Vegetarian Diets: The Myths vs. Facts

Roughly 20 million Americans are vegetarians, from partial vegetarians who limit the amount of animal flesh they eat, to vegans, who eat only plant foods—no meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, or eggs.

A vegetarian diet may take a little extra planning—especially at first—but it is easy to learn how to ensure your diet is healthy.

As with any diet, you have to make the right choices. Here are some myths surrounding vegetarian diets.

Myth: Vegetarian diets are always healthy.

Fact: People who follow a vegetarian diet are relatively healthier than those who don't. Vegetarians tend to have a lower incidence of obesity and fewer chronic health problems, including some cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

It's difficult to determine, however, whether the vegetarian diet or the overall lifestyle deserves the credit for better health. Vegetarians tend to exercise regularly and not smoke or drink.

Moreover, if you make the wrong food choices, a vegetarian diet can be downright unhealthy. A steady diet of ice cream sundaes and french fries, which technically are vegetarian, won't lead to good health. Teenage girls who are vegetarians often are deficient in iron and may get too little calcium as well. Teenage girls and women who are vegans may be deficient in vitamin B12.

Your best bet: Daily, eat a variety of plant-based foods, including: fortified whole grains, fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, beans and legumes, tofu, and fortified soy milk or low-fat dairy products.

Myth: You shouldn't follow a vegetarian diet if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Fact: You can meet the nutrient needs of pregnancy and breastfeeding through a plant-based diet if you choose wisely. Your health care provider may advise you to take an iron, B12, or folic acid supplement.

Myth: It isn't safe for infants, children, and teens to be vegetarians.

Fact: Infants, children, and teens can meet their nutritional needs through vegetarian diets, although meeting those needs is more difficult than with a standard diet.

To ensure a child receives all the necessary nutrients, a parent must plan and follow the child's diet carefully. In addition, a health care provider or a dietitian can provide additional assistance.

Myth: A vegetarian diet is always low in fat.

Fact: If your vegetarian diet contains dairy products, you can still get plenty of saturated fat from whole milk, cream, and cheese. If you're a vegan, you won't consume as much, if any, animal-derived saturated fat, but you can still overdo it on unsaturated vegetable fat, such as olive oil and canola oil. Although unsaturated fat tends to be heart healthy, it still contains as many calories per tablespoon as butter and can lead to weight gain if you consume too much.

Myth: Eating a vegetarian diet always reduces your risk for heart disease.

Fact: Although vegetarians tend to have a lower risk for heart disease than meat-eaters, simply following a vegetarian diet might not be enough.

Because of the genetic factors associated with heart disease, a person may be predisposed to high cholesterol or high blood pressure. These risk factors may require medication—no matter how heart-healthy the diet.