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The plant-based diet - a beginner's guide

A plant-based lifestyle has become increasingly popular, and for good reason: it can help optimize health and minimize our carbon footprint. Reducing or eliminating animal products effectively reduces greenhouse gas production, deforestation and is more ethically sound for the welfare of livestock.

What’s more, the plant-based diet, including vegan and vegetarian approaches, has been increasingly researched over the last few decades, with scientists examining its effects on heart disease, diabetes, cancer, GI health, weight loss and more.

The consensus? A plant-based diet has several positive impacts on these diseases and on overall health outcomes. Ultimately, a diet consisting mostly of plants such as fruits, vegetables and legumes is greatly encouraged as part of a healthy lifestyle.

It’s important to note that there are certain nutritional considerations to keep in mind when removing animal products from one’s diet. Some nutrients are more available to the body when in animal form than in plant form, however it is entirely possible to meet all of your nutrient needs with a plant-based diet.

 

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Here are the most important nutritional considerations when adopting a total or partial plant-based diet:

Protein : Include a plant-based source of protein at each meal and snack. Portions vary based on individual needs and type of protein, but aim to consume around 3/4 - 1 cup of legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas) or 150g tofu/tempeh per meal. Vegetarians must add 10% more total protein to their diets to compensate for the fact that vegetarian diets are high in fibre, which can reduce the body’s ability to digest and use protein. However, preparation methods such as soaking and sprouting help make proteins easier to digest and some nutrients easier to absorb. There are several resources including www.urbainculteurs.org that help teach safe soaking and sprouting methods for beginners.

Iron: Iron can be found in most protein-rich foods such as legumes, tofu, pumpkin and squash seeds, as well in breakfast cereals and some green vegetables. Iron-rich foods are best absorbed when paired with a vitamin C-rich food. Good sources of vitamin C include green, orange, red and yellow fruits and vegetables.

Omega-3s: Vegetarians require double the dose of plant-based (ALA) omega-3s than omnivores. This equates to 2-3 tbsp of ALA-rich seeds like flax, hemp and chia, 1/2 cup of walnuts or ¾ cup of tofu or soybeans. Tip: ALA-rich seeds should always be kept in an airtight bag in the fridge or freezer.

Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is found in enriched soy and plant-based beverages, fortified breakfast cereals and Red Star nutritional yeast. An adequate amount is found in 2-3 portions of these foods per day. If you are unable to obtain this amount through dietary sources, be sure to include a 50-100 mcg/day B12 supplement (in cyanocobalamin form) in your daily routine.

Vitamin D: It is very hard to meet our daily vitamin D requirements from food sources alone, and Canadians typically don’t get enough of it from sunlight, so I recommend a vitamin D supplement of 1000IU/day for everyone over one year of age, whether they follow a plant-based diet or not.

 

 

Many Canadian adults have inadequate intakes of magnesium, calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D. Ready to make a change?

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HOW TO START A PLANT-BASED DIET

I recommend making gradual changes and building your repertoire of plant-based recipes. Here is a list of weekly ideas to jump start your switch to plant-based eating:

  • Cook one or two new meatless recipes per week, or think of vegetarian recipes you already enjoy and add them to your meal plan more often.
  • Adapt your recipes to reduce the meat and either fully or partially substitute it with plant proteins like lentils or tofu, for example.
  • Learn one or two new ways to cook vegetarian proteins — whether that be tofu, tempeh, lentils or beans.
  • Choose to eat at least one plant-based meal per day — either at breakfast, lunch or dinner.
  • Build a meal around a salad and a plant-based protein.
  • Invest some time into exploring new recipes, ingredients, food blogs and plant-based restaurants for inspiration.
  • Start with one substitution at a time, such as replacing cow’s milk with a soy beverage, trying cashew cheese, replacing yogurt with coconut or soy yogurt etc.

 

The best plant-based approach is always one with a whole foods focus. This means eating unprocessed foods most of the time — think dried or canned beans, lentils and chickpeas, soy products such as edamame, soy milk, tofu and tempeh, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and nutritional yeast. I recommend using processed vegan options (like commercial veggie patties, ground meat substitute, Beyond Meat burgers, isolated soy or pea protein products, faux meats and cheeses) as little as possible.

Overall, making the change to a more plant-based lifestyle can be done one step at a time. But it can be difficult to navigate a dietary change — and the grocery store — on your own. Our team of Medisys dietitians can help take the confusion out of plant-based eating and work with you to design a plan that takes your schedule, food preferences and budget to heart.


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