Gloria Steinem summed up one of the challenges of life very well when she said, "The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn."
This quote rings especially true when it comes to what we choose to eat. Our food choices are influenced by a range of factors that make it almost impossible to entertain change. Growing up, I was told that I needed to consume dairy for calcium, eat meat to get strong and fish to get smart. Imagining food without animal products on my plate seemed almost unimaginable.
However, I always felt a sense of nagging unease about my food choices -- what if everything I knew about food and nutrition was wrong? What if I truly had no valid justifications for choosing to consume animal products? What began as a path of unlearning -- about taste, tradition and nutrition -- ultimately culminated in me choosing a vegan lifestyle.
But unlearning in the age of information means having to sift through an avalanche of Internet articles discussing conflicting scientific reports and marketing propaganda (often indistinguishable from each other) that are largely fueled by billion dollar industries whose bottom lines depend on our uninformed food choices. Some anti-vegan rhetoric is delivered with so much conviction that, at times, I still have difficulty separating fact from fiction.
The problem, however, is that the longer you let myths go unchallenged, the greater is their ability to masquerade as truths. So, I decided to put my mind (and hopefully the minds of many others) at ease by reaching out to One Green Planet's expert community and getting their input on the top vegan nutrition myths.
This is what I uncovered in my discussions with some prominent voices in the plant-based nutrition space:
1. Is it true that plant protein is inherently inferior to animal protein?
Brenda Davis, RD and co-author of "Becoming Raw": In reality, people have no greater need for animal protein than do gorillas or elephants, both of whom have far bigger muscles than we do, yet are plant eaters. It comes as a surprise for people to learn that essential amino acids are made by plants, not by animals. We can get them from animals, but somewhere along the food chain they originally came from plants. Generally, if vegans eat a variety of plant foods (legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits and grains) and consume sufficient calories, protein needs will be met. However, if protein intakes are marginal, legumes become especially important.
2. Do I need calcium from dairy products to maintain strong bones?
Joseph Keon, nutritionist and author of "Whitewash: The Disturbing Truth about Cow's Milk and Your Health": Milk offers no guarantee of protection from bone fracture while at the same time burdens the body with additional saturated fat and cholesterol, hormones and growth factors and, frequently, antibiotic residues. Millions of people the world over maintain fracture-resistant bones into their seventh and even eighth decade of life by consuming calcium largely from plant sources. The calcium we need may be easily obtained from leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, legumes and some nuts and seeds.
3. Should I be worried about B12 deficiency?
Vesanto Melina, RD and co-author of "Becoming Raw": B12 originates from bacteria, not animal products. The reason this nutrient cannot be obtained from plant-foods is because of our sanitary methods of food production. In contrast, meat eaters obtain vitamin B12 that is produced by bacteria present in the flesh of the animals. This lack in sanitary plant foods does not mean that all vegans are deficient in this nutrient, because they can easily obtain the recommended levels of B12 via foods that are fortified with B12 (non-dairy milks, soyfoods, veggie "meats" and breakfast cereals) or via B12 supplements. In fact, all people over the age of 50, on any diet, are advised to use fortified foods or supplements as their B12 sources, as these forms are better absorbed by many seniors than the B12 from animal products. Many seniors develop deficiency of vitamin B12 due to diminished intestinal absorption. Like people on any diet, vegans simply need to make sure they have a reliable source of this essential nutrient.
4. Can I get adequate amounts of Omega-3 fats without consuming fish oil?
Ginny Messina, MPH, RD and co-author of "Vegan for Life": Vegans aren't at higher risk for heart disease than people who eat fish, but many experts suggest erring on the side of a little insurance by supplementing, especially for those who suffer from depression. Vegans who want to include DHA and EPA in their diets can get it the same way fish do, which is from algae. In fact, from an environmental perspective, it makes sense for everyone to choose algae-derived supplements over fish oil.
5. As a vegan, don't I have to consume too much soy to meet my nutritional needs?
Lauri Boone, RD and raw food nutritionist: You don't need to fill your plate with tofu or other soyfoods for your diet to be nutritionally complete. Soyfoods -- which include tofu, tempeh, edamame, and soymilk, among others -- certainly provide a simple way for vegans to meet their protein needs. But you can easily obtain all of the essential amino acids -- along with fiber, antioxidants, minerals and phytochemicals -- your body needs by eating a variety of grains and legumes each day. Add to that a few servings of nuts and seeds and plenty of fresh vegetables, and you will begin to see how easy it is to get all of the nutrients your body needs -- with or without soy. However, if you are going to consume soy, choose organic soyfoods to ensure that the soy you consume is not genetically modified and is not grown using pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals.
6. While vegan diets may be okay for adults, aren't they unsafe for infants and children?
Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, LDN and co-author of "Simply Vegan": Babies and children grow and develop normally on vegan diets and can have significant health advantages -- vegan children often eat more fruits and vegetables, are typically leaner and don't develop a taste for meat, dairy products and eggs -- foods that are linked to health problems later in life. As all parents should know, it is important to give children the nutrients they need. For parents of young vegans, this means making sure that infants' and children's diets have good sources of vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, protein and enough calories to support growth.
To round up my discussion on vegan nutrition, I chatted with Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, co-author of the best-selling book, "The China Study" and most recently featured in the documentary "Forks over Knives" about his No. 1 tip for maintaining good health and preventing disease. According to him, "The consumption of whole plant-based foods is the best strategy for health maintenance and disease prevention. Wholeness means foods having the natural proportions of nutrients and nutrient-like chemicals. As a consequence, the whole effect is greater than the sum of its parts -- thus allowing for the countless natural biological interactions to take place."
So there you have it: not only is a plant-based (vegan) diet not restrictive in terms of providing us with adequate nutrition, but if we also focus on a diet rich in whole plant-based foods, getting the right nutrients and maintaining good health should be the least of our concerns!
Thanks to the great work of these experts, it turns out the unlearning curve for vegan nutrition is no longer as steep and treacherous as it was in the past.
"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them."
-- Galileo Galilei
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