a beginners guide to plant based diets

The beginner’s guide to plant-based eating

Written in collaboration with Heather Woodward, Registered Dietitian

Plant-based eating is a hot topic in the media lately and a growing number of people are now embracing this trend. So what’s all the hype about? We’ll break it down to the basics for you and explain everything you need to know about plant-based lifestyles.

A healthy plant-based diet includes: fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Some people choose to exclude all animal products (vegans), while others choose to include: dairy, eggs and/or fish. A flexitarian diet is primarily plant-based, but it allows for the occasional animal product (including meat).

Why choose a plant-based diet?

People choose to eat a plant-focused diet for many reasons, but one main motivator is often its health benefits. Research has shown that moving towards a properly planned plant-based diet offers many health benefits in comparison to more traditional diets.

A plant-based diet can:

  • Promote weight loss
  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels
  • Lower your risk of developing diabetes
  • Decrease your risk of certain cancers

Vegan or vegetarian does not always mean healthy

It’s important to understand that choosing vegan or vegetarian options doesn’t always mean that the food you’re eating is healthier. There are just as many vegetarian foods that are highly processed and offer little nutritional value, such as potato chips. When we consider the health benefits of plant-based diets, we’re referring to those that are low in processed foods and high in whole, minimally processed foods.

Whether you choose to eat meat, fish, eggs and dairy – or whether you choose to avoid them all – the basic nutrition principles always stay the same: it’s important to prioritize whole foods from plant sources and have lots of variety in your diet.

Four key guidelines for adopting a plant-based diet

Are you thinking about adopting a plant-based diet? If so, there are four key guidelines you should follow:

1. Buyer beware – Don’t be misled by claims on the front of packages. “Vegetarian” doesn’t automatically mean healthy.

2. Limit processed foods – Stick to selecting fresh, whole foods as much as possible. If you do pick up packaged products, make it a habit to always read the ingredients and nutrition labels.

3. Be savvy about nutrients – Vegan diets are often higher in folate, thiamine, magnesium, potassium, fibre, manganese, beta carotene and vitamins B6, C and E than the average omnivorous diet. However, there are some nutrients that people who eat minimal animal products may become deficient in:

  • Iron
  • B12
  • Vitamin D
  • DHA (an omega 3)
  • Zinc, calcium, selenium, riboflavin and iodine (less commonly)

While all of these nutrients can certainly be obtained by taking supplements or by properly planning your plant-based diet, it’s important to first check with your dietitian. A dietitian can work with you to assess if your plant-based eating pattern is balanced or if you might be lacking in certain macro or micronutrients.

4. Plan your protein intake – While adequate protein is something vegetarians and vegans do need to be conscious of, it’s surprisingly easy to get enough protein with a well-planned diet. For example: 1 cup of lentils has 18 g of protein, plus the added benefits of 16 g of fibre and 730 mg of heart-healthy potassium. A 2.5 oz. chicken breast, on the other hand, has 18 g of protein – but no fibre and only 181 mg of potassium.

Think evolution, not revolution, when it comes to making dietary changes

Instead of dramatically overhauling your diet, try slowly incorporating more plant-based foods into your meals. Start with one meatless meal per week, and then work your way up from there!

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Add beans to your salads or wraps instead of using luncheon meat
  • Experiment with different veggie burgers instead of beef burgers
  • Try chopping up some tofu or tempeh in your next stir-fry
  • Snack on nuts and seeds
  • Try a tofu scramble for breakfast instead of an egg and meat scramble
  • Get creative with your veggie sandwiches. For example: hummus, mustard, hemp hearts, cucumber, tomato, lettuce and whatever other veggies you enjoy – there are endless options!
  • Make a smoothie: 1 cup unsweetened soy milk + 2 tbsp hemp hearts + 1 cup frozen mango + pinch of cinnamon (speak to your dietitian for more ideas or look online)
  • Whip up some roasted chickpeas (check out the recipe here)

If you’re considering making the switch to a plant-based lifestyle, and you’d like further guidance on how to optimize your diet, please contact a Copeman Healthcare Registered Dietitian today!