Following a plant-based diet can do wonders for your health—if you go about it the right way. Here's what you need to know before you make the switch.
A decade ago, it wasn't exactly convenient to live a plant-based lifestyle (or to have a plant-based friend). Times have changed, as plant-focused restaurants, cafes, and grocery store sections have sprung up across the country.
Inspired by everything from eye-opening documentaries like What the Health, to the weight loss stories of friends, and delicious-looking vegan recipes that fill newsfeeds, more people are adopting a plant-based diet than ever before. No longer viewed as a bland and lacking diet, many believe that plant-based is the way of the future.
A plant-based diet is centred on whole, unrefined or minimally refined plants and is rich with fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains and legumes. It excludes meat, fish, dairy products and eggs and can be extremely healthy—if done properly.
Here's everything you need to know:
It doesn't have to break the bank.
A common assumption is that eating a plant-based diet will make a major dent in the wallet, likely due to the recent emergence of pricey vegan grab-and-go spots and fancy plant-based restaurants. In reality, things like beans of all varieties, grains and potatoes are some of the more affordable grocery store staples, especially when purchased in bulk. Television personality and recent plant-based diet adopter Jillian Harris said her grocery tab increased when she first started this new diet, but it levelled off once she figured out what worked for her family and even became more affordable than her pre-plant-based-diet grocery haul.
You can get plenty of protein without having to supplement.
"There are some misconceptions when it comes to protein, and it can be a bit confusing," says Sarah Goldstein, a Toronto-based nutritionist. "If you read the nutrition label on almost anything, all foods contain protein. Protein is made up of amino acids, and you need all of the essential amino acids to get an adequate protein source. A complete protein—which contains all of the amino acids—is only found in animal sources. Plant-based sources have some amino acids in certain percentages, but not all of them in their full adequate amounts." While it's easier to get complete protein with animal sources of protein, you can get adequate sources on a plant-based diet, you just have to make sure you're eating and combining your foods properly.
Simple combos offer complete protein sources.
The major plant-based sources of proteins are beans and legumes. Think chickpeas, kidney beans and black beans. "Soybeans are almost a complete protein, making it one of the best sources of protein if you're on a plant-based diet," says Goldstein. Nuts and seeds are also a good source of protein when combined, along with grains. "Grains wouldn't really be a major source of protein, but they do have a bunch of amino acids that complement the amino acids in beans and legumes," says Goldstein. "Rice and beans would be a complete protein, but beans on their own wouldn't necessarily be." You don't have to be diligent in balancing each meal as long as you get a variety of foods that contain amino acids throughout the day.
Consider supplementing B12 and iron.
You can only get B12 through animal sources, not through plants. If you're plant-based, a B12 supplement is necessary, as is consuming B12-fortified foods like plant milks, soy products and nutritional yeast. You can get iron through plant-based sources—including tofu, nuts, seeds, legumes, kale, raisins and quinoa—but it's more difficult and not necessary as absorbable, so many nutritionists also recommend taking iron supplements.
Healthy fats and calcium are important.
A certain amount of fat in your diet is important to protect your heart and blood, and a plant-based diet is packed with all sorts of healthy fats. Plant-based sources of fat include nuts, avocado, peanut butter, olive oil, sesame oil and vegetable oil. Unlike animal fats, plant-based fats don't contain cholesterol. With an average recommended daily intake of 1000 mg, calcium intake is also important and can be achieved through foods like kale and other greens, chia seeds, almond butter, figs, beans and broccoli.
You can start slowly.
There's a reason why "Meatless Monday" is now a popular hashtag. As the name would suggest, it means making a point to simply cut down in the meat department, starting with Mondays. Experts also recommend experimenting with your favourite dishes by making plant-based substitutions or by finding creative, comforting plant-based dishes online (like our Cauliflower Steaks).
Education is key.
"You really have to know how to form complete meals; how to make sure you're getting enough protein, consuming enough iron-rich food and getting enough calcium-rich food," says Goldstein. "You need to be educated so that you can make nutritious choices and ensure your meals are balanced and full of everything you need. Things in your diet are more accessible when you're eating meat and dairy." Naturally, some people learn this the hard way. "I think jumping into a plant-based lifestyle quickly is fine; I don't think the timing of the transition is necessarily important, more so that it's an educated decision and something that you know how to do properly," says Goldstein.