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The term “plant-based eating” has gained popularity, but it can be a confusing phrase for those looking to make a dietary change. Unlike the typical Western diet, a plant-based pattern is predominantly unprocessed (often referred to as “whole”) plant sources like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, healthy oils, beans, lentils and soy.

While it may be misinterpreted to be exclusively vegan and vegetarian, there’s a range of what is considered a plant-based eating pattern. This can include small portions of selected or any animal products such as dairy, eggs, poultry, fish, and meat. The key is that most of the foods consumed are plant-based. A popular plant-based pattern includes the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on poultry, eggs, fish, cheese, and yogurt a few times a week, with meats and sweets less often.

Regardless of your current eating pattern, gradually shifting to incorporate all or some components of plant-based eating can benefit your health, wallet, and the environment. Let’s further clarify what a plant-based pattern entails, the benefits, and the how to. 

Building your plate

A dietary change is not about simply removing the meat from your plate and adding more broccoli and rice. Balance and variety are important to ensure you’re getting proper nutrition.

Animal protein should be replaced with a plant protein such as nuts, seeds, beans and lentils, and soy products. These options can provide protein, iron, vitamins, and minerals. Depending on the amount of animal products you choose to incorporate, aim for lower fat options more often like low fat dairy, skinless chicken, fish, and seafood. 

Incorporate whole grains, including whole grain pasta, breads, brown and wild rice, oats, barley, quinoa. They are rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals. While white rice, bread and pasta are plant-based, they are refined, meaning a lot of the nutrients have been stripped away.

Not surprising, plant-based meals focus heavily on fruits and vegetables. They provide fibre, carbohydrates, vitamin and minerals and disease-fighting phytonutrients and antioxidants. A bonus of adding more beans, lentils and soy to your diet is that they can be considered both a protein and vegetable.

As for dairy products, if you’re eliminating or minimizing cow’s milk, a plant-based almond, oat, cashew or soymilk can make a good alternative. They typically provide comparable calcium and vitamin D and a source of vitamin B12. But keep in mind, only soymilk provides a similar amount of protein.

Ideally, a balanced meal aims for 25 per cent whole grains, 25 per cent protein and 50 per cent fruit and vegetables, and of course it’s important to choose variety within each group. Canada’s food guide plate model emphasizes plant-based choices, and provides the ideal visual balance.

If you’re considering significantly decreasing or eliminating animal products, it requires closer attention and organization to avoid deficiencies. Particular nutrients of attention include vitamin B12, omega-3, and iron. A dietitian can help ensure you are meeting your needs.

Not all plant-based foods are considered healthy. Many companies have tapped into the plant-based trend with burgers, deli meats, nuggets. Unfortunately, many highly processed foods, plant-based or not, lack good nutrition and can contain a lot of sodium and saturated fat. The same goes for products made with whole grains. You’ll find plenty of whole-grain, high-sugar, high-fat foods products, including cereals, snack foods, ready-to-eat meals from grocery stores, among others. Always check labels. Occasional intake of processed foods is fine, but the more unprocessed foods you choose, the better.     

What’s in it for you?

Anything worth having is worth working for and there’s evidence of that when it comes to plant-based eating and your health. These benefits are thought to come from the nutrient-dense foods, as well as decreased consumption of higher fat animal products and processed foods. Research shows a plant-based eating pattern can reduce and manage many chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure, certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and also supports a healthy immune system.

The rise in food cost is concerning and most of us are looking for strategies to cut cost. Animal products tends to be some of the more expensive items on the list. Replacing them with plant-based proteins can help you save on your grocery budget. Fruit and vegetables can be pricey as well. As we have discussed previously, frozen and canned options are also packed with good nutrition.

Eating more plant-based and fewer animal products is better for the environment, requiring far less resources like energy, water and land. The food industry as a whole contributes to 34 per cent of all human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. Meat and dairy are at the top of the list, contributing 57 per cent of food emission, compared to 29 per cent of emissions from all plant products. 

Bakd & Raw by Karolin Baitinger

How-to plant-based eating

Making changes to your eating can feel overwhelming, but there’s no need to do an instant overhaul. Start with small changes and assess as you go. Incorporating more plant-based protein is often where people get stuck, as it can feel foreign and intimidating. Changing the balance on your plate is a straightforward concept, although implementing may require some tips. Let’s cover both to help you get started.

The basic ingredients

  • Beans and lentils (chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, white beans: Prepare from dried or buy canned (no-added salt) options for convenience. There’s an abundance of tasty ideas and recipes online, or try replacing some/all the meat in your usual dishes.

Start with traditional bean and lentil dishes: chickpea curry, lentil dahl, lentils and rice, bean soups, bean salad, chili, add black beans to Mexican dishes such as tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, and quesadillas.

Venture out to broaden your bean use. Try chickpea or black bean burgers. Throw black beans on a pizza. Make a spaghetti sauce, meatloaf, or sloppy joes with lentils. Make a white bean peanut stew. Toss chickpeas over a green salad, they’re especially yummy if seasoned and crisped up in the oven (many store-bought roasted chickpeas make a good choice). Hummus is a great dip but also use as a spread (and protein) on a sandwich, wrap or bagel. You can bake with beans and lentils too (it’s VERY important to follow a recipe) in muffins, breakfast bars, brownies, cakes. 

  • Tofu: is made from the curd of soymilk, formed into a white sponge-like brick. Many people turn their noses up at tofu, perhaps due to its appearance, a previous bad experience or being unsure of how to prepare it. Tofu comes in various textures from soft to extra firm. The firm and extra-firm tend to be the best for cooking. Plain tofu tastes bland, but luckily it takes on the flavour of a marinade, seasoning or added to a flavourful sauce-based dish. Marinade options are endless but for a simple and tasty one, mix soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar and a little honey. Make sure to cube/slice it for maximum flavour absorption.

Cooking method is an important step too. On a lightly oiled pan, bake it, grill it or fry until it’s browned on all sides and some of the moisture is evaporated. If you have an air fryer, this is a super-easy way to brown and cook tofu.

Once it’s prepared, eat it on its own, add to a salad, a curry, sandwich, stir-fry, pad Thai, or in a Buddha bowl. Tofu can also be used as a scrambled-egg alternative. Simply crumble it up, add turmeric (for yellow colour), pepper and salt (optional) and fry in a pan. You can also add veggies and top it with salsa.

  • Tempeh is a fermented soybean pressed together to form a block. Compared to tofu, it has a bit more of a nutty flavour and a firmer texture but can be prepared and consumed in a similar way.
  • Texturized Vegetable Protein (TVP): This is a dehydrated soy alternative to ground meat. It has long shelf life and is simple to prepare. Once rehydrated, (by adding boiling water and letting stand for five minutes) it has the same appearance and texture as ground meat. It has a bland flavour on its own but is perfect in chili, spaghetti sauce, lasagna, or tacos.
  • Edamame beans are popular in Japanese restaurants. They look like a green bean, with a mild buttery taste. The shell is not edible but run your teeth along the pod to remove the bean. You can purchase in pod or just as beans from the frozen food section, and use in a salad, blended into a dip, or added like any other vegetable in a dish.

Small steps work

Assess your meal balance. How do your meals measure up to the Canada’s Food Guide plate model? Are there some small changes you can make like adding a fruit at breakfast, or replacing part of your meat portion with an extra scoop of veggies? Remember, even tipping the balance to less meat is beneficial.

Designate one or two days a week for meatless meals. Start adding a familiar dish to the rotation like bean chili.

Replace some of the meat in your dish with beans; such as beans to a burger, lentils to a beef stew, chickpeas to a chicken salad plate. This can make it easier to slowly phase out meat.

Replace white rice with brown or wild. Enjoy whole-wheat pasta rather than white pasta. Switch up typical grains for buckwheat or quinoa (which also provides protein).

Add nuts/seeds and fruit to whole grain cereal. Cook a chopped apple with your oatmeal.

Add protein at snack time, for example, peanut butter and apple slices; a handful of nuts and some whole-grain crackers.

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