October 27, 2022

Vegan and Vegetarian Diet Myths Debunked

Show Notes

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Shanthi Appelö, registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Together, they debunk myths surrounding vegan and vegetarian diets.

In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:

  • What the similarities and differences between veganism and vegetarianism
  • Myths surrounding both diets
  • What someone should consider when deciding to go on a vegan or vegetarian diet

Transcript

Chuck Gaidica:
This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast, episode 117. Coming up, we debunk myths that center around vegan and vegetarian diets.
Welcome to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. It’s a podcast dedicated to navigating how we can improve our health and wellbeing through small, healthy habits we can start implementing right now. I’m your host, Chuck Gaidica, and every other week we’ll sit down with a certified expert to discuss topics that cover nutrition, fitness, a lot more. And on this episode, we’re looking into the myths that surround vegan and vegetarian diets. That means we’re also looking at the truths of what actually works and what’s good. With us today, registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Shanthi Appelö. Hello, Shanti.

Shanthi Appelö:
Hi.

Chuck Gaidica:
How are you today?

Shanthi Appelö:
I’m doing great. It’s a beautiful day. How are you?

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh, I’m doing well. Thank you. And I know that there’s so much we can dig into here. Do you qualify yourself as either vegan or vegetarian?

Shanthi Appelö:
I don’t. I will say that in the last couple of years I have moved more towards plant-based foods. So I am not seeing myself including meat as my main portion as often, relying on protein for more plant-based sources definitely recently in the last two years.

Chuck Gaidica:
Years. Well, I think we’re seeing that happen really over at least the past decade or so. There’s a really good chance a lot of people have heard the phrase vegan. Maybe more so, I don’t know, vegetarian. Have you noticed an increase as well in food options that we could all partake in when you go out?

Shanthi Appelö:
Oh, the food options are just so much better nowadays. It’s like you can find a lot of delicious vegan options, vegetarian options. There are so many more restaurants dedicated to vegan and vegetarian diets. And then of course, on our grocery shelves, we’re going to see a lot more plant-based meats that taste almost like meat, but they’re not. It all comes down to what your motivation for moving towards a vegan vegetarian diet is. It’s like, is it ethical for the love of animals? Is it sustainability aspect? Because of course there are so many benefits to our earth by eating plant-based proteins. And then finally our health. So it can be a combination of all of those. That’s definitely where my motivation came from to eat more plant-based was all three.

Chuck Gaidica:
So tell us the difference in definition. What is a vegan or a lifestyle and what is a vegetarian?

Shanthi Appelö:
So a vegan diet excludes all meat and animal products. So no animal products. So there’s not a lot of nuances to a vegan diet. It’s just if it has anything that came from an animal in it, it is not considered vegan. Now, I guess in saying that there are some nuances to vegan diet. So for example, some vegans may not eat honey because the general treatment of bees. So there’s also a welfare aspect to bees there.
But a vegetarian diet definitely has more nuances to it. So there’s lacto-vegetarian. So that means that they’re not going to be eating meat, poultry, fish, eggs, but it does include dairy products. So someone who’s lacto-vegetarian might enjoy some milk, yogurt, cheese, things like that. And then there’s lacto-ovo vegetarian. So they are not going to be eating meat, poultry or fish, but can have eggs and dairy products. So the eggs is an addition there in the lacto-ovo besides just the lacto.

Chuck Gaidica:
And then there are these other phrases that I hear from time to time. And I actually relate to one of them, flexitarian, right?

Shanthi Appelö:
Yeah.

Chuck Gaidica:
It kind of implies… Not that I am flexible in terms of my ligaments, but I do flex. I do like you center more toward a plant-based diet, but yet I will include fish. I will have yogurt or oatmeal with yogurt in the morning, et cetera. So I’m kind of flexible. Pescatarian, what’s that? Oh, that’s the one that you have fish with vegetables, right? So I get that. So there are those other phrases that wind up there. And I think a lot of people sometimes hear, or they may even think that eating only fruits and vegetables can’t be healthy for you, like you’re missing stuff. Is that true or false?

Shanthi Appelö:
Where this comes from is that if you only eat plant-based food sources, you can become deficient in things like vitamin B12, for example, because it’s only essentially found in animal sources. So in those cases, you do have to eat some fortified foods or some supplements in order to get it. So you can become deficient in certain things. You might be at a higher risk for being deficient in certain things and that’s just where planning comes in. So if you’re following a vegan or a vegetarian diet, you might just need to have some more careful planning, but it can definitely be healthy.

Chuck Gaidica:
And some people would think, “Well, I can’t get protein by eating just vegetables and fruits.” What about that?

Shanthi Appelö:
Oh my gosh, there are so many plant-based proteins to enjoy. I think where the difference is here is that most animal proteins are going to have all the essential amino acids that we need. Now, we have non-essential amino acids in our bodies, which means that we can produce them. And then we have essential amino acids, which means that we have to consume them in order to live. And there are nine of them.
So in a lot of plant-based sources, they’re usually missing one of those amino acids. So that’s where it’s important to include a variety of plant proteins. So if all you enjoy in the plant protein world is peanut butter, then you’re going to be lacking some amino acids. Now, soy and quinoa are exceptions. They do have those. And some people might enjoy rice and black beans together because that makes it a complete protein where it has all the amino acids. So there are definitely ways to get around it.

Chuck Gaidica:
Interesting. So what’s funny about you saying black beans and rice, which I would enjoy as a combo, I don’t know that I would put them together as a combo because I thought they were giving me a complete meal with protein and all the rest. I just put it together because I think it tastes great, or I get it on my wrap when I go out. I just kind of thought, “Oh, that’s a great combo.”

Shanthi Appelö:
As we’re thinking about this too, it is healthy to eat fruits and vegetables. Absolutely. But there’s also unhealthy ways to be vegan and vegetarian. It’s absolutely possible to be vegan and eat only ultra processed foods where it’s high and saturated fat. Not from butter, but from other sources.

Chuck Gaidica:
Coconut oil or something. Right?

Shanthi Appelö:
Yeah. And sugar is still vegan. A lot of sweeteners are vegan. So there are so many ways to be unhealthy on vegan and vegetarian diets. I think a lot of people are expecting, “Oh, vegan and vegetarian. I’m going to cut out a lot of food.” I can lose weight. So weight loss is not always something associated with that as well, because it is possible to overeat.

Chuck Gaidica:
That’s interesting. What’s the phrase I’ve heard? Is it dirty vegan or dirty vegetarian, meaning that maybe you’re getting all your calories from processed veggie foods or something. Right?

Shanthi Appelö:
And some convenience is nice in life, but as long as all of our stuff isn’t coming from ultra processed foods, we’re good.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, let’s go through the list. You mind if we start with the myths in kind of a list of things that are myths? Vegan, vegetarian diets are always, that’s a keyword, always the healthiest way to go.

Shanthi Appelö:
False. I think we just covered it.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, right.

Shanthi Appelö:
Right? It’s possible to overeat and it is possible to have too much sugar and saturated fat.

Chuck Gaidica:
Going vegan, vegetarian guarantees weight loss. You just touched on that. Although there was a famous thing several years ago was former president Bill Clinton. He had some heart issues and he switched to either a vegan or vegetarian diet and man, he did lose some weight and it seems like it helped his health. But some of that is based on you, right? On the way you operate.

Shanthi Appelö:
Exactly. It’s based on your choices. It’s essentially going to be based on the choices that you make related to food and how much you’re eating of it. We don’t have to get into the nuances of weight loss because there are so many things to it, but let’s just go with the old saying, eat less, move more. So if you’re following that on a vegan vegetarian diet, you’re likely going to be losing weight. But there are also ways to definitely overdo it and gain weight as well.

Chuck Gaidica:
You already touched on protein, but this idea that it’s not possible to get enough protein on a vegan vegetarian diet. It sounds like what we’ve already discussed and you’ve brought forth, is that it is possible, but what are the sources we’re looking for to get protein?

Shanthi Appelö:
Yeah. So many places to get protein on a plant-based diet. So you think nuts and nut butters. You think beans, soy products are excellent sources. There are a lot of plant-based alternatives to meat nowadays. So I mean, we could go down the list of so many, but you can get them from your grocery store really easily in a convenient way too.

Chuck Gaidica:
And it could be you say legumes or legumes. I mean, it could pea soup. I was surprised at how much protein… It’s not a lot, but is in my bowl of oatmeal.

Shanthi Appelö:
Exactly. Just your oats has some protein too.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, right. Here’s another one because I have seen some, even former bodybuilders have switched to maybe a vegan vegetarian diet. This notion that you can’t build muscle if you go vegetarian or vegan.

Shanthi Appelö:
So I think in our culture, we think of protein as building muscle sometimes where what actually builds muscle is exercise and protein helps build the muscles with that exercise. But without exercising, we’re not going to get there. So that’s the major kind of concept there is we need to focus on the exercise, not so much the protein. And the protein we can get from so many different sources. For an athlete, getting enough protein and also getting enough calories are going to be key. And it just goes back to what we were talking about earlier. As long as an athlete gets a variety of proteins to meet those nine essential amino acids, you’re good to go.

Chuck Gaidica:
So it would also seem that if you are working out and you’re picking things up and putting them down, you’re really going after it. And you want to have protein shakes, et cetera, supplements. You can do that with veggie based drinks, whether it’s soy or something else. You don’t have to drink the ones that are milk-based if it’s something that you’re against consuming.

Shanthi Appelö:
Exactly. Pea protein is really popular nowadays. There are so many different protein supplements. A lot of people actually overdo the amount of protein that they need. So I think for vegans, vegetarians, for people who eat as well, just look at your own needs for protein. Usually for the general population, it’s 0.8 grams of kilograms of body weight. And for someone who’s more active, it can go to one kilogram to 1.2 all the way perhaps to two depending on what your level of exercises are.
So you can get all those from plants, but I think we need to put less focus so much on protein and just how much you need instead of protein, protein, protein. There’s definitely ways to optimize it. For example, if you’re vegan, vegetarian, or someone who eats meat, having a serving of protein 30 minutes to an hour after exercising can be a really good idea to help with that muscle recovery.

Chuck Gaidica:
You just said something here that struck a question in my mind. Is there such a thing as a vegan or vegetarian keto, I mean, where people are just doing the protein thing? Is there such a thing? Could you exist that way?

Shanthi Appelö:
I’ve never thought about this before, but if we’re thinking about keto, it is a large focus on protein and fat and not so many carbohydrates. Oftentimes, when we look at protein from plant sources, they are going to be associated with carbohydrates. So for example, chickpeas. Sure they’re high in protein, but they’ve also got quite a bit of carbohydrates. So there’s probably a way to do it out there if you eat isolated proteins and focus more on protein shakes and that kind of thing. But I would say that it’s probably less common than other types of keto.

Chuck Gaidica:
But you mentioned chickpeas and there’s so many different ways of course to do it. But I’m telling you, Shanti, I could live on a falafel sandwich smeared with hummus and some pickles on there wrapped in a piece of pita bread. I don’t know how much protein I’m getting from a falafel, which is basically chickpeas, but it’s got to be a great sandwich to bring that whole balance together. And if it’s not, don’t tell me because I’m going to have one pretty soon anyway.

Shanthi Appelö:
I’m with you there. I think hummus is a great spread, a healthy spread. It’s got tons of fiber and healthy fats. So I’m with you. I does provide a good source of protein too.

Chuck Gaidica:
So we’re still on our list of myths as we keep going through the list. The idea that you need to have dairy for strong bones.

Shanthi Appelö:
Oh, this one’s so annoying, Chuck, because there are so many different ways to get calcium that is not dairy. And let’s start with just non-dairy milk sources. Not all of them have calcium added to them, but a lot of them do. And all you have to do is read the label. Oftentimes some of these milks like oat milk, like soy milk, almond milk, they’re going to have about the same amount as dairy will.
So swapping to that is a good idea. Also, we’re going to see it in calcium set tofu. There are a lot of other fortified foods. There’s beans, nuts, seeds that can give you calcium. One of the things about leafy greens, we often hear that as a good calcium sores. The only thing here is that they have this compound called oxalates, and that can actually interfere with calcium being absorbed by the body.
So spinach, beet greens, Swiss chard, those kind of leafy greens often have oxalates and can interfere with some of that calcium. So instead, you can look for things like bok choy, kale, and broccoli, and they’re going to be really good sources of calcium but not have so many oxalates.

Chuck Gaidica:
Broccoli is a super food, isn’t it? I mean, it really is. I know people make fun of it.

Shanthi Appelö:
So is kale, right?

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Right.

Shanthi Appelö:
You can make it taste so good though.

Chuck Gaidica:
Kale? You can?

Shanthi Appelö:
Oh yeah. It’s all about the massage.

Chuck Gaidica:
Okay. I’m going to have to get some tricks and some recipes from you because I’m with you on broccoli. I can eat broccoli all day long.

Shanthi Appelö:
You just need a 20-second gentle massage on that kale with some olive oil and you’re good to go in the salad. It just needs some TLC.

Chuck Gaidica:
That is the hack of the day, maybe of the entire podcast. Massage the kale. That’s awesome.

Shanthi Appelö:
Do it.

Chuck Gaidica:
And the other thing is that I think you have to understand… For me, I have to understand, and I’ve seen it work. When you start to adjust your taste buds to vegetarian… Or I’m not vegan, but I mentioned that I am including more plant based. I switched to almond milk in my coffee every day. It’s not the same flavor. But after 30, 60 days of nearly any change, you can get used to some of the stuff. And I’ll bet you after I massage the kale after a month, I’ll tell you that I like it now.

Shanthi Appelö:
You come back to me on that.

Chuck Gaidica:
Okay. Next time we’re together, I’ll let you know how it’s working. One more thing about this idea of calcium. At the beginning of young people’s lives, babies, we hear about it. And then as we get older, and especially for women maybe, osteoporosis risk, is there any concern? You could still supplement, I guess too, if you actually had a particular issue.

Shanthi Appelö:
Yeah. So the recommended intake is a thousand milligrams a day for the average person. For women and men over 50, that increases to 1200 milligrams. So most of the bone formation in our life actually happens by our mid 20s. But it still is critical after that point. So that’s why especially over age 50, when we are at an increased risk of osteoporosis, especially post-menopausal women where that does become really important.
I think it’s worth having a conversation with your doctor about just seeing what your sources are, how much you’re getting and how much you need. But you can definitely get it from food. And if you’re not getting enough from these fortified foods, then you can supplement.

Chuck Gaidica:
Any other deficiencies that tend to pop up on a list that you’ve seen where people get concerned if they’re including more plant-based in their diet?

Shanthi Appelö:
Yeah. So vitamin B12 I mentioned towards the beginning of the podcast, and that’s because it’s almost exclusively found in animal products. So if you’re not eating animal products, how are you going to get it, right? And so you do, oftentimes if you’re a vegan, need to supplement with vitamin B12 and include fortified foods. So like soy products oftentimes have B12 added, breakfast cereals, bread, even meat substitutes. It’s going to have that added. And again, it just comes back to a well-planned vegan or vegetarian diet.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. And you can be tested for that if you have any suspicion or if you’re curious and you want to know thyself a little more. I’ve had it run in my blood work. I’ve seen it pop up in the normal range. So it was all right. But you can get that.

Shanthi Appelö:
Right. Yeah, definitely worth exploring with your physician.

Chuck Gaidica:
You’ve mentioned soy a couple of times. I know there seemed to be a period of time not that long ago where there were a flurry of articles from a man’s standpoint that soy tends to have more female hormones or something in it. And be careful, especially if you’re working out and you’re doing soy-based protein. Is there anything to that or is that a myth?

Shanthi Appelö:
So one of the problems with a lot of those studies that found these estrogenic effects of soy was that it was about how soy was being studied. Actually, the key takeaway here is that soy is either beneficial or has a neutral effect on the body, and it can actually come along with a lot of great health benefits. So it’s not something to be afraid of. If you were to choose between soy and beef, you’re going to get more health benefits from the soy.

Chuck Gaidica:
Interesting. And if it’s soy milk and there are products, salad dressings, other things have soy oil, I mean, we may be getting it in ways we’re not aware of already. And if you’re not having any issues, I guess no big deal.

Shanthi Appelö:
Yeah. I think it’s easy to grab onto these ideas when they’re associated with harmful effects on your body. That’s where it’s hard to move past, but we just really have to go with evidence and go with what the research shows, and it is that it’s healthy for you.

Chuck Gaidica:
So after all these myths, what advice would you give to all of us if you’re considering a vegan or vegetarian diet?

Shanthi Appelö:
I think that doing some research is a good place to start talking to your healthcare provider about your plans to start following a vegan or vegetarian diet and come up with a plan. So I was talking about a well-planned vegan and vegetarian diet. Think about the sources that you’re going to be getting your iron from, your calcium from, your vitamin B12. Those sources that you’re at the biggest risk of being deficient of. And just think about the sources that you’re going to be getting those from.
Think about your own needs in terms of protein and calcium. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t have to be super complicated. It’s not like this extreme formula that you have to follow. But yeah, do take some consideration.

Chuck Gaidica:
And you can also enter in the shallow of the pool and kind of walk in deeper and deeper. You don’t have to pull the trigger and just go vegan right away. You can go in gradually and see how it’s working.

Shanthi Appelö:
If that’s how you desire to do it. Oftentimes, if someone has a problem with how animals are treated, it can be a really easy switch straight into veganism. But depending on where your motivation comes from to change, you can definitely ease into it.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, when I was a kid growing up, people used to say, “You need to talk to your plants and they will be happier.” Now, you have to massage your plants. So now I’m going to massage the kale and see if it tastes better with a little olive oil. Shanti, it’s always good to see you. Thanks.

Shanthi Appelö:
Great. Bye-bye.

Chuck Gaidica:
Take good care. Shanthi Appelö joining us. She’s a registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. We’re glad you were here listening to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. It’s brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you like the show, you can check us out online at ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast. Leave us reviews, ratings on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. All of our episodes including this one, episode 117 can come your way on your smartphone or tablet. So be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. I’m Chuck Gaidica. Be well.