Over the past 10 years or so, the vegan diet, which excludes all animal products (think red meat, white meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs), has quietly gone from fringe to fairly mainstream. Current research on food trends  suggests that in the U.S. alone, the number of people who identify as being vegan has increased by 600% over the past 3 years. If you’re curious but skeptical about how this seemingly extreme way of eating can be healthy and sustain you for the long term, you’re not alone. A vegan diet is one of the most misunderstood eating patterns out there, but it’s not as challenging as you think, and scientific research strongly supports the health benefits, even for someone with a breast cancer diagnosis. Let’s debunk some of the most common vegan diet myths and learn the facts.
Myth: It’s hard to get Enough Protein on a Vegan Diet
FACT: While it’s true that vegan diets exclude some sources of high protein (meat, fish, eggs, and dairy), there’s still plenty of protein in plant foods like vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains to easily provide the 50-65 grams most women need each day. If that’s not enough, there are multiple ways to supplement with plant based products to get even more protein into your system. Think about it, protein-packed animals like bison, deer, elk, cattle, sheep and goats (not to mention elephants, moose, hippos and rhinos) are all herbivores, so yes, plant protein begets strength and muscle rather effectively!
Check out how quickly it adds up, even without snacks:
- About 20 grams of protein at breakfast = ½ cup of oats and 2 tbsp of ground flaxseeds cooked with a 3/4 cup of soymilk and topped with chopped almonds and fresh berries.
- About 20 grams of protein at lunch = 1 cup of vegetarian bean chili with a small whole grain roll.
- About 25 grams of protein at dinner = A 2-cup serving of a roasted vegetable, tofu, and quinoa Buddha bowl topped with lemon tahini sauce
Myth: Women Need the Dairy for their Bones
FACT: Dairy foods are indeed good sources of calcium, but you might be surprised to learn that a serving of tofu, soymilk, legumes, or leafy greens has about the same amount of calcium as a serving of dairy.
Bone health is also dependent on much more than just calcium. Nutrients like vitamin D from the sun, magnesium from nuts, legumes and whole grains, potassium from fruits and vegetables and many other trace minerals are essential for bone formation — and they’re in ample supply in a vegan diet.
Protein also plays an important role in bone health, but interestingly, research studies have shown that animal protein increases the acid load in the body, which promotes breakdown of bone. Plant proteins, on the other hand, create a more alkaline environment in the body, which promotes bone formation. Even though vegans tend to have a lower body mass, scientists have found  that bone mineral density doesn’t vary between meat-eaters, dairy and egg-eating vegetarians, or vegans.
Myth: Soy Foods promote Breast Cancer
FACT: Although it’s not a necessity, many vegans incorporate soy into their diet as a protein source. Soy has long been a controversial food, and if you have breast cancer, or are at high risk for breast cancer, it’s understandable that you would be concerned.
Soy contains a weak form of plant estrogen, but unlike estrogen produced by your body, which can fuel the growth of breast cancer cells, plant estrogens more commonly bind to tumor-suppressing receptors and inhibit the growth of cancer cells. It’s confusing, we know! Hopefully, the latest research will set your mind at ease that it’s not just ok to eat soy, but it could even benefit you if taken in moderation.
- An analysis of 35 different studies  on breast cancer risk in pre-and postmenopausal women determined that there is no evidence that moderate intake of soy is associated with breast cancer for women in Western countries; however, for women in Asian countries, it appears to decrease their risk of breast cancer — possibly because they eat more soy throughout their lives.
- In one of the largest studies  to date, which followed nearly 10,000 breast cancer survivors for about 7 years, moderate soy intake was associated with a 25% reduction in breast cancer recurrence. Another 9-year study on breast cancer survivors  found higher intakes of isoflavones (the protective compounds found in whole soy foods) were associated with a 21% reduction in death of all causes.
- Soy also does not appear to interact with anti-estrogen medications. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research , “some studies even suggest soy foods may be most protective for women who take tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor, but more research is needed.”
More questions about soy? Make sure to read our thorough blog post Should You Be Eating Soy? Setting the Record Straight!
Myth: Vegans need to take Lots of Supplements
FACT: The main nutrient vegans need to be careful about is vitamin B12. It’s widely available in all animal foods, but almost nonexistent in plant foods, unless they’re fortified. Although you only need a tiny amount of this vitamin (a weekly 2,500 mcg cyanocobalamin chewable will do the trick), a deficiency can have consequences, and vegans will need to carefully choose foods that are fortified with B12 if they opt not to supplement with a product to cover their needs. Additionally, for optimal brain health, it is advisable to take a daily yeast- or algae-derived long-chain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) supplement.
Myth: A Vegan diet is Always Healthier
FACT: Whether you’re an omnivore, vegetarian or vegan, your body is only as healthy as the foods you put in your mouth. Beer and French fries technically qualify as a vegan snack! A vegan diet that’s low in fruits and vegetables and high in processed foods and refined cereals and simple sugars lacks the phytonutrient power to protect you from chronic diseases or help you age better. However, if you aim for balance, variety, and lots of whole-food plant-based choices, the odds are in your favor  that a vegan diet will create a healthier body mass index and a lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, stroke, cancer, and many other types of diseases – so step away from animal foods, and load up on plants!
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- Knurick JR, Johnston CS, Wherry SJ, Aguayo I. Comparison of correlates of bone mineral density in individuals adhering to lacto-ovo, vegan, or omnivore diets: A cross-sectional investigation. Nutrients. 2015 May 11;7(5):3416-26. http://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/7/5/3416/htm
- Chen M, Rao Y, Zheng Y, Wei S, Li Y, Guo T, Yin P. Association between soy isoflavone intake and breast cancer risk for pre-and post-menopausal women: a meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. PloS one. 2014 Feb 20;9(2):e89288. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0089288
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- AICR’s foods that fight cancer: Soy. American Institute for Cancer Research. http://www.aicr.org/foods-that-fight-cancer/soy.html. Accessed July 24, 2018.
- Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: vegetarian diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016 Dec 1;116(12):1970-80. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27886704