A lot of the emails that I get from readers begin this way:
Hi Matt! Love your site. First I should tell you that I’m not a vegetarian…
I can’t figure out why people need to get this off their chest right away … in the future, you can skip it!
I actually think many, many readers of this site are non-vegetarians who lean towards eating mostly plants, so you’re far from alone. No shame in just being curious; we all started out that way.
And so it occurred to me the other day when I was talking to someone who called himself “veg-curious” that I should write more posts for the veg-curious. (This occurred to me because he said, “You should write more posts for the veg-curious.”)
Today’s veg-curious-friendly topic: things you hear about vegetarianism that are just plain wrong.
Myth #1: You can’t get enough protein as a vegetarian.
Ah, the daddy of them all. To most people, meat = protein, so without one you can’t have the other.
This isn’t right. Meat is a rich source of protein, sure, but beans, grains, nuts, and green vegetables (and dairy, if you’re not vegan) provide plenty of protein to get what you need.
Rather than stress about protein, what has worked for me is to simply be mindful to include one of decent protein source in every meal or snack — just something with a little bit of protein to make sure you don’t fall into the trap of eating nothing but carbohydrates when you stop eating meat.
Protein powder in a smoothie, nuts on a salad, hummus on a bagel, lentils or white beans in a whole-grain pasta dish … you get the idea.
Myth #2: You can’t be a serious athlete and be vegetarian.
However you define serious, this one is seriously wrong.
For me, “serious” meant improving my marathon time and qualifying for Boston. And the belief that if I stopped eating meat, I’d get slower is what kept me from going vegetarian for the first few years that I felt the pull to do it.
The funny thing is that it wasn’t until I went vegetarian that I took the final 10 minutes off my time and qualified, just six months later.
My point isn’t that being vegetarian is an advantage. Some say it is, others strongly disagree. Rather, my point is that if people can excel as vegetarians in the extremely competitive realm of competitive sports, where diet plays an enormous role in performance, then it’s ridiculous to let this myth hold you back if you’ve got the desire to stop eating meat.
Myth #3: Vegetarians mainly eat salads and tofu.
They say there’s a little truth in every stereotype, and yes, plenty of vegetarians do eat this way. But if tofu and salads were what it meant to be vegetarian, I’d have failed at this long ago.
A boring diet like this results from the combination of poor planning and unwillingness to cook your own food.
Make the effort to find healthy vegetarian recipes, shop for ingredients in advance, and be willing to spend some time preparing food that nourishes you. You’ll get that time back in the form of health and energy.
Myth #4: Being vegetarian will make you healthy and help you lose weight.
Plenty of people who preach vegetarianism will tell you that this is true. I will tell you it is not.
Being vegetarian can make you healthy. It can help you lose weight. But you can be healthy with a Paleo diet too, and with many other kinds of diets for that matter.
And on the flip side, you can be extremely unhealthy as vegetarian if you think any old thing that doesn’t have meat in it passes the “should I eat it?” test. There are plenty of vegetarians who do this and are fat as a result.
The primary health benefit I’ve noticed from being vegetarian, honestly, is that it limits my choices for eating out, so I end up making more of my food than I used to. Fast food is no longer an option for the occasional splurge when I’m in the car, so if I’ve got a long drive I need to bring some fruit or nuts to stay full. Same with going out to dinner or to a party where I know there won’t be much for me to eat.
Invariably, this causes you to make better choices, and shifts the focus of the evening from what you’re eating to whom you’re spending time with.
Myth #5: Going vegetarian involves “taking away” from your plate.
I remember when I used to envision what it would be like if I took the plunge and “gave up” meat: I saw my normal dinner plate, only with the side dishes expanded to fill the hole that meat left.
It turns out that nothing could be further from the truth. When you stop eating meat, you’re forced to be more adventuresome in your cooking and eating.
You discover Indian and Thai Food. You go to farmers markets and plan your meals around what’s in season. You check out the weird vegetables in the produce section that you used to breeze by in the grocery store without noticing. Instead of eating fewer foods, you eat more.
Myth #6: Vegetarian cooking involves a lot of fake meats and weird health foods.
Fake meats have their place — I like them for transitioning and for events one usually associates with eating meat, like cookouts. But for the most part, I don’t think about “replacing” meat, so I don’t eat these much.
And as for the “health foods” — I’m talking about things like wheatgrass, goji berries, chlorella, etc. — they’re fun to try, but they don’t make up a large part of a vegetarian diet any more than they do an omnivorous one.
You know how I eat, mostly? It’s described in Born to Run as “eating like a poor-person.” (And I don’t mean McDonald’s, although as Brendan Brazier points out in Thrive, that’s where you now get the most caloric bang for your buck.)
I’m talking about rice, lentils and beans, pasta, bulk nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Occasionally, more expensive things like quinoa, tempeh, and every once in a while the fake meats and the health foods.
But mostly it’s cheap, whole food. And I think that’s the healthiest kind.
Myth #7: As long as you’re getting enough protein, you don’t need to worry about anything else.
Global warming, financial crises, what to wear … all these concerns just melt away as long as you’re getting enough protein.
Seriously, as we said earlier, getting enough protein isn’t the hard part. (In fact, I’ve heard that there’s never been a case of protein deficiency that wasn’t a result of overall caloric deficiency — although maybe that in itself is a myth.)
But this isn’t to say you don’t need to think about any nutrients, vitamins or minerals.
Iron is a big one, and Vitamin B12 is another if you’re vegan. It’s easy to be deficient in these if you don’t take care to include good sources in your diet or supplement (and there’s some argument over whether any whole food, non-animal sources of B12 are sufficient — some say you need to supplement to get it).
It’s not hard … you just shouldn’t ignore these issues. Too many vegetarians are so gung-ho about not needing to worry about what they eat (probably in response to all the questions about protein) that they end up being poor examples of vegetarian health.
What other myths are out there? The ones here are based mostly on my own experience prior to being vegetarian, so I’m sure there are others. Add to this list with a comment!