You've been touched by vegetarianism, whether you know it or not. Taco Bell has removed the chicken broth from its seasoned rice. And Wendy's has taken the gelatin out of its reduced-fat/reduced-calorie garden ranch sauce. Clearly, the non-meat-eating movement has come out of the dark reaches of the counterculture, no longer lurking among the granola bins at the back of the health food co-op.
But while vegetarianism has gone mainstream, misconceptions persist. Following are some vegetarian myths--and the facts behind them:
* Myth: If you eat fish or chicken but no red meat, you're a vegetarian.
Fact: Some people who eat chicken but no beef call themselves pollo-vegetarians, and some fish eaters refer to themselves as pesco-vegetarians. But if you eat chicken or fish, you're not a vegetarian. You're an omnivore--someone who feeds on both animals and plants. "I get at least one inquiry a week asking" about that, says Davida Breier, consumer research manager at the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about vegetarianism. It's a contradiction in terms, she explains, to call yourself a vegetarian and eat food produced by slaughter.
* Myth: A vegetarian diet is automatically better for you than one that includes meat, poultry or fish.
Fact: Vegetarians generally have a lower death rate from heart disease than non-vegetarians, along with a lower incidence of diabetes and obesity. Vegetarians are also less likely to be afflicted with lung and colorectal cancer. The reason, at least in part, is that their diets tend to be low in saturated fat and high in fiber, antioxidants and other protective substances. But going vegetarian does not ensure a more healthful diet.
Vegetarians can pile on the fat and calories if they eat too much cheese, ice cream, butter and other full-fat dairy products. A vegetarian diet loaded with candy, cookies and chips to the exclusion of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is also less than desirable, for obvious reasons.
A nutritious vegetarian diet, just like a nutritious meat-eater's diet, has to be planned. That's particularly true for vegans, who eschew animal foods entirely and thus don't get the vitamin D in milk or the B12 in dairy foods and eggs. They either need to eat foods fortified with those nutrients, such as breakfast cereals, or take a multivitamin pill. Ovo-lacto vegetarians, who do eat eggs and dairy products, should get some extra B12, too. Research suggests that they have low levels of that nutrient.
* Myth: Vegetarians have to resort to eating "weird" foods.
Fact: In many ways, vegetarian diets, particularly those of ovo-lacto vegetarians, resemble the "typical" American diet. Pizza; bean-based soups with salad and bread; eggplant Parmesan; macaroni and cheese; peanut butter and jelly sandwiches--they all fit.
* Myth: When a teenager goes vegetarian, it's simply a sign that the adolescent is trying to develop her or his own identity.
Fact: Many teenagers do experiment with vegetarianism as they form their own world views and work on coming into their own. But a growing number of adolescents--girls in particular--use vegetarianism as a screen for their weight control efforts.
"Vegetarianism is often a politically correct opportunity" for girls to act on "their fear of fat," says Emily Fox Kales, of the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an eating disorders specialist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. "Most of them aren't interested in eating healthy or saving the planet," she comments. "They're interested in 'feeling light.' If they say they're vegetarians, it allows them to eat a largely nonfat diet--raw fruits and vegetables. Then they start to think that if they eat a chicken meal or a hamburger, they feel 'too heavy inside.' They say, 'I feel gross.' But what they're really saying is that their body image tells them they have gotten fatter. Often, it's the beginning of an eating disorder."
One of the theories about the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, Kales says, is that it's "linked to obsessive/compulsive traits." Vegetarianism, she points out, can become a vehicle for obsessive compulsion. "Did any meat touch this food? Does this broth have chicken?" she asks figuratively. Someone "can become more and more phobic" about calories and fat, she points out, under the guise of concern about not eating any animal foods.
"If you asked me if I saw as much of this 10 years ago," Kales notes, "I would say no." It's a trend on the increase, she says.
* Myth: Vegetarians eat too little protein.
Fact: It's almost impossible not to get enough protein if you consume enough calories. Consider that a 160-pound man requires about 60 grams of protein a day. He can get 11 of them from a cup and a half of pasta alone. A half-cup of tomato sauce with a cup of broccoli on the side adds another eight grams, for a total of 19. Beans, nuts and soy products also contribute appreciable amounts. Vegetarians who consume eggs and dairy products get plenty of protein from those foods as well.
* Myth: Vegetarians have to eat certain foods at the same time to make their proteins complete.
Fact: Protein from plant foods, unlike protein from animal foods, is "incomplete," meaning it does not have the full complement of amino acids needed to make "whole" proteins that can be used by the human body. To make complete proteins, various food combinations are required. But research now shows that these combinations--beans with grains; cereals with leafy vegetables; peanuts with wheat, corn or rice; soy with corn, wheat or rye--don't have to be consumed at the same time. As long as you get these foods over the course of the day, your body can build the proteins you need.
* Myth: Vegetarian diets don't contain enough iron or calcium.
Fact: Iron is a problem nutrient for a significant number of people, whether they are vegetarian or not. Women of childbearing years need 15 milligrams of iron a day, while other women--and men--need 10. But vegetarians can easily meet these requirements with a balanced, well constructed diet. A half-cup of tofu contains seven milligrams; a single tablespoon of blackstrap molasses, four; and a half-cup of lentils or two tablespoons of pumpkin seeds, three. The iron in these plant foods, known as non-heme iron, isn't as available to the body as the heme iron in beef, poultry and fish, so vegetarians must take in more than others. But those vegetarians following a responsible diet generally do.
As for calcium, even those vegetarians who don't eat dairy foods can get plenty. A half-cup of tofu has between 100 and 250 milligrams (check labels). A half-cup of collard greens has almost 180 milligrams, as does a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses. Five dried figs or a half-cup of turnip greens have about 130 grams. Of course, there's always calcium-fortified orange juice, at 300 milligrams per cup.