Despite the growing evidence that a vegetarian or vegan diet reduces many of the risks of chronic illnesses and diseases like diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, obesity, and numerous forms of cancer, there are still plenty of doubts in people’s minds as to whether these diets provide adequate nutrition. Like the endless chain letters that share misinformation and urban legends that crop up everywhere, these myths about vegans are spread wide and far. New versions pop up every other week, augmented by the powerfully weak claims and substantially loose ties of witnesses who knew someone who knew someone who had problems on a vegetarian diet.
Advertising by big companies and food groups also contributes to the propaganda. We have convinced ourselves that we can’t possibly live without meat, eggs, fish, and dairy as we accept the flood of commercials, billboards, and magazine ads that weave a thick picture of health around these foods and products. They subtly and sometimes not so subtly imply that anyone who doesn’t eat these things will be weak, thin, and sickly. No one questions the elephant’s size, the horse’s speed, or the rhino’s strength, even though they consume nothing but plants. So, why do we accept what we have been taught and assume plants can’t provide proper nutrition? The truth is they can. Let’s bust these myths wide open.
1. Plants don’t provide protein.
False. All nutrition, including the essential amino acids that we require to build muscle, originally enters the food chain within plants. Protein is a vital part of life, including plant life. All fruits, herbs, and vegetables contain protein, but legumes, nuts, beans, seeds, and whole grains come packed with even more. It is true that most plants are deficient in one or two essential amino acids, but by simply eating a variety of plant food, all protein needs are easily met.
2. We must drink milk for calcium.
False. Calcium is abundantly found in many plants. Adult cows don’t drink milk for their calcium needs, but concentrate the minerals naturally found in grass to make a rich food for their growing infants. This is why humans have cultivated grasses, grains, and leafy vegetables for thousands of years. Even some fruits have a good amount of calcium, like raisins and oranges, but leafy greens and legumes are exceptionally rich in the vital mineral. Several servings of greens a day can provide all we need of the important bone-building calcium.
False. It’s true that iron from plants is not as easily absorbed as animal or heme iron, but that doesn’t mean iron-rich vegetables and fruits aren’t abundantly available with all the iron a body needs. Once again the staples of vegetarians—legumes and leafy greens—are rich in this oxygen-carrying mineral. Combining these foods with fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C, like most vegan and vegetarian diets naturally do, also enhances the absorption of iron. It is rather easy to get the iron needed to keep oxygen flowing from our lungs to our cells without meat.
4. Plants don’t supply B12.
True, but neither does meat, not really. Vitamin B12 is only produced by bacteria. Meat, eggs, and dairy only provide B12 due to bacterial contamination since these foods come in contact with waste materials replete with the types of bacteria that convert cobalt into this vitamin. Our B12 requirements are very low, measuring just 3 micrograms or less a day. B12 deficiency is real, but there is little evidence that vegans or vegetarians are more at risk. Most of the time, B12 deficiency is a symptom of another problem that is limiting natural absorption processes. Plant foods also often contain trace amounts of B12 due to their contact with soil where the bacteria can thrive. The same types of bacteria that create this valuable vitamin also live inside our bodies and in our mouths where we can absorb some of what they make. Some green algae and yeasts also seem to contain trace amounts of vitamin B12.
5. We have to eat fish for omega fatty acids.
False. Most of the fat humans require are synthesized in our bodies, but some good fats can only be found in the foods we eat. These essential fatty acids are, once again, originally found in plants, and animals cannot produce them. Fish then store these healthy fats, concentrating them in their bodies after obtaining them from the algae and plants they eat. Micro algae are an excellent source of omega-3s and many other omega fatty acids. Many seeds, nuts, whole grains, and some greens are rich sources of these essential fats too. Vegans and vegetarians eat many whole raw seeds and young grasses, like barley, that offer plenty of omega-3s and omega-6s to keep us healthy. Flaxseed, chia seeds, hempseed, cauliflower, sesame seeds, and Brussels sprouts are all excellent sources of omega-3. Purslane is an herb/weed that contains rich amounts of omega-3s and grows just about everywhere for free.
Whole plant-based foods offer abundant nutrition without the heightened risks that come with the large consumption of animal products, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Eating more plant food leads to a leaner, fitter, healthier lifestyle.