Reed Mangels, PhD, RD

“Nutrition Hotline” has been a popular feature of Vegetarian Journal for many years. Let’s look back on some “Nutrition Hotline” columns from the past.

We’ve consistently encouraged readers to not accept everything they see in the popular press—whether it’s in a newspaper or a magazine, on Facebook or a blog.

When you hear about a study purporting to show that vegetarian diets are deficient in one or more nutrients, ask some questions.

  • Was the study of a small group of vegetarians who ate a very limited diet?
  • Was the study done in a country where food adequacy or safety is an issue? If so, the results may not apply to vegetarians with easy access to a varied, hygienic diet.
  • Was the study done recently? Today’s diets typically feature more varied foods, including fortified foods, than did vegetarian diets years ago.
  • Could factors other than diet have influenced the results?
  • Have other studies reached the same conclusions?

The bulk of the evidence is that vegetarians live long, healthy lives. [2002]

QUESTION: “I just read about not needing fruits and vegetables—they don’t keep you from getting cancer. Is this true?”

ANSWER: Short answer, “No, don’t let the headlines fool you. Fruits and vegetables are foods you need every day.”

The story that you heard was probably based on a report from EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition), a large multi-country study involving close to half a million people. In the published study, researchers stated that fruits and vegetables had a very small effect on cancer risk. This statement led to headlines like “Five Fruits and Vegs a Day Won’t Keep Cancer Away.”

Unfortunately, some news stories did not point out that the study found that people eating more fruits and vegetables did have a lower risk of cancer, approximately 3 percent lower risk for every 200 grams (about 7 ounces) more fruits and vegetables eaten. That translates to a 3 percent reduction in risk just by adding a medium stalk of broccoli to your diet every day. The risk reduction was linear. In other words, the more fruits and vegetables you eat, the lower your risk for cancer is.

While a 3 percent reduction in cancer risk may sound quite small, we can look at the number of people who develop cancer each year and conclude that reducing this number by 3 percent would mean that thousands of people would not get cancer. People who eat more fruits and vegetables also have a lower risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 Diabetes.

So, don’t let the headlines fool you. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and since we don’t know exactly which ones are best, eat a variety every day. [2010]

We’ve responded to many questions about vegetarian children.

QUESTION: “My 10-year-old granddaughter has decided to become a vegetarian. My daughter says she doesn’t know what to feed her and that she is not eating veggies or fruits.”

ANSWER: It’s your granddaughter’s responsibility (with her parents’ help) to choose a variety of healthful vegetarian foods. Sharing an eating plan (like the one on our website) for vegetarian children and talking with her about choices from each food group is a good way to help her think creatively as she develops a list of healthful vegetarian foods that she will eat. [2007]

Questions about protein have been popular. We’ve reiterated, in many different ways, that careful combining of different protein sources is not something to focus on.

There is really no need for vegetarians in the United States to be concerned about complementing proteins. By eating a variety of foods such as unrefined grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and vegetables throughout the day, you are virtually assured of getting adequate protein. Protein is made up of amino acids. Actually, we require certain essential amino acids, not protein at all. Most protein sources of non-animal origin do contain all of the essential amino acids, but the amounts of one or two of these amino acids may be low in a particular food in comparison to a protein from an animal source. However, by eating a variety of foods, you can meet amino acid needs. [~1994]

Diets come and diets go. We’ve answered questions about many popular diets. Remember these?

Statements like “I could never be a vegetarian, I’m type O” are not based on scientific evidence and may even lead people to avoid making dietary changes that could benefit their health and the planet. Stick with a varied, whole foods-based vegetarian diet regardless of your blood type. [1999]

Nothing about the science of sustainable eating practices actually changed to prompt the low-carb craze that has made the Atkins diet so popular. It’s true that you can lose weight on the Atkins diet or other controlled-carb diets, but you can also lose weight on high-carb, low-fat, rice, and grapefruit diets. Research suggests that weight lost on the Atkins diet, as with other diets, is the result of cutting calories, not carbs. Suzanne Havala Hobbs, DrPH, MS, RD [2004]

And one of our favorite questions:

QUESTION: “I want to become a vegetarian, but I hate most vegetables. Can I be a vegetarian without vegetables?”

ANSWER: The more you read about vegetarian diets, the more you’ll see statements like, “Eat a variety of foods.” That’s because different foods provide different nutrients. For instance, dried beans supply protein and iron while fruits are a good source of vitamin C. Vegetables make important contributions when it comes to nutrition. Orange vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes have generous amounts of vitamin A. Green vegetables such as kale and collards supply iron and calcium. All vegetables provide fiber and phytonutrients (simply put, nutrients that are important and that come from plants).

That’s not to say that you can’t get many of these vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from other foods if you don’t eat vegetables. You can get some from fruits, you get some from whole grains, and if necessary, you can take a vitamin pill. The only problem is that vegetables are such low-calorie powerhouses that you may find that you have to eat a lot more fruit or a lot more beans to make up for what you’re missing by not eating vegetables. In addition, there may be some phytonutrients that are unique to vegetables that we don’t even know about yet and that aren’t in vitamin pills. If you don’t eat vegetables, you miss out on these potentially important phytonutrients.

Do you really not eat any vegetables, or is it that you really don’t like cooked vegetables or certain vegetables? There’s no law that says that you have to eat every vegetable. For variety’s sake, it would be good to try to find a deep orange-colored vegetable or two, a green leafy vegetable or two, and a few other vegetables that you could eat regularly.

Maybe you decided when you were 3 or 4 or 5 that you didn’t like vegetables and haven’t tried many of them since. Believe it or not, your tastes change as you get older, and what tasted bitter or unpleasant when you were a child may taste pretty good now. Try eating some vegetables raw or just cooking them lightly and see if that makes them more appealing. [2010]