Perhaps one of the biggest myths that perpetuate the vegetarian diet centers around how healthy it is. No, I’m not talking about the common misconception behind a lot of meat-eaters’ fears that a vegetarian or vegan diet lacks the ability to be nutritionally sound. Rather, the myth I’m worried about is the one that states that a vegetarian or vegan diet is, by itself, fundamentally healthy. Not healthier, but just healthy, full stop. This is one of those misnomers that needs to be nipped in the bud before it spreads too far. Going veg can be great, but it isn’t all it takes. Here’s why a vegetarian diet can be unhealthy, too.

Before I get going, STOP. Don’t mistake me for saying that either a vegetarian diet or its vegan counterpart (or any variation for that matter) is inherently flawed, poorly planned, or otherwise bad for you. I’m not making that claim at all! I believe that when you place the standard diet next to the vegetarian diet and compare them when they’re both being done correctly, the vegetarian diet will come out healthier. But there’s that little qualifier “done correctly.” That is the key to everything in life, none more than a vegetarian diet.

People keep assuming that there’s some magic that happens when you remove meat. The thought is that by cutting steaks from meals and leaving chicken out of salads, the weight vanishes and your body becomes fit and capable of great physical miracles up to and including living forever. Any good vegetarian or vegan will tell you that there is no magic to it. That yes, you can lose weight and live a long, healthy lifestyle. But they’ll also tell you the supposed “secret” to that success, and it isn’t losing meat. It’s working hard.

Tons of junk food is devoid of meat, so chips, pretzels, soda, ice cream, candy bars, cheese sticks and the like are all perfectly vegetarian, but that’s doesn’t mean that those constitute the ingredients for a healthy diet. Poor nutrition is poor nutrition, all dietary labels aside. If you cut out meat but also cut out all your leafy greens because you don’t like the way they taste, you’re still setting yourself up for failure and malnutrition.

It’s just so frustrating to think that the diet is necessarily “easy.” It’s not the most difficult transition to make when you’re ready to do so and feel really committed, but it insults all those who make the switch and work hard to fill the gaps in their diet that meat leaves, finding ways to balance entire meals with good vitamin and mineral coverage, and exercise regularly with healthy food options waiting at home. It’s easy to sit and snack on chips while watching TV. It’s hard to go run a mile and then come home to a green salad as a reward.

The purpose of bringing this up isn’t to chastise anyone by the way. I’m not saying that junk food doesn’t have a place in our lives since a Snickers here and some Pringles there aren’t the problem. The problem is reliance on these junk foods as dietary staples rather than treats or just assuming that a vegetarian diet will forgive excessive junk food snacking by virtue of not eating meat. It doesn’t work that way, no matter how hard you think it does, and worse, it may not even have a visible effect on the person eating poorly since weight and health don’t always go hand-in-hand, meaning you could be skinny as a rail and still be living an incredibly unhealthy life with an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

My goal is to just give a few people a much-needed wakeup call, and I’m sure you know who you are. If you want to just dive headfirst into a poor diet, go right ahead, it’s your life and some people just prefer to deal with the consequences. But don’t then say that because you’re a vegetarian that you “eat healthier and live a healthier life.” That’s not gonna fly and you know it, and if you didn’t know it before you certainly do now.

Anyone out there have a friend or family member who seems a bit too guilty to call their vegetarian or vegan diet “healthy”? Care to give any tips for them so that they can improve their habits? Leave a comment and let’s help them out. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have a mile to run and a green salad with Snickers in it waiting for me. Hey, compromise, right?