Unfolding the Myths About Plant-Based Diets

Published on: March 17, 2021

Meat has always been considered a rich source of protein, calcium and various other nutrients. Here we unfold the various myths related to a plant-based diet that is not only nutritious but also interesting and creative.

By Nutrition Support Team at Bumrungrad Hospital

There are food fads and in-trend diets, and then there are food revolutions that changed the way people think about nutrition and what they eat. In recent years, there has been a huge rise in the number of people following a plant-based diet, while vegetarianism and so-called flexitarianism is on the rise too. In the US, veganism has increased by 600% in recent years, with other countries, including meat-loving Asia, creating the same green-food movement.

The Bangkok dining and food delivery scene has exploded and in the mix are quite a few clean-food and vegan options. Greater awareness about the plant-based diet and the negatives of a meaty diet is being created and shared. In addition to this is a wider understanding of the environmental expense and social impact on starving populations created by high demand for meat by a minority. Another big factor, of course, is health.

The difference between being vegan and being plant-based is more about the approach to not eating animal products. Plant-based nutrition is about eating whole foods, fresh vegetables and fruits, rather than seeking meat substitutes or any processed foods.

MYTH 1: There’s insufficient protein or calcium in your diet without meat. 

The TRUTH is that although meat is a rich source of protein, it’s also high in saturated fats and contains 0-2% of natural, cholesterol-boosting trans fats. With the average adult requiring around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, there’s enough protein in non-meat products such as lentils, tofu, nuts and beans.

Meanwhile, when many people think of calcium, the first foods that come to mind are dairy products. However, leafy greens, broccoli, almonds and oranges, plus soy foods and lentils are calcium-rich too.

MYTH 2: Getting enough vitamins and nutrients is an issue.  

The TRUTH is that you can get loads of vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients from greens, legumes and many of Thailand’s tropical fruits, including vitamin K, manganese, zinc and iron, as well as fiber and potassium.

It’s true that you cannot get vitamin B12 and vitamin D from plant-based food only, however, sunshine provides plenty of the latter as do fortified foods such as plant-based milk and mushrooms. Supplements, nutritional yeast with B12 or including fortified foods in your diet can add B12.

However, ongoing research seems to suggest that algae and spirulina, once thought to be a good plant-based source of B12, actually produce pseudo B12. This not only doesn’t help the body but can be damaging, competing with real B12 to reach the receptors in the body. Studies into an algae called chlorella suggest vegan B12 supplies could be possible, but more research is needed.

A vegan diet can lead to a deficiency in iodine which can be supported by adding seaweed into your diet or using table salt rather than rock salt. Green leafy vegetables, flaxseeds and walnuts are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.

MYTH 3: It’s ‘natural’ to eat meat.

The TRUTH is that the modern-day meat industry cannot be compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Hormones and antibiotics added to animal feeds and also cooking methods resulting in harmful compounds all point to the negatives of a meat-fueled diet. Of course, cutting out this food group does require some forethought to create the most beneficial balance.

In recent times, the caveman or paleo diet gained a resurgence in popularity. The general premise of this meal plan is to include foods that were traditionally hunted for and gathered. However, there is evidence to suggest that while this high-in-meat diet doesn’t necessarily increase cholesterol this could be because the fat penetrates the cell walls and creates cardiovascular-disease-forming plaque instead.

Meats such as pork could be responsible for greater absorption in the body of endotoxins which can impair the immune system and damage cells. Studies also look at how bacteria in your gut can convert nutrients from meat and eggs, (carnitine and choline), into Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). TMAO is a substance produced by the body when it digests red meat and is potentially linked to heart disease. 

MYTH 4: Plant-based diets are restrictive, boring and expensive.

The TRUTH is that most people, particularly those with a variety of health issues, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, could benefit from reducing the amount of animal-derived saturated fats. Following a plant-based diet isn’t easy, to begin with, it takes time and some imagination to discover tasty dishes. One of the biggest hurdles though is mindset, especially if you compare the incredible range of vegan ingredients compared with the same-old meats on offer.

Some substitute-style vegan meals can be more expensive, not to mention less nutritious too, and there is a trend in whole food and organic circles for a lot of so-called ‘healthy foods’ to come with a huge price mark-up. However, there are many tasty and nutritious recipes using vegetables and affordable ingredients that work out not only healthier but certainly less costly than imported meats.

MYTH 5: A plant-based diet is high in carbohydrates.

The TRUTH is that while many fruits and vegetables are high in carbohydrates, they are also a good source of protein and fiber. Combined, this slows down carb digestion ensuring that the body’s blood sugar doesn’t peak and crash. It’s important not to increase the amount of white rice and bread in the diet to compensate for the lack of meat.

As with any dietary changes it is advisable to check individual dietary needs, whether plant-based or otherwise with a health professional.

Photo courtesy of the author

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