Vegans and vegetarians are often the target of jokes, scorn, concern and/or fear by a majority culture that routinely consumes animals. The upcoming holidays are a prime time for omnivorous family members and friends to heckle a loved one who is vegan while brandishing a turkey leg or Christmas pudding. So, just in time for those awkward holiday encounters with family, here are 10 vegan myths, debunked. Tucson-based Alison Ozgur, registered dietitian at Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa and an instructor for the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, kindly assisted with her solid nutritional knowledge.
Vegans don’t get enough protein.
Every vegetarian and vegan has heard this approximately a gazillion times. “This is a common myth that needs to be eliminated,” Ozgur said. “Here in the United States, we have never had a protein shortage, and the sad truth is, protein is being unnecessarily added to many foods. Vegetables, fruits and grains all have ample amounts of protein for optimal health and achieving a healthy body weight.” If you’re consuming enough calories, she said, you’re getting enough protein.
Vegans can’t get calcium without dairy.
The dairy industry has long campaigned to convince Americans we will keel over if we don’t guzzle milk. Not true, said Ozgur. “Yes, dairy products contain calcium, but they can also contain artery-clogging saturated fat, cholesterol and contaminants. Fortunately, plant-based foods are a healthier option.” She recommends leafy greens like kale, mustard greens, collard greens and Swiss chard as well as legumes, broccoli, organic soy foods — such as tempeh and tofu — almonds and calcium-fortified plant-based milks.
It’s too expensive to be vegan.
Those turmeric smoothies, packaged organic kale chips and meals in upscale vegan restaurants can certainly break the bank. “Eating vegan can be expensive,” Ozgur explained. “However, the cost of treatment for chronic disease is far more expensive. A diet rich in nutrient-dense, whole plant foods is our first line of defense for disease prevention and reversal.” That said, if you forego the prepackaged options and buy staple dry foods like bulk beans, lentils and oats, you’ll save money. Many vegetables, such as carrots and cabbage, are also inexpensive.
All vegans are white.
If this were true, you wouldn’t find websites like Black Vegans Rock or celebrations like the Vegan SoulFest. Activist Aph Ko, founder of Black Vegans Rock, raised awareness about the many vegans of color by publishing a list of 100 prominent black vegans in 2015. Vegans of color also own vegan restaurants and write vegan cookbooks, just like white vegans, but with roots of their own. Non-white vegan traditions include Rastafarians in Jamaica, Jainism in India and the part-time veganism of Ethiopia’s fasting season.
All vegans are hippies.
Depending on who you ask, being called a hippie could be an insult or a compliment. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a more objective definition, “a usually young person who rejects the mores of established society (as by dressing unconventionally or favoring communal living) and advocates a nonviolent ethic. Broadly: a long-haired unconventionally dressed young person.”
So, if we’re talking about vegans in a society dominated by meat-eaters, there’s some truth in this myth. Vegans are rejecting mores of the established society and advocating nonviolence, at least against farm animals. As for being young, dressing unconventionally, living communally, having long hair or, as found in other online definitions of hippies, taking hallucinogenic drugs, we’d need to evaluate vegans on a case-by-case basis.
Vegans are weak.
You’d better not say that to Bryant Jennings, pro boxer, or karate expert Tammy Fry Kelly — they just might take you out. Then, there are the vegan charismatic megafauna, like gorillas and elephants. “There is no shortage of athletes and fitness enthusiasts who thrive on a vegan diet,” Ozgur said. “Plant-based foods can speed up muscle recovery time and decrease inflammation due to their high amount of antioxidants and phytonutrients.” She recommends the documentary movie Game Changers to see just how strong vegans can be.
If I went vegan, I’d always be hungry/tired/sick.
Not true, as long as you’re eating enough. “If you decrease your daily calorie intake to below your body’s requirement, indeed you will be hungry, tired, sick and eventually dead,” Ozgur explained. “Choosing a colorful variety of whole plant foods nourishes your body and cells, thus increasing your immunity and longevity. Chronic inflammation is linked to a variety of diseases, and numerous studies have confirmed that a plant-rich diet high in fiber is beneficial for disease prevention.”
If everybody went vegan, cows and pigs would go extinct.
What would happen if every paddock door was opened — if all the chickens pecking each other’s eyes out in tiny cages were freed; if farmed fish were tossed into rivers? Would sheep starve? Would hogs take over the world?
“Billions of farm animals would no longer be destined for our dinner plates, and if we couldn’t return them to the wild, they might be slaughtered, abandoned or taken care of in sanctuaries,” journalist Paul Allen wrote on BBC’s Good Food website. “Or, more realistically, farmers might slow down breeding as demand for meat falls.”
Allen theorized that the number of returned animal populations would fluctuate, then eventually reach a balance, depending on predators and available resources. “It’s worth noting that not all animals could simply ‘go free.’ Some farm breeds, such as broiler chickens, are now so far removed from their ancestors that they couldn’t survive in the wild. Others, like pigs and sheep, could feasibly return to woodlands and grazing pastures and find their own natural population levels.”
Plants feel pain, too, so it’s just as bad to eat them.
According to Jack C. Schultz, professor in the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia, plants “are just very slow animals.” They fight for territory, seek food, trap prey and evade predators, he said. It’s possible they feel pain, too, despite lacking a central nervous system, nerves or a brain.
However, is it as unkind to eat a tomato as a cow? Everybody draws the line somewhere. For some people, all non-human animals are fair game. Many others think it’s okay to eat a cow but not a dog or cat. Vegans just draw that line even higher.
As the PETA website points out, “We have to eat — it’s a matter of survival. And eating plants directly — rather than feeding them to animals and then killing those animals for their flesh — requires far fewer plants and doesn’t hurt animals, who, we already know for sure, feel pain.”
If men eat tofu, they’ll grow breasts.
Ozgur assured this won’t happen. “There is no valid medical evidence supporting men increasing breast size from eating soy foods,” she said. “This myth surfaced over 10 years ago when a man was diagnosed with gynecomastia from drinking three quarts of soy milk per day. Upon discontinuing his soy milk intake, his breast tenderness resolved. Asian men consume soy daily, yet do not experience gynecomastia.” Ozgur recommends choosing organic whole soy foods and avoiding soy protein isolates or fractionated soy ingredients.
Images via Shutterstock and Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat