Dietician debunks outdated myths about plant-based diets

by Shauna Schultz, RD

Plant-based diets are gaining momentum for good reason: they’re easy on the environment, kind to animals, and help prevent and manage chronic disease.

According to the most recent survey performed through the Vegetarian Resource Group, five percent of Americans (16 million) are vegetarian and half of those identify themselves as vegan. This number has nearly doubled since their last poll, taken in 2009, when 33 percent said that they are eating vegetarian and vegan meals more often.

Plant-based diets and meals have also been identified as one of the most popular diet trends of 2016. Yet even with their increased popularity, myths persist regarding their nutritional adequacy — or inadequacy. Here are five common concerns and how you can meet your needs through whole, plant-based foods.

How do I get enough protein?

Gone are the days of thinking you must combine proteins to make “complete” proteins. Simply eating an adequate variety of protein-rich plant foods throughout the day will ensure that you meet your needs. Protein is abundant in plant foods and most people are surprised to learn they are getting much more protein than they need. A 150-pound person needs 61 grams/day. This is equivalent to one cup of cooked oatmeal, one cup of soymilk, one cup of lentils, three ounces of tempeh, and two tablespoons of peanut butter. Be sure to include at least three servings of legumes (beans, peas, lentils, soy, peanuts) as part of your daily protein to ensure that you receive an adequate amount of lysine.

But plants don’t give me enough calcium!

Dairy isn’t the only source of calcium; in fact, plants provide plenty of calcium and promote good bone health overall. Plant-based milks provide a convenient 300 mg or more per cup and plenty of whole foods provide calcium as well. You’ll find 179 mg in one cup of cooked kale, 111 mg in two tablespoons of almond butter, 88 mg in one tablespoon of unhulled sesame seeds, 126 mg in one cup of navy beans, and 200 to 400 mg in four ounces of calcium-set tofu.

Shouldn’t I worry about iron?

Iron deficiency isn’t more common among vegans and vegetarians than among non-vegetarians. However, the Dietary Reference Intake is set almost two times higher for vegetarians and vegans because the iron in plant foods isn’t as readily absorbed.

Don’t let this deter you though. Iron is readily found in plants, and consuming vitamin C-rich foods at the same time can enhance the absorption of iron by up to four times. Sprouting and fermenting also increase its bioavailability. Excellent sources of iron include pumpkin seeds (5.2 mg per ¼ cup), chickpeas (4.7 mg per 1 cup), blackstrap molasses (3.6 mg per 1 tablespoon), and fortified cereal (to 18 mg per serving).

What about heart-healthy Omega-3’s?

An adequate intake is easy with concentrated sources of Omega-3’s like chia seeds (4 grams per 2 tablespoons), ground flaxseeds (3.2 grams per 2 tablespoons), hempseeds (1.7 g per 2 tablespoons) and walnuts (2.6 grams per ¼ cup). Add them to smoothies, cereals, muffins, or salads. Vegan supplements with DHA and EPA are also available.

Plant-based eating is too expensive!

Any type of eating plan can be expensive. Pound for pound, plant proteins are far less expensive than animal protein and provide more nutrient density.

Beyond protein, there are many ways to save, such as buying local and in season; meal planning and cooking at home; buying dry beans, grains, and oats in bulk; reducing the use of convenience and processed foods; and growing your own food.

As a dietitian, my goal is to help people increase the number of plant-based meals in their diet. This is one eating style that anyone can implement in some form and reap the benefits. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position paper deems vegetarian and vegan diets appropriate for all stages of life. Just keep it whole — choose whole plant foods and skip the vegan junk foods.

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