The power of a plant-based diet

Don’t fear the V-word. Far from limiting your options, vegetarianism opens up a whole new world of delicious, nutritional options—as long as you plan carefully.


By Victoria Beechum

Are you veggie-curious? If so, good news: a plant-based diet is great for your health. According to Dietitians of Canada, a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can meet all your nutrient needs. And while certain nutrients need special consideration when you follow a plant-based diet, the overall health of vegetarians and vegans is better than their meat-eating peers.

The V-Words

Vegetarianism can mean a lot of different things to different people. Amy Campbell, a dietitian at Deer Lodge Centre, says that’s just fine: “It can mean excluding all meat, or including eggs and fish. It can even mean eating meat, sometimes.”

Veganismis usually defined as a form of strict vegetarianism that also excludes foods produced or derived from animals, including honey and some wines.

However you define your plant-based diet, if your goal is to achieve a healthy body, following a vegetarian or vegan diet can help you succeed at any age.

“For starters, the vegetarian diet is associated with lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease,” explains Campbell. Also known as coronary heart disease, this potentially deadly condition occurs when the arteries become clogged, blocking the flow of blood into and out of the heart. “Vegetarians also tend to have lower levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), lower blood pressure, lower rates of type 2 diabetes, lower rates of cancer, and a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) than their meat-eating peers.”

Eating the rainbow

Why is there such a strong correlation between plant-based diets and good health? Vegetarians and vegans who follow a well-planned version of their diet incorporate variety into each meal. They consume a lot of fruits, vegetables, and healthy whole grains. These types of diets tend to be lower in saturated fats and higher in fibre, magnesium, phosphate, potassium, vitamin C and B, and folate.

“Plant-based diets are also higher in the phytochemicals called carotenoids, which are responsible for the pigments in orange-coloured fruits and vegetables, and flavonoids, which are responsible for the reds, blues, and purples,” says Campbell. Which is why she advises, “Always try to eat the rainbow! Phytochemicals in particular are antioxidants, which can prevent cell damage as we age.”

Planning is everything

A plant-based diet does take some forethought and commitment. The occasional “meatless Monday” will not magically improve your health. Nor will simply cutting out all meat. Vegans and vegetarians need to be especially careful their diet includes all the vitamins and nutrients readily available from animal sources. Plant-based diets are naturally higher in a lot of important nutrients, but they can risk being lower in protein, vitamin B-12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, and long chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for the brain and the eyes, and have an anti-inflammatory effect.

This is where careful planning comes in: each of those nutrients can be consumed from plant-based sources. Check out our handy guide to make sure you are getting healthy levels of the nutrients you need.

It’s also worth noting that our protein needs increase as we age. This presents a bit of a conundrum, though, because appetite tends to decrease with age. “Whether you are a plant-based or animal-based eater, it gets harder to get all the protein you need,” says Campbell. She recommends a protein supplement for older adults.

While eating meat is not categorically bad for your health, eating too much meat—especially processed meats—has been linked with colon cancer and other medical issues. If you aren’t interested in full-blown vegetarianism or veganism, but still want to eat healthier, consume plenty of colourful, healthy vegetables and whole grains. Or make the meat on your plate the side dish, and make vegetables the star. Campbell advises limiting red meet to two meals per week, and processed meat to rare occasions.


Nutrients for plant-based eaters: a guide

Protein

Legumes: lentils, chick peas, beans, peas, soy (tofu). Cereals: oats, rice, wheat, quinoa, buckwheat. Nuts. With the exception of quinoa, plant-based proteins are “incomplete,” meaning they only contain some of the nine essential amino-acids. As long as you choose a variety of sources from this list, you will get all nine. Think rice with beans, and peanut butter on whole wheat.

Omega-3

It’s difficult to get omega-3s if you’re not eating fatty fish such as salmon, trout or sardines. We recommend taking a supplement. Most are sourced from fish, flaxseeds, or walnuts. Plant-based supplements are not as good as those derived from fish.

Iron

Vegetable (non-heme) sources of iron are not as readily available as animal (heme) sources. Your best bet is to pair non-heme iron with a source of vitamin C to promote absorption. Beans, peas, lentils, fortified wheat flour, asparagus, snow peas, dried fruit (because it is dried in iron vats), and tomato paste (also processed in iron) will help. So does cooking in cast iron!

Zinc

Soy, legumes, grains, cheese and nuts.

Calcium, Vitamin D

Soy, rice and nut milks are fortified in calcium and vitamin D. Check your label, and choose calcium carbonate whenever available. Avoid pairing your calcium intake with spinach or Swiss chard, or you may not be able to absorb enough.

Vitamin B-12

Nutritional yeast is a great source. Older adults tend to have lower levels of stomach acid, so oral or intra-muscular supplements are often needed.

Vitamin D

As we age, it becomes very important to get this vitamin from food sources, rather than sunlight. Take a supplement!

When in doubt, take a high-quality multi-vitamin to cover what you might be missing.


Recipe

Photo credit: Kara Lydon, www.karalydon.com

Stuffed acorn squash with curried lentils

By Kara Lydon

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 medium acorn squash, cut in half lengthwise and seeded
  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 3 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 cup red lentils, rinsed
  • 1 small onion (or ½ large onion), chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon masala powder
  • ½ tablespoon curry powder
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¾cup coconut cream (or full-fat canned coconut milk)
  • 2 cups packed baby spinach
  • Cilantro, for garnish

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Brush squash with 1 teaspoon olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, to taste. Place squash cut side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until fork-tender, about 35-45 minutes.
  • In a medium pot, bring 3 cups vegetable broth to a boil. Add lentils, reduce heat to simmer and cook until tender, about 20-22 minutes. Drain and set lentils aside.
  • In a large sauté pan, heat remaining olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook for until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about one minute. Add masala, curry powder, and ginger and stir to coat onions.
  • Stir in coconut cream and baby spinach and cook until spinach is wilted, about 2-4 minutes. Stir in lentils and remove from heat. Season with salt, to taste.
  • Fill squash with lentil mixture and garnish with cilantro.