What is Plant-Based Eating?

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Canada’s Food guide recommends that healthy eating patterns include choosing plant-based protein foods more often. Suddenly the demand for Beyond Meat and other meat substitutes has grown quickly. Is that plant-based eating? As March is Nutrition Month, we will look at what plant-based eating means. Let’s start with what plant-based eating is not.

What Plant-Based Eating Is Not:

The Western pattern diet (also called a Standard American Diet) is the modern dietary pattern that is generally characterized by high intakes of red meat, processed meat, pre-packaged foods, butter, candy and sweets, fried foods, conventionally-raised animal products, high-fat dairy products, eggs, refined grains, potatoes, corn (and high-fructose corn syrup) and high-sugar drinks. Think of the typical McDonald’s meal: burger, fries, pop.

We know that processed meats are actually bad for you. You can read more about that here. Therefore, removing them is a step in the right direction.

But consuming a Western pattern diet and only replacing meat with processed, meatless (aka “plant-based”) substitutes is NOT plant-based eating. Although it is a step in the right direction, if you substitute processed meat with plant-based meat substitutes, it still the Western pattern diet, with processed, plant-based meat substitutes.

What about Vegetarians?

A vegan or vegetarian does not necessarily mean they eat a plant-based diet either. Rather, by definition, it means they abstain from the consumption of meat and/or animal products. Sometimes, the diet can simply look like a meatless version of the Western pattern diet.

A meatless Western pattern diet may conceivably consist of vegetarian pizza, beyond-meat burgers and fries, soy-protein hotdogs / sausages on a bun, meatless chicken nuggets, etc. You get the idea. I’ll say it again. Going “plant-based” does not mean substituting the Western pattern diet with processed meat-substitutes.

Going plant-based is not synonymous with going meat-less.

It matters what you actually eat.

And before you think that I am bashing all meat substitutes, here’s the thing: You have to read the label (as I do with anything that has a label). And it matters what you eat it with.

What Plant-Based Eating Is:

Plant-based is an eating style that emphasizes real, whole foods, most of those which come from plants, in the form closer to that from which they come from the ground.

That means potatoes instead of french fries or potato chips. Whole grains instead of refined flours. Peas instead of pea flour. Apples instead of apple juice. Oatmeal instead of granola bars. Raw nuts instead of roasted, salted, candy-covered nuts. Fresh fruit instead of dried fruit or “fruit” snacks. Zucchini noodles instead of instant ramen. Mashed avocado instead of margarine. Fresh meat instead of processed meat (sausages, hotdogs, salami, ham, bacon). Grass-fed beef instead of grain-fed beef. Free-range chicken and eggs instead of cooped up ones.

It means including nutrient-rich, unprocessed plant foods in your diet such as whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Plant-based eating may include eating fish and meat-based proteins.

Eat whole foods

Whole foods are foods as close to their natural state as you can find, unprocessed, without a label or a barcode. There is no added fats, sugars or artificial ingredients.

While vegan or vegetarianism avoids consumption of meat or animal products, plant-based eating may include quality animal foods but avoids or reduces consumption of refined and processed foods.

Read that again and let that sink in for a moment. It’s not about totally avoiding meat, but about avoiding processed, refined, added-sugar, low-nutrition food products. And the best way to do that is by eating real plant foods.

One of the problems with the Western pattern diet is the lack of real, whole, plant foods.

Canada’s Food Guide

Plant-based eating, in line with Canada’s Food Guide, means “filling 1/2 your plate with vegetables and fruits, and 1/4 of your plate with whole grains” (which come from plants). “A healthy diet can also consist of fish, eggs, and lean proteins such as chicken, turkey and dairy products.”

However, the basis of a plant-based diet is plant foods.

Eat vegetables! There are so many choices it is hard to list them all. Try a few each week, or whatever is in season or frozen in season: kale, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, romaine, other greens, cabbage, celery, radish, cucumbers, bell peppers, zucchini, eggplant, sweet potato, squash, tomato, green peas, green beans, carrots, beats, potatoes. Eat the rainbow for different health benefits!

In addition to vegetables, eat beans and legumes! Add beans and legumes to any dish to stretch the protein content: red or white kidney beans, romano beans, navy beans, black beans, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, soy, and green peas. These are great in soups, sauces, chilies, salads, pureed, mashed, whole, you name it. Beans and legumes are wonderful sources of fiber, energy and protein.

Eat raw nuts and seeds such as walnuts, almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds. These are sources of healthy fats, protein and fiber.

Whole grains such as brown rice, farro, quinoa, oats, barley, teff, kamut, etc, also come from plants. It is best to eat them in the “whole-est” state rather than processed in flours and breads. Check out these for an example

Organic, sprouted, whole grain breads, are becoming a lot easier to find in the grocery store, and I would recommend these over more processed whole wheat breads.

Read the ingredients

Sometimes a client will tell me about a product they like and will send me the nutrition label. That is not enough. I ask them to send me the list of ingredients. That is how to know what is in the product. If the list contains ingredients you can make from your kitchen, then it is probably on the healthier side of processed.

For example, if I bought meatless ‘taco’ meat made with lentils, vegetable broth, diced tomatoes, onion, garlic, spices, cilantro and lime juice, that is something I could put together myself. Okay, it IS from my own recipes. But if I would make it and package it and sell it to you, it would be as if you were making it from your own kitchen.

Now here is a list of ingredients on a product of meatless ground beef:

Water, textured soy protein, onions, natural flavours, canola oil, salt, caramel, guar gum, cane sugar, spices, yeast extract, malt extract, vitamin and mineral blend, wheat starch.

That looks very processed. I do not have half of those ingredients in my kitchen. How much of that is real food?

Now here is actual meat-substitute from a company called The Very Good Butchers. Here are the ingredients for their steak:

INGREDIENTS: Jackfruit, organic wheat gluten, water, beets, tahini, red wine, natural flavors, shitake mushrooms, salt, spices, beet powder, Porcini mushroom, molasses, black pepper, green

Now, something made with jackfruit, beets, mushrooms, tahini, wine, spices and molasses, is quite possibly something I could mix up in my own kitchen.

One ingredient foods

Keep in mind however, that the ingredient of chicken is chicken, the ingredient of beef is beef, and the ingredient of eggs is egg. In addition, grass-fed beef will produce healthier beef. Free range chickens will produce healthier chickens and eggs. If the idea of going plant-based is to minimize eating processed and refined foods with added sugars and fats, then healthy sources of fresh meat and fish still have their place, up to one quarter of your plate, and the rest can be from plants.

“Everything is so good!”

Is what my daughter said at supper last night. It takes a little more effort, but eating fresh foods is so delicious.

I have finally learned how to cook salmon in a ways that even my kids say is delicious. This time, I took a slab of fresh salmon, sprinkled it with a little sea salt, and smeared it with a paste of cajun seasoning and olive oil. I baked it at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.

I made a mango salsa to be served on top. It had diced mango, kiwi, avocado, jalapeno, green onion, cilantro and lime juice. The salsa was amazing. The family was eating the leftover salsa straight up out of the bowl. Have spoon, will eat.

I bought a mixture of spring greens, and tossed it with a balsamic dressing and a generous topping of fresh strawberries and a little feta cheese. I steamed asparagus to go on the side.

It is so rewarding to see your plate full of fresh food and so tasty. You will literally lose your appeal for anything that is not real food.

I do enjoy taking the time to prepare healthy meals for my family. Healthy eating and plant-based eating will look different for everyone depending on your preferences. But I encourage you to put the effort into planning, shopping and preparing your own foods. Set an example for your kids and get them involved!

For help with healthy eating, set up a free consultation here.


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