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Becoming A Vegetarian: Expectations Versus Reality

Some myths and truths about a meat-free diet and its impact on your health.

August 27, 2015

Going vegetarian has long been thought of as a way to achieve better health, both individually and for the planet. But is a vegetarian diet really environmentally friendly, and is it protein-rich enough to satisfy most dietary recommendations? We explored a couple of common expectations about choosing to go meat-free—and whether or not they hold up to a scientific reality check.

Related: The Only Organic Vegetarian Recipes You’ll Ever Need


1. Expectation: A Vegetarian Diet Is Better For The Planet.


Reality: Adhering to an ovo-lacto diet—that is, a vegetarian diet that eschews meat and fish but allows eggs and dairy products—can significantly reduce a single person’s carbon footprint. In a widely circulated paper published in the journal Earth Interactions, University of Chicago researchers found that an ovo-lacto diet demands far fewer fossil fuels than raising animals for food. That isn’t to say that being a vegetarian is perfect for the planet, though. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture accounted for 9 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and up to one-third worldwide in 2013. Agriculture impacts the environment, but farming animals for food costs far more. The verdict? Adhering to a vegetarian diet is still better for the planet than eating several servings of meat every day.

2. Expectation: A Vegetarian Diet Is Healthier For Your Body.

Reality: As we recently reported on Heart Healthy Diets, citing a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that eating a vegan, vegetarian, or pescatarian diet can dramatically lower your blood pressure and reduce your stroke risk by 15 percent. It can also lower you risk of early death by seven percent. This research supports a number of similar studies that suggest what most of us already know: eating less sugar, salt, and saturated fat (found in red meat) and adding more fruits, veggies, and whole grains to your diet can drastically improve your health.


3. Expectation: Vegetarians Have To Work Overtime To Find Protein-Rich Meat Substitutes.

Reality: Most people know that the variety of non-meat proteins on the market can be staggering. Some of these products, while handy to keep around, can come packed with preservatives, but supplementing protein doesn’t always have to mean calorie-laden soy cheeses or veggie hot dogs. Green veggies such as spinach and broccoli, tofu and cooked soybeans such as edamame, and healthy, high-protein grains such as quinoa are foods that every vegetarian should include. Mushrooms are also a great choice, as they are often low in fat and carbohydrates but packed with protein. The same Journal of the American Medical Association report noted that vegetarians who load up on beans and legumes, such as fava beans and lentils, get the benefits of protein, plus extra fiber. 

4. Expectation: Going Vegetarian Will Help You Lose Weight.

Reality: There are entire cookbook and weight-loss empires built on the idea that vegetarianism equals weight loss. In recent years, former president Bill Clinton lost 30 pounds while eating an all-vegan diet. “I wanted to live to be a grandfather,” Clinton told AARP Magazine. “So I decided to pick the diet that I thought would maximize my chances of long-term survival.” But eating a strict vegetarian or vegan diet is not necessarily a shortcut to weight loss. Katherine Zeratsky, a Mayo Clinic registered dietician, notes that while vegetarians may be leaner—veggies, fruits, whole grains, and plant-based proteins are lower in calories and saturated fats that contribute to weight gain—they still need to monitor portion sizes, minimize fried foods, and limit added sugars in order to shed pounds.


5. Expectation: Raising Vegetarian Children Is Unhealthy Or Too Difficult.

Reality: Just like adults, vegetarian children need a wide range of proteins, which can be found in non-meat foods including black, kidney, and pinto beans, as well as peanut butter, tofu, and low-fat dairy products. The National Institute of Health guidelines state that most people who eat a well-balanced diet will not need an additional protein supplement. It’s also worth noting that in some regions of the world, vegetarian diets are the norm, not an exception. Raising vegetarian kids might not be as commonplace stateside, but it’s certainly not as uncommon as it used to be. A 2014 survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the Vegetarian Resource Group found that among 1,200 U.S. kids, ages 8 to 18, 32 percent eat a vegetarian meal at least once a week. Done well, with thoughtful meal planning and a solid understanding of basic nutrition, raising children as vegetarians doesn’t have to be difficult at all.