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The Year in Review: The Power of the Plant-Based Diet

By Jack Muskat, Medcan Director of Mental Health

The many benefits of plant-based eating account for the diet’s growing popularity.

Plant-based eating was one of the biggest food trends of the past year. Last year, sales of plant-based “meats” boomed in Canada and worldwide. With growing consumer concerns over health, the environment and animal welfare, demand for such products continues to rise.

It’s not vegetarians and vegans who are driving this growth. The demand for plant-based options is greatest among flexitarians, those who eat a primarily vegetarian diet but occasionally also eat meat and fish. According to research from Dalhousie University, in 2021 flexitarians became the second largest dietary group in Canada, after consumers with no dietary preference.

With such demand for these options, it’s easier than ever to find plant-based alternatives at the grocery store. President’s Choice Plant Based line, for instance, now includes more than 80 products. Today, plant-based offerings go well beyond veggie burgers—vegan versions of chicken, fish, beef and eggs are available, too. And, of course, there are countless non-dairy “milk” alternatives to choose from.

Such options certainly make it easier to follow Health Canada’s advice to choose protein from plants more often.

What does “plant-based” eating mean?

Hint: it doesn’t necessarily mean never eating meat or dairy. Plant-based eating means choosing proportionately more of your foods from fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils, soy, whole grains, nuts and seeds. A Mediterranean diet is considered plant-based because it includes plenty of daily plant foods and limits meat to a small portion, consumed at most a few times a week.

Plant-based diets run the gamut from those that avoid all animal foods (vegan) to others that include only certain ones. Vegetarians, for example, don’t eat meat but may include dairy and eggs. Pescatarians eat a mainly vegetarian diet with the addition of fish and seafood.

Plant-based benefits

For many people, personal health is the top motivator for eating more plant-based meals.

Plant-based diets have been linked to protection against heart disease, obesity, certain cancers, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Compared to regular meat-eaters, studies have found that plant-based eaters have lower cholesterol, blood pressure and fasting-blood-glucose levels.

Adopting a plant-based diet is good for the planet, too. Food production is among the leading sources of the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that cause global warming. The production of livestock generates the highest levels of GHG emissions. Shifting to a more plant-based diet is one way to help reduce global warming and other environmental impacts of a meat-centered diet.

Animal welfare also factors in. For some people, giving up meat, or eating a lot less of it, is a vote against animal cruelty.

Tips for shifting to a plant-based diet

If your goal is to eat a more plant-forward diet, the following strategies will help you do so.

Set a target. If plant-based meals aren’t part of your regular diet, start by instituting a “Meatless Monday”. Then, gradually increase your weekly target for plant-based days.

Rethink your plate. If meat, poultry or fish make up the balance of your meal, downsize its importance. Three-quarters of your plate should be filled with plant foods like whole grains, beans or lentils, tofu, vegetables and fruit.

Give meals a makeover. Replace ground meat in tacos with black beans or pinto beans. Swap ground beef or turkey in chili with extra beans or ground soy. Instead of serving spaghetti with meat sauce, try pasta made from beans, lentils or edamame, which offers plenty of protein (and fibre).

Try a “tofu scramble” for breakfast instead of scrambled eggs. Use non-dairy milk in your next smoothie; pea milk and soy milk deliver the protein equivalent of cow’s milk (8 g per 250 ml).

Consider your snacks. Choosing plant-based snacks is another way to shift to a plant-forward diet. Options include fruit and nuts, vegetables and hummus, whole grain crackers with nut butter, pita chips and guacamole, steamed edamame, roasted chickpeas or plant-based energy bars.

Focus on whole foods. While pre-packaged plant-based versions of burgers, meatballs and chicken cutlets are convenient, these are processed foods that contain additives and sodium. For the most part, build your plant-based diet around whole and minimally processed foods.

The key is to start with small, manageable changes. And if you need help, the nutrition team at Medcan is always here for you.

Learn more about our nutrition programs, or book an appointment by getting in touch with us at nutrition@medcan.com or 416.862.1553. Follow Leslie Beck on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD.

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