Too many carbs! Not enough protein! Nutritional deficiencies! If you follow a plant-based diet, you likely have come across these critiques. You may have even had these concerns yourself. You may be wondering if making the switch is a wise move for the long-term.
Plant-based diets are gaining popularity (Agrinew-pubs.com, 2020). Vegans and vegetarians only make up 3% and 6% of the American population respectively. However, nearly 40% of Americans in 2018 were shifting towards a higher plant-based intake (Agrinews-pubs.com, 2020). These trends are projected to increase. There is powerful research-based evidence regarding the health benefits of plant-based diets, much of which I cover in my post “Evidence at a Glance: Plant-Based Diet Benefits.“
Despite these trends, there are many myths and misconceptions that prevent a number of people from foregoing animal products and adopting a plant-based diet. Attitudes of the general population towards the minority of people who eat nearly or exclusively plant-based diets range from respect and admiration to irritation, social ostracizing, and stereotyping (Judge & Wilson, 2019). This post will explore misconceptions, barriers, and fears that prevent people from adopting plant-based diets–and provide research-backed answers.
Common Misconceptions and Barriers to Adoption of Plant-based Diets
There are a number of non-science based biases, fears, and outdated cultural value systems that currently impact how people view nutrition and diet. According to research, barriers to adoption of mostly or exclusively plant-based diets include the following:
- Social stigmas: Following plant-based diets challenges social norms and threatens the status quo–as such, those that adopt these diets are at times subjected to mocking, anger, insults, “concern,” and other negative social experiences
- Vegans and vegetarians may be seen as “self-righteous” and judgmental concerning the non-plant-based majority
- Exclusively plant-based options may be limited or absent when eating outside the home
- Counter-marketing influences: Plant-based diets represent an economic challenge to numerous traditional food producers–such producers use their resources to take counter measures in marketing and funding biased research studies
- Vegans/ Vegetarians are effeminate: Eating meat is “manly:” left over cultural perspectives regard dominance over the natural world (such as through hunting and subsequently, eating of meat) as “masculine,” and thus failure to eat meat as feminine. Indeed research has shown males tend to have a more negative view towards vegetarianism and veganism than females.
- Missing out: people perceive plant-based diets as restrictive and thus, less enjoyable–“I’ll miss eating chicken, cheese, steak, etc.”
- Fears of deficiencies: there is a perspective that eating mostly or exclusively plant-based diets is “unnatural”–thereby placing people who do follow such diets at risk for various nutritional deficiencies otherwise avoided by traditional diets
- Practicality: people view plant-based diets as expensive, and meal preparation as potentially time consuming/ difficult
- Knowledge gaps: some people may not have a negative perception of plant-based diets but rather, simply lack knowledge regarding what such diets consist of/ how to switch to a plant-dominate diet. “What would I eat each day?” (Greger, 2016; Judge & Wilson, 2019; Lea, Crawford, & Worsley, 2006)
- Fear of becoming way too sexy: ok, I made that one up 😉
Can you relate?
As I read the list above, I can relate to nearly all of these concerns. Its always easier to have what everyone else is having, and some vegans can get a little self-righteous and irritating (don’t we all in fairness?). The marketing for “health” foods and products such as whey protein, high protein diets, eggs, dairy products, lean meats/ etc., can be very convincing. I can definitely relate to concerns of losing muscle mass prior to switching away from a high-animal protein diet and adopting a plant-based diet.
Further, I have worried even after adopting a plant-based diet about becoming nutrient deficient–what if there are nutrients in meat that we have not yet recognized or fully understand? What if these nutrients play a role in our health?
Is it really “natural” to eat fully plant-based? Cost-wise, it does seem health-foods/ fresh produce are expensive at a glance. Finally, when I took the plunge to go plant-based (an experience I share in my post “My Personal Experience: Switching to a Plant-based Diet),” I can say I felt a little lost when meal times rolled around initially.
So how valid are these fears? Breaking away from the majority can be unsettling. Is making the change worth it? Are there consequences health or otherwise to going mostly or entirely plant-based?
Social stigmas? These are decreasing rapidly!
While it may be true that some people look at vegans and vegetarians with disregard, there is growing awareness concerning sustainability issues of current animal-product agricultural practices, concerns about animal cruelty caused by industrial farming practices, and growing awareness of health problems associated with diets high in animal products (Bryant, 2019). In a study of 1000 adults in the U.K., the majority of participants viewed vegans and vegetarians positively. Forbes lists reasons for increased acceptance of plant-based diets as being due to exposure on the internet, endorsements by celebrities and athletes, documentaries (such as “What the Health”), and increased options in restaurants and grocery stores (Forgrieve, 2018). Plant-based meat alternatives saw a 17% increase in demand, while traditional animal product food demands increased only by 2% in 2017.
My own experience? I have noted that while plant-based options are increasing nationally, restaurants where I live have not quite kept pace. Generally, I avoid eating out as a rule as I can often make better food at home for less money and better nutrition. If I have to compromise my standards such as at a business outing or conference, I pick the healthiest (yet satiating) option possible and get back on track as soon as the outing is over.
Restaurants are increasingly offering vegan options
As acceptance and awareness increase regarding plant-based diets and lifestyles, businesses are catching on. A list of just some of the chain restaurants offering vegan options includes the following (and the list is growing):
- Bruegger’s Bagels
- Cheesecake Factory
- Olive Garden
- TGI Fridays
- Blaze Pizza
- Daily Grill
- P. F. Chang’s (Feinberg, 2019; Plona, 2018)
Will plant-based diets make you “weak?”
The documentary “The Game Changers” (Pace & Wilks, 2018) has gone a long way in changing the public perception that plant-based diets make a person weaker or less athletic. The documentary features James Wilks, a mixed martial artist who trains military personnel, NFL wide-receiver Grif Whalen, a record setting strong-man Patrik Baboumian, as well as boxers, sprinters, and numerous other elite athletes. These plant-based athletes are shown performing at high levels in sports that depend on strength, speed, and power. Not only do these athletes challenge the status quo noting that plant-based athletes can be strong and powerful, but they credit their recovery abilities and performance specifically as enhanced by plant-based diets.
While athletes live out their own plant-based experiments and experiences, the research on plant-based diets and athleticism remains in its infancy (Lynch, Johnston, & Wharton, 2018). A literature review in 2018 noted that current research appears to show no compromise in athletic performance when switching to a plant-based diet, while noting the well-researched benefits for long-term health considerations (Lynch et al., 2018).
Research shows no decline in athleticism: what about a boost in athleticism?
Researchers speculate that plant-based diets may enhance athletic performance, matching observations made by athletes in the documentary “Game Changers.” Plant-based diets may enhance athletic performance through the following means:
- Reduced body fat
- Improved VO2 max
- Improved glycogen storage due to high complex carbohydrate intake
- Improved tissue oxygenation and reduced blood viscosity (or “thickness”) related lower blood lipid/ cholesterol volumes
- Improved blood vessel reactivity/ ability to dilate and enhance blood flow
- Reduced oxidative stress due to improved antioxidant intake AND improved endogenous antioxidant production
- Reduced baseline inflammation levels (Barnard, Goldman, Loomis, Kahleova, Levin, Neabore, & Batts, 2019)
Are plant-based diets nutritionally sufficient? Do you “need” meat? What about protein?
I can not word it any better than the position statement of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the United State’s largest organization for food and nutrition professionals):
It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes. Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage. Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity.”(Melina, Craig, & Levin, 2016, Abstract)
Nutrition deficiencies and plant-based diets
As I discuss in my post “Healthy Lifestyle & Still Getting Sick? Nutrition Approaches,” nutrition deficiencies of various nutrients are common for both omnivores (those eating meat, dairy, eggs, etc.) and those adhering to strictly plant-based diets. The deficiencies differ in terms of the nutrients involved. According to the American Dietetic Association:
- Protein needs can be met and even exceeded for vegans, including vegan athletes, through consumption of grains, legumes, and beans. I discuss protein considerations in detail in my post “Protein! Sources, Amounts, & Health: Current Evidence.“
- Omega 3 fatty acids: plant-based ALA omega 3 fatty acids have poor conversion rates to the human bio-active forms DHA and EPA, though conversion rates may improve if excesses of Omega 6 fatty acids are avoided. Omega 6’s in excess are to be avoided and are especially prevalent in vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, sesame, and sunflower oils. ALA intakes from flaxseed, walnuts, soy, canola oil, and other sources can improve Omega 3 levels for those on vegan diets. Levels can be boosted further by vegan Omega 3 supplements made from algae (a major source of DHA and EPA in fish).
- Iron: Iron blood levels in plant-based dieters and omnivores are similar, though plant-based dieters need nearly double the iron intake of omnivores. The body appears to adapt to varying intakes through increased absorption and decreased excretion. Soaking or sprouting seeds, grains, and beans can improve iron bio-availability. Tea, coffee, and cocoa may decrease absorption while vitamin C improves absorption.
- Zinc: Zinc deficiency can occur with plant-based diets. Zinc absorption like iron absorption can be improved by soaking or sprouting seeds, grains, legumes, and beans. These are good vegan sources of zinc.
- Iodine: Sea vegetables (i.e.-kelp, seaweed) are an excellent natural source of iodine, though caution must be used as excesses in intake can easily occur. In absence of sea vegetable intake, iodine deficiencies can occur in plant-based diets.
- Calcium: calcium excretion in the urine is higher for those eating meat, dairy, fish, grains, nuts, and high sodium diets, whereas vegetables and fruits reduce calcium excretion. Fortified foods are recommended for vegans. Leafy green vegetables are rich sources of calcium, and plant-based milks are typically fortified.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D deficiency is common in persons regardless of diet. Sun exposure, supplements, and/or fortified foods are necessary to maintain healthy vitamin D levels. Vitamin D can be toxic in excess. A simple blood test can help guide supplementation needs (or lack of need).
- Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 supplementation is a MUST for those following strict plant-based diets. Deficiencies can cause permanent nerve damage. Many vegan foods are fortified, but a supplement assures adequate intake (Craig, Mangels, & American Dietetic Association, 2009; Sebastiani et al., 2019).
- Creatine: Vegan / vegetarian athletes may want to consider supplementing with creatine (3-5 grams per day–there are vegan friendly versions available) as those on strict plant-based diets have been found to have lower muscle levels (Rogerson, 2017). Creatine supports activities requiring strength and intensity.
- Beta-alanine: Vegan/ vegetarian athletes who engage in exercise exceeding 60 minutes duration may consider a beta-alanine supplement as a means of boosting muscular levels of carnitine (an amino acid shown to buffer protons, scavenge free-radicals, and chelate metals in muscle tissue leading to improved high intensity and endurance capacity) (Rogerson, 2017)
Diets with meat, dairy, eggs, etc. are frequently nutrient deficient
Think that list above is concerning? It’s really not. Careful planning and/ or a simple low-dose multivitamin (and possibly a vegan Omega 3 supplement) can cheaply and readily close any gap (National Institutes of Health, 2019). Think you are immune to nutrition deficiencies eating an omnivore diet including meat, eggs, and dairy? You are not. In the United States, despite the majority of the population eating an omnivore diet, the following nutrients are frequently deficient:
- Vitamins A (superior intake for plant-based dieters)
- Folate (superior intake for plant-based dieters)
- Vitamin C (superior intake for plant-based dieters)
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E (superior intake for plant-based dieters)
- Vitamin K (superior intake for plant-based dieters)
- Magnesium (superior intake for plant-based dieters)
- Potassium (superior intake for plant-based dieters)
- Fiber (superior intake for plant-based dieters)
- Omega-3 fatty acids (Bruins, Bird, Aebischer, & Eggersdorfer, 2018; Craig et al., 2009)
Ironically, most of the nutrients lacking in high-income nations happen to be abundant in plant-based diets (Bruins et al., 2018).
What about all those ‘carbs’ in plant-based diets?
As low-carb, high protein, moderate to high fat fad diets are promoted by celebrities and other entities, people have developed a fear of carbohydrates. Erroneously, people lump refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour together with complex carbohydrates found in legumes, beans, fruit, sweet potatoes, and whole plant-based foods in their aversion. The truth is, high protein/ moderate to high fat diets like keto diets are associated with serious health problems including increased mortality rates, increased cancer rates, heart disease, inflammation, and other issues. I discuss this topic in my post “Keto? Just Say No!.”
What about diabetics?
If anyone would fear carbs, it is diabetics. And yet, according to an article found in the journal Diabetes Spectrum, the journal of the American Diabetic Association:
Interventional studies have shown that vegetarian diets, especially a vegan diet, are effective tools in glycemic control and that these diets control plasma glucose to a greater level than do control diets, including diets traditionally recommended for patients with diabetes (e.g., diets based on carbohydrate counting)”Pawlak (2017, Abstract).
Pawlak (2017) cites a meta-analysis of 6 studies with 225 diabetics who were placed on a vegan diet (5 studies), or a vegetarian diet including dairy and eggs (1 study). Both groups reduced their HgA1C levels, however the vegan participants had the best results. In another study reviewed by Pawlak (2017):
After 22 weeks, individuals as- signed to consume the high-carbo- hydrate vegan diet lowered their A1C from an average of 8.0 to 7.1% (12.6%). A1C in the control group dropped from 7.9 to 7.4% (6.8%) in the same time period. Moreover, 21 of the 49 participants (43%) in the vegan group reduced their doses of medication prescribed for blood glucose control, compared to 26% of individuals in the control group.’(para 13)
So, this is pretty profound. In the American Diabetic Association’s own publication, plant-based diets, ESPECIALLY high-carb whole food vegan diets, were proven superior to traditional diabetic diet recommendations. Vegan diets led to a greater REDUCTION rate of diabetic medication dosage requirements versus other diets!!!! Not only that, but plant-based diets reduced other risks diabetics typically face, such as cardiac disease, high blood-pressure, cholesterol, cataracts, and other complications.
The research supporting plant-based diets for the prevention and treatment of diabetes is strong! Consumption of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and elimination of nearly all or all animal products is strongly supported in an article reviewing the current evidence from the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology for the treatment and prevention of diabetes (McMacken, & Shah, 2017).
But won’t the ‘carbs’ in plant-based diets make me fat?
In a word? No. As I cover in my post “Evidence at a Glance: Plant-Based Diet Benefits,” the more you reduce animal products and increase non-refined plant-based foods, the lower your body-mass-index (height and weight ratio). According to research comparing diets and weight, findings demonstrate averages as follows:
- 17 lbs lower body weight on average for vegetarian males versus meat eating males (Pilis, Stec, Zych, & Pilis, 2014)
- 7 lbs lower body weight on average for vegetarian females versus meat eating females (Pilis et al., 2014)
- Lower BMI on average for vegans of 23 versus meat eaters (meat eaters averaged 28) (Pilis et al., 2014)
- Lower BMI on average for vegetarians of 26 versus meat eaters (averaged 28) (Pilis et al., 2014)
My life will be less enjoyable without chicken, cheese, pizza, (fill in the blank)
There is a misconception that plant-based diets leave you hungry or less satisfied somehow. This would be true if those adhering to plant-based diets sat cross-legged nibbling on raw carrots all day long. The truth is, plant-based diets have an endless variety of options that are quite filling and nutrition packed. Chili, whole-grain pasta dishes, smoothies, dark whole grain breads, stir-fries, vegan chocolate, nuts, dried and fresh fruits, lentil based soups…the options are delicious and satisfying. Sites such as bluezones.com and forksoverknives.com have innumerable recipes.
For my own experience, yes, I crave some of the former foods I ate, but generally only when I’m very hungry. As soon as I eat my plant-based meal, the craving disappears. The craving simply reflects that I am hungry, period. This is no different than an omnivore craving junk food. It is the same issue…a person is hungry and so they crave high-calorie, salty, sweet, and fatty foods. After filling up on a high-fiber, filling plant-based meal, you resolve the craving.
Plant-based diets are associated with IMPROVED quality of life.
In this article from bluezones.com, research is cited from various studies noting that as plant-based foods increase and animal foods decrease, the following mood improvements occur:
- Lower reports of psychological distress
- Improvements in sense of well-being
- Reductions in anxiety
- Reductions in depression
- Reduced perceptions of stress (Muelrath, n.d.)
By sharply reducing or eliminating meat (including fish), adherents of plant-based diets reduce their intake of arachidonic acid (found in high amounts in meats and fish). Arachidonic acid is noted to be a promoter of inflammation. In turn, inflammation has strong evidence linking chronic, elevated levels to depression, anxiety, and other adverse mood states (Muelrath, n.d.).
Are plant-based diets expensive?
A common misconception is that plant-based diets are exceedingly expensive. Like any diet, it depends on your food choices. Whole grain pasta noodles, bags of beans and lentils, brown rice, canned beans, and other plant-based staples are actually quite cheap. Organic fruits and organic vegetables are pricey, but so are milk, cheese, and various meat options. Produce does not always have to be organic, such is largely preference. For those desiring avoidance of pesticides while saving money, prioritization for organic purchases might focus on the highest-contaminated produce foods, as listed here. As noted in this article from forksoverknives.com, a healthy, satisfying plant-based diet can be consumed for $5 per day ($35 per week)!!
A quick comment regarding processed vegan foods. Fake meats, fake cheeses, and other highly processed vegan foods tend to be pricey. They are also not necessarily health promoting (research supports whole / minimally processed plant-based foods), and I have found that they are totally unnecessary when following a plant-based diet.
Despite a growing public awareness regarding the numerous health and environmental benefits of adopting a plant-based diet, biases and misconceptions persist. These misconceptions and knowledge gaps prevent many people from adopting plant-based diets–people who stand to benefit from plant-based diets profoundly in many cases. A careful examination of the research shows that well planned, whole food plant-based diets are safe and beneficial across the lifespan, including for special populations such as diabetes and for athletes. Time to make the change!!!
Related posts & helpful websites
Agrinews-pubs.com. (2020). Plant-based eating trend growing. Retrieved from https://www.agrinews-pubs.com/2020/03/22/plant-based-eating-trend-growing/a3qtsc5/
Barnard, N. D., Goldman, D. M., Loomis, J. F., Kahleova, H., Levin, S. M., Neabore, S., & Batts, T. C. (2019). Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports. Nutrients, 11(1), 130. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11010130
Bruins, M. J., Bird, J. K., Aebischer, C. P., & Eggersdorfer, M. (2018). Considerations for Secondary Prevention of Nutritional Deficiencies in High-Risk Groups in High-Income Countries. Nutrients, 10(1), 47. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10010047
Bryant, C. J. (2019). “We can’t keep meating like this: Attitudes towards vegetarian and vegan diets in the United Kingdom.” Sustainability, 11(23): 6844. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11236844
Craig, W. J., Mangels, A. R., & American Dietetic Association. (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(7), 1266–1282. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2009.05.027
Feinberg, M. (2019). The Best Vegan-Friendly Restaurants to Visit With Your Not-Yet-Vegan Family. Retrieved from https://www.peta.org/living/food/best-vegan-friendly-restaurants-for-nonvegan-family/
Forgrieve, J. (2018). The growing acceptance of veganism. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetforgrieve/2018/11/02/picturing-a-kindler-gentler-world-vegan-month/#14e56ad2f2bb
Greger, M. (2016). How big food twists the science. Retrieved from https://nutritionfacts.org/2016/08/18/big-food-twists-science/
Judge, M., & Wilson, M. S. (2019). A dual‐process motivational model of attitudes towards vegetarians and vegans. European Journal of Social Psychology, 49(1), 169–178. https://doi-org.lopesalum.idm.oclc.org/10.1002/ejsp.2386
Lea, E. J., Crawford, D., & Worsley, A. (2006). Public views of the benefits and barriers to the consumption of a plant-based diet. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 60(7), 828–837. https://doi-org.lopesalum.idm.oclc.org/10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602387
Lynch, H., Johnston, C., & Wharton, C. (2018). Plant-Based Diets: Considerations for Environmental Impact, Protein Quality, and Exercise Performance. Nutrients, 10(12), 1841. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu101
McMacken, M., & Shah, S. (2017). A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes. Journal of geriatric cardiology : JGC, 14(5), 342–354. https://doi.org/10.11909/j.issn.1671-5411.2017.05.009
Melina, V., Craig, W., & Levin, S. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(12), 1970–1980. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025
Muelrath, L. (n.d.). Good Mood Foods: How Diet Affects Happiness. Retrieved from https://www.bluezones.com/2018/01/moods-and-foods/
National Institutes of Health. (2019). Multivitamin/mineral supplements: Fact sheets for health professionals. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/MVMS-HealthProfessional/
Pace, J., & Wilks, J. (Producers), & Psihoyos, L. (Director). (2018). The game changers [Motion picture]. United States
Pawlak R. (2017). Vegetarian Diets in the Prevention and Management of Diabetes and Its Complications. Diabetes spectrum : a publication of the American Diabetes Association, 30(2), 82–88. https://doi.org/10.2337/ds16-0057
Pilis, W., Stec, K., Zych, M., & Pilis, A. (2014). Health benefits and risk associated with adopting a vegetarian diet. Roczniki Panstwowego Zakladu Hygieni, 65(1), 9-14. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24964573
Plona, T. (2018). 7 popular chain restaurants that offer vegan options. Retrieved from https://www.insider.com/vegan-options-restaurants-2018-7
Rogerson D. (2017). Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 36. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9
Sebastiani, G., Herranz Barbero, A., Borrás-Novell, C., Alsina Casanova, M., Aldecoa-Bilbao, V., Andreu-Fernández, V., Pascual Tutusaus, M., Ferrero Martínez, S., Gómez Roig, M. D., & García-Algar, O. (2019). The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diet during Pregnancy on the Health of Mothers and Offspring. Nutrients, 11(3), 557. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11030557