Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Top 5 myths about vegan and vegetarian diets

As a science writer and educator, I continuously hear misconceptions and fears about plant-based diets. Some of these fears are so prevalent that they qualify as "common knowledge" - except that they're all false! The five most common fears or myths I hear all stem from misleading advertising, or just from a lack of information. So here's the real scoop on those pervasive myths:

Myth #1: Cows' milk is the best source of calcium.
It's true that cows' milk is rich in calcium. But animal protein tends to leach calcium from bones - and cows' milk is high in protein. Calcium is more readily absorbed from plant sources, such as soy milk, broccoli, kale, chard, spinach and other leafy greens, navy beans, calcium-fortified orange juice. These sources not only provide more accessible calcium, they have no saturated fat or cholesterol. Usual cheeses made of cows' milk are 70% fat! And most of that fat is saturated. To see your daily calcium requirement based on your age, and a longer list of vegetable sources rich in calcium, look here.

In addition to being more healthful, plant sources of calcium are also more earth-friendly - just one dairy cow expels 120 pounds of waste every single day. The waste winds up in waste "lagoons" that leak and spill into our surface waters and ground water.

Myth #2: Animal products are essential for protein
This is probably the biggest myth we hear when doing presentations about our books Veggie Revolution and Going Green. Most Americans get more protein than they need, and a vegan diet can easily provide plenty of protein. For breakfast, a cup of cooked oatmeal alone provides 5 grams of protein. Add walnuts, ground flax and fruit for more protein and lots of fiber. One cup of soy milk provides 7-10 grams, depending on the brand. For lunch and dinner: one veggie burger is 10-12 grams, 2 tbsps peanut butter has 8 grams, 2 ounces dry whole wheat pasta are 9 grams. One cup of cooked lentils, beans, or peas has 15 to 17 grams of protein. Just one slice of whole wheat or multigrain bread has about 3 grams. Check out more tips on plant-based protein from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

In terms of earth-care, one of the most powerful choices we can make to preserve our planet for future generations is to give up our reliance on animal products. Factory farming is trashing our water, converting wild lands to livestock support areas, and greatly adding to our use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are used to grow livestock feedcrops, to harvest and transport livestock feedcrops, to transport refrigerated animal products to markets, etc.

Myth #3: Fish is a healthy, earth-friendly alternative to meat
I often see other writers promote fish as a healthy option; sometimes they cite studies that extol the health advantages of seafood. Sure, fish has some advantages - when compared to red meat. Meat, especially red meat, is loaded with saturated fat that contributes to heart disease, obesity, and some cancers. And the average American eats a whopping 185 lbs of meat per year. But consuming fish is not a healthier choice than a vegan diet. Virtually all fish are contaminated with pollutants now, at least to some degree - whether from runoff, discharges, spills, or from airborne pollutants such as mercury, which settle into our surface waters. When you choose a fish-free diet, you not only reduce your exposure to mercury and other dangerous contaminants, you also take a step to protect our oceans and marine wildife. Most commercial oceanic fisheries now use indiscriminate large-scale fishing methods that catch and kill untargeted species ("bycatch") and ravage marine habitat. That bycatch includes oceanic birds and marine mammals.  For more about bycatch, see this previous post and the links at the end of it.

Myth #4: Fish is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s may be good for your heart; some studies suggest they are. But fish is not the only source or the best source. Flax seeds and walnuts are two plant sources that are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids and are mercury-free. Two tablespoons of ground flax seeds per day are a good source of omega-3s; ground flax seeds are also an excellent source of fiber and support digestive health. The ground flax seeds can be stirred into a bowl of soup, mixed with cold cereal or hot cereal, sprinkled over salads and vegetables. I grind 2 tbsp of flax seeds in a coffee grinder every morning, and dump them into my bowl of bran flakes and cold soy milk. They actually improve the taste and texture of cold cereal, for me.

Myth #5: Since eggs and milk don't require the death of an animal, these animal products are relatively "humane." I can eat them "guilt-free."
I used to believe this. Not so long ago, I believed it. Then I visited a Food Lion egg factory. The hens there are indeed slaughtered, as soon as their egg production begins to wane. That's usually at about 2 years of age. They are so bedraggled and wasted after 2 years, the manager himself told me "Their bodies are so spent, we can't give them away." For more about the life of a typical laying hen, check out this earlier post. Cows in most dairies these days are slaughtered after 3 years of injections and living on concrete, when their milk production takes a dip and they're replaced. Their slaughtered then, and their flesh then goes to hot dogs or canned meat - not good enough for fresh beef. In my experience, the only hens and milk cows that may have lives worth living are those on small farms that are open to your inspection.

Truth: Resources for plant-based dining are abundant these days, in books and online. This website is a good start. It's easy to choose guilt-free and healthy foods, and protect our precious Earth at the same time. Every plant-based meal helps.

Keywords: Top 5 myths about vegan diet animal welfare calcium soy mercury omega-3 fatty acids protein vegan health

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