Everyone is talking about nutrition these days, from actors and athletes to bloggers and bodybuilders, and even your next-door neighbour who won’t stop talking about intermittent fasting! Sometimes we’re surrounded by so many different opinions, it can be pretty overwhelming! To help cut through some of the noise, check out these common nutrition claims and why it’s ok to just ignore them.
You need to eat meat for protein
North America is pretty protein-obsessed, and we’re not wrong—protein is essential for muscle repair and for the production of hormones, neurotransmitters, antibodies and enzymes. But how much do we actually need? This depends on lifestyle—the more active you are and the more lean body mass you have, the more you need. So what about plant-based endurance and strength athletes? How are they getting enough? Epidemiological studies following vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians and omnivores have shown consistently that vegan diets are sufficient in protein if not abundant. Protein is so critical to the function of our bodies, that nature has us covered! If you’re eating enough calories and enough variety, you’re getting enough protein. So now that we’re not as worried about protein anymore, we can think about our most urgent deficiency—fibre!
Are you sure? I was told that plant proteins are incomplete…
A few decades ago, the concept of protein combining became wildly popular—no matter how many times it was debunked in later years. There was a widespread belief that the only way to ensure that we’re getting adequate protein is to combine our various protein sources so that we get all the essential amino acids in one meal. For example, we’re told that we should eat rice together with beans, since the former doesn’t contain much lysine, while the latter lacks in methionine. In reality, plants actually do contain all the essential amino acids but in varying amounts. And to top it all off, it turns out that our bodies are incredibly intelligent and resourceful. They maintain something called amino acid pools, so depending on what we are eating and what we need in order to perform various functions, our bodies just grab what they need and keep getting the job done.
I’m pretty sure all carbs are bad for you
Carbohydrates are a macronutrient, and our body’s preferred source of energy, so how can they be inherently bad? First of all, what kind of carbs are we talking about? Complex carbs in sweet potatoes and whole grains? Or refined carbs in pastries and sugary cereal? The sweet potatoes and whole grains, as well as fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds in their whole form are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fibre. They slow down our digestion, keep our blood sugar steady, and feed our beneficial gut bacteria. Foods that contain refined carbs are usually processed and have very few nutrients left and very little fibre, so they are digested quickly, causing blood sugar to spike and feeding our NOT-so-beneficial bacteria. Bottom line? It’s not about eliminating all carbs—it’s about choosing our carb sources wisely.
Everyone should at least stay away from gluten, right?
Yes, but only if they have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Even if you have the latter, and you’ve ruled out celiac disease, it may be worth looking into whether some other factors are at play. Most of our gluten sources are highly processed, like breads, pastas, tortillas, pastries, cakes, etc., and contain various additives, preservatives, and commercial pesticides, so the culprit may not be the gluten itself. You may be able to overcome this sensitivity by working with a nutritionist or naturopath and eliminating some foods temporarily. But if you are not sensitive to gluten, don’t deprive yourself! Gluten grains are full of fibre, B vitamins and antioxidants; just try to eat sources that are as minimally processed as you can find—and organic if possible.
A raw-food diet is the most nutritious diet
On one hand, raw fruits and vegetables are very nutritious; they’re high in vitamin C and rich in food enzymes, which help you digest those very foods in which they’re packaged. But on the other hand, cooking your food not only increases antioxidant content but it can also make those foods easier to break down, especially if you have digestive issues. So what’s the solution? Balance! Try to incorporate both cooked and raw foods throughout your day and find a balance that works for you. Just make sure that your cooked food isn’t OVERcooked, or some nutrients will get depleted!
Dairy is super important for strong, healthy bones
We all grew up learning that calcium only came from milk, cheese, and yogurt, but guess what? Leafy greens, beans, sesame seeds/tahini, fortified plant milks and calcium-set tofu are excellent sources of calcium. Choose low-oxalate greens like kale, bok choy, collards, and Chinese cabbage to increase absorption and don’t forget to consume foods that are rich in magnesium, potassium, and vitamin C – all key nutrients for optimal bone health. Finally, if you’re not getting enough sunshine, make sure you supplement with vitamin D, and keep moving – weight-bearing exercises increase not only muscle but also bone density.
OK but soy is definitely bad for you
Studies have shown that soy is protective against breast and prostate cancers, cardiovascular diseases, brittle bones, type 2 diabetes and cognitive decline… So why all the bad press? Perhaps the misguided belief that soy contains estrogen. It actually contains phytoestrogens, which are 1,000 times weaker than mammalian estrogens. In fact, they bind to different receptors and actually help regulate the estrogen in our bodies, which may explain why they help improve not only PMS, but even menopausal symptoms. Keep in mind that soy comes in many different packages. It’s a common ingredient in processed foods, usually in the form of soy protein isolate, which is devoid of most of soy’s amazing benefits. Soybeans and minimally processed soy foods like tofu, tempeh and natto are packed with nutrients, including protein, fibre, iron and B vitamins, and guess what? Populations that eat 1-2 servings every day tend to show great health outcomes!
Don’t eat legumes because they contain inflammatory lectins
Actually, this is not a myth at all – certain types of lectins are inflammatory and can even be mildly poisonous—when eaten raw! But guess what? They are virtually eliminated when legumes are properly cooked! Did you know that daily consumption of whole grains and legumes (i.e. beans and lentils) is a common factor across all the longest living populations in the world? So no need to worry about legumes anymore; they are, hands down, some of the most nutritious, affordable and versatile foods out there—as long as they’re cooked (but who’s out there eating raw beans??).
But plant-based foods are still hard to digest!
Did you know that around 40 trillion microorganisms make up your gut microbiome? This explains what we already know—that our gut bacteria play a major part in our overall health and even in specific aspects of it like our digestion. If your gut bacteria are used to being fed a standard North American diet, which is typically low in fibre, and then you suddenly eat a fibre-rich meal full of legumes and cruciferous veggies, you may be greeted with some uncomfortable reactions like gas and bloating. But fear not! The solution is simple: slow down and let your gut bacteria adjust to these new foods. Instead of having a full bowl of lentils, have a tablespoon and increase gradually. Instead of combining beans with a high-fibre grain like quinoa or brown rice, start with white rice and then slowly incorporate whole grains. How you feed your gut has an impact on the composition of your bacteria, and as you progress, you’ll feel the difference as your fibre-loving microbes start to take over and prosper!
Salima Valla is a holistic nutritionist certified in plant-based nutrition and she loves sharing her favourite vegan recipes on Instagram (@voilasalima).