. Osteoporosis is not caused by a lack of calcium in the diet, but rather an excess of acid (protein) which causes the body to leach calcium from the bones. In his article, "Calcium: How Your Diet Affects Requirements" (Vegetarian Nutrition and Health Letter, Feb 1998), Robert P. Heaney, M.D., gives the following example, "a single fast food hamburger, high in both protein and sodium, can produce a negative calcium balance of 23 mg. Because net calcium absorption is only about 10 percent from most diets, this could increase calcium needs by as much as 230 mg." So the more protein you eat, the more calcium you need. Studies have shown that, because of their low protein content, calcium needs for vegetarians are lower.
And if you're getting all of your calcium from animal sources, that is a lot of fat and calories to take in every day, making weight loss an impossible battle. Milk does have a good supply of calcium, but there are many low-fat, low calorie, calcium-rich alternatives to choose from.
| 1/2 cup tofu with calcium sulfate|
1/2 cup soybean nuts, dry roasted
1/2 cup tahini
1/2 cup soybeans, green, boiled
1/2 cup tempeh
One flour tortilla
One medium orange
1/2 cup collard greens
1/2 cup turnip greens
1/2 cup kale
1/2 cup baked beans
1 ounce sesame seeds, roasted
1 tbsp blackstrap molasses
| 260 mg|
6. VEGETARIANS ARE B12 DEFICIENT
Vegetarian diets provide adequate amounts of all important nutrients, except for B12 which is critical in the formation of red blood cells and the function of the nervous system. Fortunately, it is very easy to get enough B12 in your diet without having to consume animal products. B12 is in all common multivitamin tablets, and many foods are enriched with B12. The RDA is two micrograms per day.
B12 deficiency is extremely rare and usually occurs when the body has a problem absorbing it. Don't worry, you won't run out right away, the body usually has several years worth of B12 stored at any given time.
7. I WON'T EVER BE ABLE TO EAT OUT
You'd be surprised how easy it is to eat out. With the growing popularity of dining healthy, most restaurants are jumping on the bandwagon and offer at least one low-fat veggie dish. According to the ADA, eight out of 10 restaurants now include more healthful choices on their menu. Even restaurants that don't offer vegetarian entrees on their menu can easily whip-up a meatless pasta or vegetable plate, just ask. If not, side dishes are another option-mashed potatoes, steamed veggies, and rice pilaf are all easy-to-find low-fat choices. Also, most ethnic restaurants, such as Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and Italian, have many meatless dishes and few use dairy. Be careful-if you really want to lose weight, watch out for oily entrees. Ask them to use little or no oil when preparing your foods.
8. I'LL HAVE TO GIVE UP ALL MY FAVORITE FOODS
If your meals have been centered around meat for a long time (which is high in fat and cholesterol), to follow a vegetarian diet, just change your "center" to low-fat, high-carbohydrate foods, such as pasta, rice, or potatoes. "Where meat, poultry, and fish are often the cornerstone of the non-vegetarian diet; cereal, grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds form the basis of vegetarian diets," says Patricia Johnson, head of the Department of Nutrition at Loma Linda University. You can use the same sauces, marinades, and spices as before, provided they're low-fat.
And you don't have to give up everything. There are many delicious readily available low-fat meat and dairy substitutes made from soy-from sausages and hamburgers, to milk and cheese. Use them as you would regular meat and cheese. Healthy alternatives are available at natural food stores, even supermarkets carry a wide variety of healthy vegetarian foods. If you'd like to be a little adventuresome, check out some vegetarian cookbooks at your local bookstore to get ideas. Have fun and experiment.
9. A VEGETARIAN DIET IS BAD FOR CHILDREN
Kids fed vegan diets can grow healthfully, perhaps even more so than their meat-eating counterparts. "Well-planned vegan and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy and lactation. Appropriately planned vegan and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets satisfy nutrient needs of infants, children, and adolescents and promote normal growth," says the ADA. The simple trick to good vegetarian nutrition is serving kids a wide variety of wholesome and fortified foods at mealtimes and as snacks.
Children have different nutritional needs than adults. Unlike us, they need larger amounts of fat and calories. "Without enough calories, kids' bodies will burn protein for energy, rather than using it for growth. Adding concentrated calories in the form of fats and carbohydrates will help kids achieve their caloric needs," says Carol M. Bareuther, R.D. Fats in the form of avocado, nuts, nut butters, seeds, and dairy, if you wish, will provide a concentrated source of calories needed by children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids over the age of two years consume 30 percent of their daily calories as fats, with 50 to 55 percent of calories coming from carbohydrates, and the remaining 10 to 15 percent of calories from protein. Babies need 30 to 50 percent of their calories from fat to fuel their rapid growth.
Kids are always on the run. Make sure they have enough to eat throughout the day. The following are nutritious snack ideas: apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, peaches, peanut butter and jelly, bagels, popcorn, pretzels, bean burritos or tacos, soy yogurt, soy milk, rice cakes, or sandwiches.
10. ALL VEGETARIANS ARE ACTIVISTS
Actually, the number one reason people follow a vegetarian diet is for health reasons. "Scientific data suggest positive relationships between a vegetarian diet and reduced risk for several chronic degenerative diseases and conditions, including obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and some types of cancer," says the ADA. Already, 12.4 million people are vegetarians and more and more people are witnessing and experiencing the benefits of a plant-based way of eating. Projections suggest that by the millennuim, one in 10 Americans will no longer eat meat or poultry.