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Myth busting vegetarian diets – with guest experts Angela Saunders and Michelle Reid APDs

Have you ever considered reducing your meat intake but wondered “will I miss out on some important nutrients?” While I am not vegetarian, I do eat a large number of plant based food each day and love concepts like Meat Free Monday that stretch me to try new vego options.  But what about if you choose to be vegetarian or vegan?  With so many myths circulating we decided to ask two experts dietitians for the scoop.

About our experts:

Angela and Michelle both work as senior dietitians at Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing.  Angela has been a lifelong vegetarian, and has raised her twin sons on a vegetarian diet—now 6’4” athletic young men.  Angela has worked in clinical nutrition most of her career and is now enjoying her advocacy role at Sanitarium.  Michelle works with Sanitarium’s brands to ensure nutrition credibility shines through and believes there’s always room to include more whole plant foods in our diets.  Angela and Michelle both worked on the recent Medical Journal of Australia supplement :Is a Vegetarian Diet Adequate—Concepts and Controversies in Plant-based Nutrition” the basis of this post.

More and more people are moving towards plant-based vegetarian diets, not just for health reasons but also for ethical and environmental concerns.  We care about our health as well as the health of the planet, and the welfare of animals.  The great news is that a varied and balanced plant-based diet will provide all the nutrients needed for good health.  And as a bonus, research indicates you’ll reduce your risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes and you’ll live a longer life!

Myth #1: Meat is the best source of protein

Legumes (lentils, kidney beans, chick peas, etc), soy products, grains, nuts and seeds are excellent sources of protein as well as fibre, minerals and phytonutrients.  These plant foods are not loaded with saturated fat or cholesterol and you don’t have to look for “lean cuts” of legumes, as they are naturally low in fat and cholesterol free.   Vegetarians have no problem getting enough protein, and you do not need to consciously combine different plant proteins.  That’s old advice.  Your body has a pool of amino acid proteins and with regular, varied plant protein intake you can easily get what your body needs.

Greek Style Butter Beans with Rocket Recipe

Myth #2: Vegetarians are more likely to be iron deficient

Vegetarians who eat a variety of plant foods are not at any greater risk of iron deficiency than non-vegetarians.  A diet rich in legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, wholegrains (including iron fortified cereals) and green leafy vegetables provides enough iron to maintain iron stores.  Vegetarians do tend to have less stored iron, but this may contribute to a vegetarian’s reduced risk of some chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.  Research is also currently looking at the possible association between haem iron (from meat) and various chronic diseases.  Vegetarians with lower iron stores or increased needs (during pregnancy) will tend to absorb more iron.  Absorption of non-haem iron from plant foods is enhanced by eating vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables along with the iron-rich plant foods.

Myth #3:  Zinc is not absorbed from plant foods

Well planned vegetarian diets can provide adequate amounts of zinc and studies show that vegetarians are at no greater risk of deficiency than non-vegetarians.  Good sources of zinc include wholegrains, tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts and seeds, fortified cereal products and dairy products (for lacto-vegetarians).  Phytates (found in unrefined plant foods) can form a complex and stop zinc from being absorbed, but common cooking and processing methods can break down the phytate, allowing the zinc to be absorbed.  For example, soaking legumes and then cooking them will reduce the levels of phytates and improve zinc absorption.

Spicy Pumpkin & Lentil Tagine Recipe

Myth #4:  Vitamin B12 is found in plant foods

Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal foods, with only small amounts found in mushrooms. So you need to eat vitamin B12 fortified foods (ie, fortified soy beverages) or take a B12 supplement.  Even though dairy products and eggs are a source of B12 for lacto-ovo-vegetarians, they still need to get their B12 levels checked regularly to ensure levels are adequate.   It is particularly important for pregnant and breastfeeding vegetarian and especially vegan women to make sure vitamin B12 intake is adequate, otherwise baby will develop a B12 deficiency.  If taking a B12 supplement, it is best to take a small, frequent daily dose (Recommended Daily Intake), rather than large doses infrequently.  In Australia there are only a limited number of foods that are fortified with vitamin B12 (ie, most soy beverages, vegetarian style sausages and meat analogues).

Myth #5:  Fish is the only source of omega 3s

Omega 3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is an essential fatty acid found in plant foods such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, soybeans and the oils from these foods.  Just 1Tbsp of chia seeds or flaxseeds, or a handful of walnuts provides more than the ALA requirements for men and women.  Reducing your intake of omega-6 oils and margarines and increasing your ALA intake will make the conversion process more efficient.  A vegan EPA and DHA supplement derived from microalgae is now available to consumers but without the fishy ingredient.

Myth#6:  Dairy products are the only source of calcium

Fortunately, dairy products are not the only source of calcium in the diet, as not everyone eats dairy or can tolerate lactose.  In Australia we have plant-based milks with calcium added (ie, soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, etc), but we also have a wide variety of plant foods which contain calcium.  Asian greens, broccoli, kale, sesame seeds and tahini (unhulled), almonds and calcium set tofu are some good sources of calcium.  Remember to get adequate vitamin D with safe sun exposure (or supplements) to ensure calcium is absorbed into your bones.

Editor’s comment:

Thanks Angela and Michelle. I love your passion for vegetarian eating and work to publish the science.  I also love the recipes the team at Sanitarium develops and think you’re sample single-day meal plans are an excellent guide.  How about you lovely readers? Are you vegetarian? Or do you dabble on a Monday? What’s your favourite delish dish? We’d love your links below.

  • Loved reading your article Ang and Michelle! It is great to see you sharing your passion and knowledge. I have also read your MJA article. It is fantastic to see the myths of vegetarian diets being exposed on social media! thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Hi! great post – Ive recently become vegan myself (well mostly) – not for animal rights or environmental reasons – to me that is a bonus! Im doing it for purely health reasons and I must say I have never felt better. I struggled for the first few weeks and often fell off the wagon so to speak but now I seem to have accustomed myself and find it less difficult every day. I must say I have found Dr Michael Greger to be a fascinating source of information on veganism and whole food in general. After running a few analysis’ of my typical days intake I hit all my nutrition targets with flying colours – more proof that inadequate vegan diets is, as you point out, a myth! Of course Im lucky to be able to make very informed food choices and I have my chef background to help me prepare these great foods but I hardly think that a poor vegan diet is any more inadequate than a poor omnivorous diet – and Ive encountered both. Anyway, my question was about b12 in mushrooms – I was under the impression that mushrooms contained no b12 whatsoever and the only vegan sources (not including fortified foods) is nutritional yeast and marmite (dulce maybe but possibly not bioavailable?) here was where I gathered my info:
    Thanks again for a great post bringing light to a better way of living! 🙂

  • Interesting read, thanks for putting together all this information. Really useful summary I’m sure I’ll be referring to when talking to clients considering a vegetarian way of eating.

    Re Omega 3s, while ALA is plentiful in vegetarian friendly foods, there’s no ready supply of EPA and DHA in a vegetarian diet. I know ALA is important, but so much of the research into the beneficial effects of Omega 3s is based on the other two and I do wonder to what extent this is a problem in the vegetarian diet.

    I’ve been hearing a bit about algae oil, as a vegetarian source of EPA and DHA, but it doesn’t seem to be widely available here in Australia.

  • Such great questions everyone – I’ve alerted Angela and Michelle and hope to have responses very soon.

  • Angela Saunders

    Wonderful to hear from Natalie, Mel and Kathryn, and glad to provide additional information.

    Mel, with regard to vitamin B12, recent research has shown traces of B12 in white button mushrooms but this is not a significant source of the vitamin, with an average serve containing just 5% of the RDI. There is also a small amount in nori, but like mushrooms, the amount is too small to be significant. You can read more about this vitamin in Carol Zeuschner’s article in the Medical Journal of Australia, Vitamin B12 and Vegetarian Diets (available online). To my knowledge, nutritional yeast that contains vitamin B12 is only available in the US. Marmite here in Australia is a fortified product. There are only a limited number of products fortified with B12 in Australia, but in the US there is a far greater range. Apart from mushrooms and nori, any B12 found in plant foods is inactive B12 and can’t be used by the body, and in fact can interfere with absorption of active B12 (as found in fortified products and animal foods).

    Kathryn, I highly recommend the omega 3 article in the MJA, as it explains the issue of omega 3s for vegetarians in depth. Just briefly, ALA is endogenously converted to EPA and DHA, but this conversion works best if ALA is regularly included in the diet and the omega-6 margarines and oils are limited (ie, sunflower oil/marg, safflower, etc). Better to use monounsaturated oils/margarines (olive oil, canola oil, etc). The microalgae capsules I was referring to are available online, for example, Opti3 Omega-3 EPA & DHA. While studies have shown that omega-3 needs can be met with ALA alone, there may be some advantage for those with additional needs (pregnant and lactating women, elderly or people with diabetes, etc) to take a supplement of microalgae derived EPA and DHA. Although vegetarians generally consume minimal amounts EPA and DHA, studies have shown that plasma levels are typically lower but stable. More research is required to understand omega 3s and the status of vegetarians. Read more about this in the omega-3 article in the MJA.

    I hope this in helpful.

    PS: Natalie, was great to see your blog in the previous Scoop. Keep in touch!

  • If you interested in new recipes make sure you order a free copy of the Food for Health and Happiness cookbook through the Sanitarium website:

  • Thanks for the answers Angela, really helpful and I’ll take a look at the articles you mention.

    Just one thing, I’ve bought nutritional yeast fortified with B12 locally – the Engevita brand which contains 44 mcg B12 per 100g. I bought this from the HealthCo supplier, but have also seen it in health food shops. Although supply does seem to be intermittent and it’s often hard to find.

  • Angela Saunders

    Kathryn, I will check that out for you. Thanks for alerting me to this. Possibly a US product now being sold here.

  • Angela Saunders

    Kathryn, I have had a look online at the info from Marigold Health Foods, who make Engevita Savoury Yeast. I have also sent an email to the company using their contact details, but it was undeliverable. My advise is not to rely on this as a source of vitamin B12, as it doesn’t appear to be fortified with B12, as the only ingredient listed is “Dried inactive yeast”, and of course yeast is not a natural source of the active vitamin. If it was fortified, it would have to be listed in the ingredient list, not just the nutritional panel. This could be an example of a product that claims to have the vitamin, but in fact has the inactive form, so is not bioavailable. Fortunately, you can get adequate B12 from B12 fortified foods such as soy milks and vegetarian style meat analogues, but check the labels to be sure, as not all do have it added. The B12 from these fortified foods is actually highly bioavailable. It would be good for vegans if FSANZ agreed to fortify more foods in Australia. PS: I am checking with the principal authors of the B12 paper in the MJA to see if they have anything else to add.

  • Thanks again for your thorough reply Angela. I don’t rely on it as a B12 supplement, but I do buy this version instead of the normal one, thinking it’s going to help things along. I shall take your advice.

  • Love it after reading this post.Such a Good Information.Vitamin B12 can permanently damage nerve tissues if not treated timely. It is also needed for the producing red blood cells and correct functioning of the brain.Thanks

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  • As a pregnant vegan, you might feel quite unsupported inside your decision to carry on with or start a completely plant based diet. People may scrutinize and question your eating choices a lot that you start to wonder yourself if you’re endangering your child. However, the Ada has officially declared that “well-planned” vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy through the entire life-cycle, including pregnancy and breastfeeding.Read more vegan meal plan during pregnancy

  • Angela Saunders

    Hi again Kathryn: We have finally received a response from the Marigold Health Foods re their yeast product claiming to contain vitamin B12. We are concerned with their reply and their claims about B12 in their product,as the literature states that biologically active B12 is unavailable in yeasts at levels that are suitable dietary sources. They state their product is ‘specially grown’ in a high B12 medium, but its more likely that the B12 in the final product has come from the medium rather than from inside the yeast cells. They don’t tell us what the B12 medium is, as obviously they are reluctant to devulge too much regarding the process. Kathryn, just be aware that this yeast product would most likely not be a reliable source of B12.

  • Thanks for the thorough follow up Angela. I shall continue buying for the flavour, but get the regular variety next time and not worry about the B12 version. Much appreciated.

  • Great article Angela and Michelle, love to see myth busting especially with so many misconceptions out there!

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