Considering a plant based diet? Get the facts first

March 5, 2020

As a culture, people are growing more sensitive to the health and environmental implications of plant-based diets. This surging trend is due to a skewed interest towards foods that promote good health and well-being, increased awareness of the beneficial effects of plant-based foods, along with a greater consideration for the environment.

Within the last year the federal government made drastic changes to Canada’s Food Guide introducing a fresh approach, with a greater emphasis on plant-based foods, while downsizing the importance of meat and dairy.

Although it might seem straight forward and tempting to change course, there’s a lot to consider before committing to this lifestyle change. Fortunately, Laura Goodwin, a Registered Dietitian at North York General Hospital, shares her insight for those intrigued.  “There are a lot of misconceptions circulating out there around plant-based diets,” says Laura. “A plant-based diet isn’t necessarily vegetarian or vegan, as some people following a plant-based diet still consume small amounts of fish, dairy, eggs and some meat. The emphasis is on plant-based foods, but animal products may still be incorporated to a lesser extent.”

Simply put, a plant-based diet puts plants front and centre.  Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains are the main staples, while animal products occupy less of the diet.

Before making the switch, it’s important to ensure a plant-based diet is right for you. “It’s good to consult a family doctor or a registered dietitian to ensure a plant-based diet is most appropriate for you, based on your specific situation or lifestyle,” explains Laura. “The best approach involves a lot of education and research.”

A plant-based diet is an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Similar diets such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets have been shown to have a positive impact on health, including lowered risk of cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes.

Laura recommends taking the time to ensure your plant-based diet is nutritionally balanced. “If you’re limiting or omitting animal products from your diet, it’s important to identify alternative sources of protein and certain nutrients, such as B12, Omega-3, Calcium and Vitamin D.  It’s completely feasible to meet all your nutritional needs through a well-planned and balanced plant-based diet.”

If a plant-based diet has piqued your interest, Laura suggests starting small in scale and increasing your intake of plant-based foods incrementally.  Try substituting a few meat-based meals per week with plant-based or vegetarian dishes, with the occasional consumption or smaller portions of animal-based products. It’s also easy to have fun with it and experiment with new vegetarian or plant-based recipes.”

Laura warns against foods that are technically plant-based but are highly processed, containing refined sugars, unhealthy fats, high amounts of salt and other additives. “Even though you may be avoiding animal products, these processed foods don’t offer high quality nutritional value.”

There are plenty of resources available within the community for those looking to adopt a plant-based diet. “A lot of the family health teams now have dietitians on staff,” notes Laura. “Most local grocery stores will have a registered dietitian available and willing to provide consultation. There are also a lot of great resources available online, for instance the Dietitians of Canada website offers a lot of great, credible and trustworthy information.”