By Carol Harrison, RD
It seems everywhere you look on social media, lifestyle influencers and trendy eateries are touting the benefits of plant-based diets. We could all benefit from eating more veggies, fruit, and other whole plant foods, but what is often missing in the conversation is a critical look at what should come off our plates to make room for more plant-based foods.
What is a plant-based diet?
Plant-based diets and plant-based eating are relatively new terms. Simply put, they refer to diets that include more plant foods than animal foods. That could mean eating 100% plant foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils – or some combination of plant and animal foods, with greater emphasis on plants.
Plant-based eating can be a helpful way to frame eating. Most Canadians do need to eat more veggies and fruit every day, as well as nuts, seeds and whole grains (instead of refined grains). Research has shown that many of us fall short on the nutrients found in these foods, including vitamins A and C, B vitamins, dietary fibre, zinc and magnesium.
Any diet pattern, whether it includes animal sourced foods or not, can be healthful if diligently planned and executed. However, focusing on plant-based eating can also create an unnecessary divide, pitting plant foods against animal foods when, in their whole states, both offer beneficial packages of essential nutrients. For example, plants champion fibre, folate and vitamins A and C, and meat champions complete protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins.
The plants-versus-animals debate distracts us from addressing the legit health concerns rising from the fact that Canadian diets tend to be high in calorie-rich, nutrient-poor ultra-processed foods – which are linked to a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
A better approach could be to focus on quality food choices instead of animal versus plants.
What’s the best way to make room on our plates for veggies, fruit, and other plant foods?
Consider these options: just 5% of calories in the average Canadian diet comes from fresh red meat (beef, pork, lamb), 2% comes from eggs, and 5% is from milk and plain yogurt. Meanwhile, a whopping 46% of our calories come from the calorie-rich, nutrient-poor ultra-processed foods, such as sugary drinks, chips, cookies, frozen pizza, fries, and dressings. (Eating only these foods could technically be considered a “plant-based diet,” but that would be far from healthy!)
What do we give up by cutting back on ultra-processed foods? There’s really no downside. On the other hand, it’s worth noting what nutrients we may be missing out on when excluding animal foods.
In addition to complete protein, meat provides easily absorbed heme iron, zinc, and B vitamins (including B12, found only in animal foods). Fatty fish are among the best sources of healthy omega-3 fats. Eggs are also highly nutritious, providing complete protein; vitamins A, B12, D and E; choline (for brain function) and two antioxidants that support eye health: lutein and zeaxanthin.
You don’t need to eat a large amount to reap the benefits – a serving of meat or fish is about the size of a deck of cards and is modest in calories.
How to make it work
At mealtime, keep it simple by following the “healthy plate” method: fill half your plate with vegetables and/or fruit, one-quarter with whole grains or unprocessed starchy food, and one-quarter with quality protein, such as fish, lentils, beef, beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, yogurt, and/or eggs.