Numerous health benefits of plant-based diets have been demonstrated, including a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes1 and heart disease,2 help controlling blood sugar levels in individuals with type 2 diabetes,3 and improved body composition, body weight, and insulin resistance.4
In addition to having benefits for human health, plant-based diets have a positive impact on the environment.5 Omnivorous diets have worse carbon, water and ecological footprints than both vegetarian and vegan diets.6
Interest in plant-based diets has increased in popularity in recent years,7 but the term “plant-based” is often misinterpreted. As a result, many people think that a plant-based diet is neither feasible nor desirable.
Here are 7 myths about plant-based diets. You might be surprised to find out that you are closer to a plant-based diet than you thought, or that it is much easier to adhere to a plant-based diet than you thought.
Myth 1: “Plant-Based” Means Vegan
Defining “plant-based diet” is confusing; in research, vegetarian or vegan diets are often used as plant-based diets to measure the impact of a diet consisting mostly or entirely of plant-based foods compared to omnivorous diets.
In real life, however, a “plant-based diet” can describe a variety of diets. All vegan diets are plant-based, but a plant-based diet is not necessarily vegan or even vegetarian. You can eat meat and dairy every day and still follow a plant-based diet.
Technically, a plant-based diet is one where at least 50% of the food comes from plants (e.g. fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes). Some meat, poultry, fish, and dairy can still play a part in a plant-based diet. Thus, there is not one “correct” type of plant-based diet.
It’s best to think of plant-based eating as a continuum. Diets on the end of the continuum that are made up of 100% plant-based foods (i.e. vegan diets), likely do not provide benefit for strength or aerobic performance but can reduce risk of several chronic diseases and use fewer natural resources.5
Myth 2: All Plant-Based Foods Are Good For You
Just because a plant-based diet is healthful doesn’t mean that all plant-based foods are nutrient-dense.
Whole plant foods are always nutritious, but processed plant-based foods may have even worse nutrient profiles than their traditional counterparts. Vegan cookies are still cookies. Dairy-free ice cream is still ice cream (and sometimes it has even higher fat and sugar content than regular ice cream).
Some dairy-free yogurt has high fat and sugar content without much protein. One popular plant-based “burger” has similar total fat and saturated fat content to 85% lean ground beef (from coconut oil) and a much higher sodium content due to processing.
When we talk about a plant-based diet, we are talking about an overall dietary pattern with most of the foods consumed coming from plants. Some key nutrients, such as vitamin B12 and heme iron, are difficult to obtain from plant-based foods, so animal products can help to fill in the gaps. When following a plant-based diet, animal products can play a minor but significant role in one’s overall dietary pattern.
Myth 3: Meat Alternatives Are “Fake Food”
It is true that many pre-made meat alternatives have undergone one or more processing steps. Tofu is made from ground soybeans coagulated with minerals. Many veggie burgers are made from long lists of ingredients in food processing plants.
However, nearly 60% of calories consumed by people in the US is ultra-processed.8 Processed meat alternatives are not more “fake” than any of the other ultra-processed food we consume. Additionally, even though meat alternatives are often highly processed, many are still nutrient-dense.
Some do have high amounts of sodium, preservatives, and caramel food coloring to mimic the look of real meat, but it is possible to mimic the texture and taste of meat with whole foods, such as lentils, mushrooms, and walnut crumble.9
However, there is no whole plant food with nutrient content similar to meat. Animal products contain high amounts of protein without carbohydrates, but plant protein is difficult to come by without added carbohydrates unless it is a processed option like pea or soy protein isolate.
While meat alternatives can be nutritious, a healthful plant-based diet emphasizes food from “plants” in nature, not from processing “plants.” Thus, you can follow a plant-based diet without ever eating a “meat alternative” product – homemade or processed. Remember, you can eat meat on a plant-based diet!
Myth 4: You Can’t Get Enough Protein on a Plant-Based Diet
Individual requirements for protein vary, but research has supported that 0.83g/kg/day is sufficient,10 and even for strength and power athletes, no benefit has been noted for intakes above 1.6-1.8g/kg/day.11 Individuals following a vegetarian or vegan diet can certainly get enough protein, but they tend not to consume as much as individuals who follow omnivorous diets.6
There are many ways of measuring protein quality. One is Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), which is based on amino acid requirements and ability to digest the food. Whey, casein, egg, cow’s milk, and mycoprotein (fungal protein) rank highest, with soy, beef, and pea as close runner-ups.12–14
Regarding quantity, plant-based alternatives often do not have as much protein as their traditional counterparts. This doesn’t just apply to meat alternatives. Nut milk, coconut milk, and oat milk are not adequate substitutes for milk when it comes to protein. As previously mentioned, there is a difference between mimicking taste or texture and mimicking nutrient composition. For protein-packed plant-based milk, look for options with added pea or soy protein.
Myth 5: Plant-based Diets Are Expensive
Nutrient-dense, plant-based foods such as whole grains, beans, and legumes cost less than meat and dairy. Fresh produce is more expensive than frozen or otherwise processed versions, so look for in-season and/or locally grown produce to find the most budget-friendly and eco-friendly options.
In general, bananas, oranges, sweet potato, white potato, carrots, onions, squash, broccoli, and spinach can be reasonably priced. A plant-based diet might be more expensive than a standard American diet, but if you consume a lot of whole foods, then sticking to mostly plant-based foods is actually a great way to save money.
Myth 6: Following a Plant-Based Diet is Too Inconvenient
A plant-based diet is only as inconvenient as you make it. Because a plant-based diet does not require you to eliminate any specific foods or food groups, you can follow a plant-based diet and eat at restaurants and social gatherings.
For example, if you have oatmeal with pea protein, fruit, and nuts for breakfast and a bean and veggie burrito for lunch, you can go out for a steak dinner and still consider your diet to be plant-based.
The wide variety of plant-based foods available – whole and processed – makes it possible to adopt a plant-based dietary pattern no matter what your lifestyle and needs may be.
A plant-based diet looks different for everyone. Generally speaking, a plant-based diet is less expensive, healthier, and better for the environment than many other dietary patterns.
You can consider yourself to follow a plant-based diet and eat meat twice a week or every day. Reducing meat rather than eliminating meat is key for environmental benefits,15 and it may be key for health benefits too, since meat and dairy provide large amounts of certain nutrients that are low in many plant-based foods.
The most cost-effective, eco-friendly diet consists of food that is locally grown, seasonal, the result of sustainable agricultural methods, and requires minimal processing, no matter how many animal products are in the diet.
Dietary patterns are complex, since they can change day-to-day. “Plant-based diet” describes a dietary pattern that prioritizes plant foods, but it doesn’t say anything about excluding animal products.
- Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Rimm EB, et al. Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies. PLoS Med. 2016;13(6):e1002039. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002039
- Satija A, Hu FB. Plant-based diets and cardiovascular health. Trends Cardiovasc Med. 2018;28(7):437-441. doi:10.1016/j.tcm.2018.02.004
- Utami DB, Findyartini A. Plant-based Diet for HbA1c Reduction in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: an Evidence-based Case Report. Acta Medica Indones. 2018;50(3):260-267.
- Kahleova H, Levin S, Barnard N. Cardio-Metabolic Benefits of Plant-Based Diets. Nutrients. 2017;9(8). doi:10.3390/nu9080848
- Lynch H, Johnston C, Wharton C. Plant-Based Diets: Considerations for Environmental Impact, Protein Quality, and Exercise Performance. Nutrients. 2018;10(12). doi:10.3390/nu10121841
- Rosi A, Mena P, Pellegrini N, et al. Environmental impact of omnivorous, ovo-lacto-vegetarian, and vegan diet. Sci Rep. 2017;7. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-06466-8
- Google Trends. Google Trends. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&geo=US&q=plant-based. Accessed December 26, 2019.
- Baraldi LG, Martinez Steele E, Canella DS, Monteiro CA. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and associated sociodemographic factors in the USA between 2007 and 2012: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open. 2018;8(3). doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-020574
- foodnavigator-usa.com. Walnuts: The next big thing in plant-based meat in foodservice? foodnavigator-usa.com. https://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Article/2019/11/01/Walnuts-The-next-bi.... Accessed December 20, 2019.
- Li M, Sun F, Piao JH, Yang XG. Protein requirements in healthy adults: a meta-analysis of nitrogen balance studies. Biomed Environ Sci BES. 2014;27(8):606-613. doi:10.3967/bes2014.093
- Hoffman JR, Ratamess NA, Kang J, Falvo MJ, Faigenbaum AD. Effect of Protein Intake on Strength, Body Composition and Endocrine Changes in Strength/Power Athletes. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2006;3(2):12-18. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-3-2-12
- Hoffman JR, Falvo MJ. Protein – Which is Best? J Sports Sci Med. 2004;3(3):118-130.
- Phillips SM. The impact of protein quality on the promotion of resistance exercise-induced changes in muscle mass. Nutr Metab. 2016;13. doi:10.1186/s12986-016-0124-8
- Edwards DG, Cummings JH. The protein quality of mycoprotein. Proc Nutr Soc. 2010;69(OCE4). doi:10.1017/S0029665110001400
- Hallström E, Carlsson-Kanyama A, Börjesson P. Environmental impact of dietary change: a systematic review. J Clean Prod. 2015;91:1-11. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.12.008