I must admit that I currently eat a significant amount of animal protein.
I have a relatively high caloric intake and my eating pattern generally includes the consumption of multiple servings of fish,meat, chicken or eggs on a daily basis. I thoroughly enjoy animal products and always have. I consumed animal protein today and will almost certainly eat it tomorrow too. Despite this, I have long pondered what an exclusive plant-based diet might look and feel like and what the probability was of truly being succesful at it. I personally don’t believe I am ready for such a change, but it is something that I am constantly deliberating over. Today’s posting is not so much my attempt to sell you on a plant-based diet as it is to objectively explore the benefits, barriers and realities associated with eating in this way.
I was initially inspired to pursue this piece after watching the animal agriculture documentary Cowspiracy.
The documentary was an expectedly one-sided exposé of the great price animals and the environment pay to sustain human’s yearning for animal protein. I am far from a committed environmentalist, but I do absolutely adore animals and wildlife. This compassion has not stopped me from eating animal products on a regular basis, but it has led me to question my habits from time to time. As a health professional and general food enthusiast, I am also always assessing the quality of my own dietary practices. The documentary really did an excellent job of helping me to appreciate the amount of meat that I currently onsume and certainly nudged me towards looking more deeply into a plant-based diet. (For the record, I do also eat a great deal of fruits, vegetables and whole grains)
Now that my paragaph of self-reflection is complete, I can get down to the science of the matter. It is time explore the nature of plant-based diets as well as the benefits and barriers one might expect to encounter if they choose to eat in this way. Let’s find out more about what a plant-based diet is all about.
Part I – A plant based-diet:
1) Excludes all animal products: The most salient characteristic of a plant-based diet is that it excludes all products of animal origin including meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs. It is, in essence, a vegan diet. The issue with this , of course, is that many of us love these products.
2) Can meet Canadian Food Guide recommendations: It may come as a surprise to some, but eating within Canadian Food Guide reccomendations is completely possible on a plant-based diet. Animal products are found in the meat & alternatives and dairy & alternatives groups and there are sufficient plant-based options in each group to fulfil your requirements without consuming animal products. As we will see in point #3, however, it may be more complicated than it sounds to actually achieve that ideal.
3) May be a challenge to maintain 100% of the time: Excluding animal products will inevitably limit the amount of foods you are eligible to onsume. Depending on the intricacies of your social cirumstances(home life, eating out, friends, family, relationships), succesfully pursuing a plant-based diet may be difficult to accomplish. For those genuinely interested in pursuing a plant-based diet, but overwhelmed by the commitment and sacrifice it appears to entail, I suggest starting with an 80-20 approach. Eat within the scope of a plant based diet 80% of the time and give yourself the liberty to eat animal products about 20% of the time. Whether you are out, in a rush, or at someone’s home, this allows you the freedom to maintain the integrity of your endeavour without compromising your relationships or the quality of your diet. As you become more savvy, and those around you become accustomed to your new eating habits, you can transition more easily into a plant-based diet 100% of the time.
4) May offer financial flexibility: Animal protein products are expensive, and a luxury for many. In many cases, a plant-based diet will be less expensive than a conventional meat-rich diet. If you are financially restricted or have a family to feed, choosing a plant-based diet may allow you to retain more money for personal finances. It may also allow you to direct more money into healthful foods like fruits and vegetables, which are among the most important food items for maintaining general and long-term health, regardless of the type of diet pattern you pursue.
5) Is higher in fibre: All else equal, switching from animal to plant based protein should increase your daily fibre intake. Animal products do not contain fibre whereas many of the plant-based protein options ( which will be discussed in the next section) do. This is an imortant consideration because many Canadians do not consume enough dietary fibre.
6) Helps prevent chronic disease: As per the Dietitians of Canada, A vegan ( plant-based) diet done in a balanced and healthy way is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.
7) Is less environmentally intensive: The amount of resources ( land, water, food) and emissions ( greenhouse gases) required to raise animals for milk production or slaugther far outweighs that which is required to raise plant-based sources of protein. It is fair to say that a plant-based diet is more environmentally sustainable than a conventional meat-rich diet. Due to the potential burden of animal agriculture on the health of our planet, Cowspiracy contends that you cannot reasonably identify yourself as an environmentalist if you consume animal products. Their words, not mine.
8) Requires attentiveness to ensure adequate intake of all nutrients: This point truly applies to any eating style, but perhaps particularly to eating a plant-based diet. Animal products are an important population-wide source of protein and offer a variety of helpful nutrients such as calcium, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. Excluding animal products without proper consideration and planning could lead to dietary inadequacy in many of the nutrient groups listed above. For those interested in learning how to prepare to pursue a plant-based diet ( or to help monitor the adequacy of the plant-based diet of someone close to them), please read on.
Part II – How to fill animal product nutrient gaps with plant products:
The following section is intended to primarily be of interest to those wishing to learn more about what it takes to consume a nutritionally balanced plant-based diet. Our population consumes certain nutrients in greatest supply from animal products. I highlight these nutrients below and offer good plant-based alternatives for each. The purpose of this exercise is to provide you an idea of the types of food you will need to be comfortable with consuming on a regular basis in order to ensure nutrient adequacy on a plant-based diet.
A) Protein: Protein is a macronutrient most commonly attributed to animal products such as meat, fish, poultry milk and eggs. There are, however, a variety of plant-based sources of protein. These include options such as tofu, tempeh, soy milk, meat alternatives ( textured vegetable protein, veggie burgers etc), varieties of beans/peas/lentils, quinoa, nuts/seeds/peanuts and their butters.
B) Calcium: Dairy represents a significant source of the average Canadian’s calcium intake but a plant-based diet excludes dairy as it is an animal product. Fortified rice/soy/almond milk, almonds, white/navy beans, collard greens, bok choy and tahini are among the plant-based options you will need to consider incorporating into your diet to ensure adequacy in calcium intake.
C) Iron: People often identify red meat as the most iron rich food item, but it is not the only source of iron available to us. There are numerous plant-based options for iron intake, however the iron found in animal products is absorbed more readily by our bodies than iron from plant sources. To enhance the absorption of plant-based iron, include vitamin C rich foods in the same sitting such as oranges, grapefruit, kiwi mango, sweet pepper and broccoli. Plant-based iron can be found in soy products ( tofu, tempeh, beverages), meat alternatives ( textured vegetable protein, veggie burgers etc), beans/peas/lentils, fortified grain products ( pasta, cereal , bread) among other options.
D) Omega-3’s: Fatty fish such as salmon are amongst the food items most commonly identified as being rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Ground flaxseed, soybeans, tofu, walnuts and certain oils such as canola & soybean oil are among the richest plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
E) Zinc: Animal products are good sources of zinc and some people may get the majority of their zinc from these products. Even so, there are enough plant sources of zinc available that if you are eating in a balanced way, zinc should not be a concern. Fortified cereals, whole grains, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, cashews, dried beans, peas, lentils and soy products are all good plant-based sources zinc.
F) Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 has notoriety as the only vitamin that occurs naturally only in animal products. The only plant-based source of vitamin B12 will include fortified beverages suh as soy/rice/almond milk beverages as well as fortified vegetable protein products such as veggie burgers. Supplementation may be necessary if you do not consume these foods in adequate quantities.
G) Vitamin D: Vitamin D helps our bodies absorb calcium and is gaining more attention for its potential role in the prevention of chronic disease. Like calcium, fortified dairy products represent a signifiant soure of our population’s intake of the vitamin. Plant-based vitamin D options are relatively limited and include fortified rice/soy/almond milk beverages, certain vitamin D fortified orange juice varieties and margarine. For those interested in a plant-based diet but not likely to consume those foods, supplementation may be necessary.
As I hope you can now appreciate, there are certain food items that you will need to feel comfortable with eating regularly in order to be succesful with a plant-based diet. For anyone out there who has long considered pursuing this style of eating, I am hoping today’s posting provided you some clarity and guidance. I have laid the realities of a plant-based diet bare for your assessment, but I remind the reader again that I do indeed regularly eat animal products and that I neither actively promote or condemn eating a plant-based diet. ( In other words, it is entirely possible to eat a balanced, healthy diet that includes animal products on a daily basis.)
With this posting drawing to a close, I would like to take a moment to dedicate today’s content to my childhood friend Josh, who was as much of a nutrition junkie as I am and who avidly advocated and lived a plant-based diet until the time of his passing. He was a great friend and a great man and someone who profoundly influenced and inspired my passion for food and nutrition. Thanks for everything Josh, this ones for you.
Until next time, Eat Up!
Andy De Santis RD MPH