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What is a Plant-based Diet Anyway?

Goodbye “keto” diet. Hello “plant-based” diet! As a Registered Dietitian, I couldn’t be more pleased with the latest diet trend, because it isn’t actually a “diet”, it is a healthy, balanced way of eating that just makes sense. So what is a plant-based diet anyway? Many people interpret a plant-based diet as being vegetarian or vegan, but this isn’t the case. Although a plant-based diet is mostly made up of food from plants such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and plant proteins such as legumes, lentils, nut/seeds and their butters and soy products such as tofu, it can actually contain moderate amounts of fish, poultry, lean meat, lower fat dairy products and eggs.

One of reasons the plant-based diet is becoming so popular is because this way of eating has been shown to prevent and manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer and also help with weight management. This diet is a rich source of fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals, which are important for maintaining good health overall.

The other reason for this new diet trend is that plant-based diets have been shown to be more environmentally sustainable. Replacing meat with plant foods may have the greatest potential to decrease environmental impact especially with respect to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) and water/land use. 1

The switch to a plant-based way of eating can be quite challenging for some hard-core carnivores so here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Start with small, easy changes. For example, instead of bacon and eggs for breakfast, try oatmeal topped with nuts/ground flax seeds and/or berries or other fruit. If you normally would eat a salami sandwich for lunch, substitute a peanut butter sandwich instead.

  • Aim for one meatless meal per week. Instead of tacos for dinner, try black bean burritos. Instead of using beef in your stir-fry, try tofu instead.

  • Pick a recipe you enjoy and substitute beans for some of the meat. For example, decrease the amount of meat you use in your chili and increase the proportion of beans.

  • Try adding beans to a side dish such as rice. Gradually cut back the amount of meat on your plate and increase the size of your rice and bean dish. Try this delicious recipe for Jewelled Rice and Black Beans.

  • Substitute chickpeas, nuts or seeds on top of your salad instead of croutons or cheese or try a three-bean salad instead.

  • Instead of beef barley or chicken noodle soup, try lentil or minestrone soup.

  • You may find it easier to start with plant-based snacks such as nuts, trail mix, edamame beans, roasted chickpeas, apple slices with almond butter, vegetables with hummus or whole grain crackers with peanut butter.

  • Choose whole grains more often with your meals such as multigrain bread, brown rice, quinoa or whole wheat pasta instead of refined starches and added sugars.

  • Eat a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables. Fill ½ your plate with fruits and vegetables at both lunch and supper.

  • Use oils and spreads from a plant source more often such as olive oil, nut butters, guacamole and tahini.

  • Embrace the opportunity to expand your menu options and increase the variety in your diet by buying plant-based/vegetarian cookbooks or searching up new recipes online.

Some people shy away from eating plant-based foods such as beans and lentils due to the bloating, gas and discomfort they experience after eating them. These symptoms occur because the complex carbohydrates in these types of foods cannot be digested in the small intestine, so they pass into the large intestine where they are fermented by bacteria and produce gas. Taking a product containing the digestive enzyme, alpha-galactosidase (i.e. beano ), which breaks down indigestible carbohydrates, may help to alleviate these symptoms. Soaking, discarding soaking water and cooking beans and lentils, is another effective way to improve carbohydrate digestion. In some people, these symptoms could also decrease with repeated exposure over time.

It is important to note that not all plant-based foods are a healthy choice. Choose less processed, whole plant foods more often instead of prepared meals or plant-based burger patties, as they are often higher in salt, unhealthy fats and/or sugar.

If you choose to follow a diet that is completely plant-based i.e. vegan, you can meet all of your nutrient needs by consuming well-balanced meals and ensuring that you are getting adequate calories, protein, iron, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc and omega-3 fats. If you are not sure if you are getting a healthy vegan diet, you may want to seek the advice of a Registered Dietitian.

You don’t need to become completely vegan to enjoy a plant-based diet, just make a conscious effort to choose foods from plant sources more often. To get you started, try a variation of the plant-based diet such as the Mediterranean-style diet. The new Canada’s Food Guide will also help you plan balanced meals and provide you with suggestions for including protein foods that come from plant sources more often.

Eat Well, Live Well


1.Behrens P, Kiefte-de Jong JC, Bosker T, Rodrigues JFD, de Koning A, Tukker A. Evaluating the environmental impacts of dietary recommendations. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Dec 19;114(51):13412-17. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1711889114. Epub 2017 Dec 4

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