In the next group of articles on this website, I’d like to go back to the basics. It’s been a long time since I started this website and there are increasing numbers of people being drawn to the idea of eating only plants. There are still many questions that arise when transitioning to this new way of eating. What constitutes a plant-based diet? What are the benefits of eating plant-based? What are some practical tips to ease the transition into living plant-based? This will be the first article in this new section, “The Basics”.
The term plant-based might be interpreted to be a diet that is centered on plants but perhaps not exclusively plants. In actuality, the ideal is eating only foods gathered from plant sources. Added to the basic tenet of plant-sourced foods is the goal of eating only whole plant foods or minimally processed plant foods. Processing robs foods of vital nutrients and adds unhealthy ingredients such as sugar, fat and oil. Plant oils themselves, extracted from their natural and healthy high nutrient, high fiber whole food “packages” are highly processed foods. A whole-foods plant-based diet is naturally low in UNHEALTHY oils and fats and refined sugars. Added plant oils are to be avoided completely or at least minimized. Though a whole-food plant-based diet is low in ADDED fat it still includes more than enough HEALTHY fat through the consumption of nuts and seeds and vegetables themselves. A plant-based diet is all about eating as much health-promoting food as you can while eliminating or at least minimizing those foods that can sabotage your health.
Just a simple change….
The change to a whole-food plant-based lifestyle is a simple choice that makes it easy to eat to feel vigorous and energetic, to lose weight, to lower cholesterol, to enhance athletic performance, to have less impact on the environment and to prevent and even reverse many of our common “lifestyle diseases”. At the same time you will discover a world full of delicious and satisfying food that is nutrient-dense, not calorie dense (more on this later). You can enjoy eating without guilt until you are full. You can continue to enjoy many of the favourite foods that you enjoy on your present diet while at the same time discovering delectable new tastes to savour. Most importantly, you will avoid putting food in your body that, by its very nature, contains nutrients that not only do not promote health in humans, but also can cause harm.
So, what does this mean in practical terms?
Do eat vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and herbs and spices.
Do not eat all foods from animal sources including;
- all meat including beef, pork, deer, moose, poultry, seafood, processed meats
- dairy products including milk, cheese, yogurt and butter
Do not eat processed foods including;
- conventional cakes, pastries, cookies, sugary cereals and any other food made with refined flour or sugar, so-called “convenience foods”, savoury snacks such as potato chips
- sugary carbonated drinks
- all added fats including oils in liquid form (all vegetable oils – corn oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, olive oil) and oils in solid form (butter, margarine, coconut oil)
Limit the consumption of added sugar. (Sugar that is a part of a fruit or vegetable is healthy and can be eaten liberally.)
Your “go to” foods….
To make this perfectly clear, here is a partial list of healthy foods to eat;
VEGETABLES: Beans, peas, carrots, corn, onions, garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, purple potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, arugula, bok choy, swiss chard, turnip greens, beet greens, collard greens, mustard greens, cilantro, watercress, cabbage, spinach
FRUITS: Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, acai berries, cranberries, goji berries, cherries, grapes, apples, peaches, pears, plums, apricots, bananas, pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, mangos, avocados, papaya, pomegranates, prunes, figs, dates, watermelon.
LEGUMES: Black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, navy beans, cannellini beans, pinto beans, lentils, split peas, tofu, miso, tempeh
WHOLE GRAINS: Brown rice, red rice, black rice, quinoa, oatmeal, buckwheat, barley, rye, teff, spelt, whole-grain breads and pastas
NUTS: Almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, macadamia nuts, peanuts, nut butters such as peanut butter or almond butter
SEEDS: Flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
HERBS AND SPICES: Turmeric, garlic, ginger, peppermint, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, marjoram, oregano, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, paprika, chili powder, mustard, dill, saffron, cardamom, coriander, cumin, curry powder, cilantro and any other spices you like
Extras for ensured health….
To ensure that your body is receiving everything it needs for robust health there are three recommended supplements.
- The first is B12 which is difficult to get if you don’t eat animals. This is not the fault of plants. B12 is actually produced only by microorganisms that live in the soil, in natural water sources and in the intestines of humans and animals. Sadly, the B12-producing microbes living in our own human microbiome reside well-past the stomach and small intestine where B12 is absorbed. Once upon a time, humans received vitamin B12 from small amounts of dirt left on harvested vegetables and from untreated water sources. Today, living in a society emphasizing cleanliness, we no longer have these B12 sources. Meat eaters may acquire enough B12 through eating meat that contains B12-producing bacteria. However, many meat-eaters are also low in B12 due to issues with absorption. It is a good idea for everyone, no matter what their diet, to get their B12 levels checked and to consume a known source of B12. A recommended dose is 1500 to 2500 mcg once a week or 100 to 250 mcg daily. B12 supplements (cyanocobalamin, methylcobalamin, adenosylcobalamin and hydroxycobalamin) are a safe and efficient way to ensure that your vitamin B12 needs are met (3,4).
- Omega-3s are at a controversial stage in research right now. Though they seem to have no beneficial effect on heart disease, they may play a role in brain cognition. People vary in their ability to convert omega-3s found in plants to the essential long-chain fatty acids, DHA and EPA so it is a good idea to take a low dose omega-3 supplement. Try to find an algae source of omega 3 which will prevent exposure to contaminants found in many fish sources. A dose of 250 mg of DHA and/or EPA daily or at least 3 or 4 times a week is advised (5).
- Last but not least, those of us living in Canada and the northern United States tend to have low Vitamin D levels. At higher latitudes we do not experience enough sunlight year-round to allow our bodies to produce sufficient vitamin D. No matter what our diet, we northerners should ingest a supplemental source of Vitamin D at least during the winter months. A safe dose of Vitamin D is 1000 units daily (6). These nutrients will be discussed in more detail in later blogs.
In the real world….
Kaiser Permanente is the largest managed health care organization in the United States whose large umbrella includes over 18,000 physicians, 51,000 nurses, forty medical centers and over 600 medical offices. In 2013 they published a guide for their patients called “The Plant-Based Diet: A Healthier Way to Eat” in which they state ,“If you find you cannot do a plant-based diet 100% of the time, then aim for 80%. Any movement toward more plants and fewer animal products can improve your health” (1). In a nutshell, the fewer animal products and processed foods in the diet the better. (2)
You may hear other terms for this healthy lifestyle. Plant-strong, plant-pure, plant-based – they all mean the same thing. Eat plants to help support vibrant health throughout life.
A word of caution….
If you are taking medication, especially for hypertension (high blood pressure) or type 2 diabetes, please make your eating changes in partnership with your physician. It is easy to underestimate the power of plant-based eating and the changes in your health can be dramatic. Within two weeks of adopting a plant-based diet, the insulin needs of a type 2 diabetic can drop in half and the same can happen with oral medications. If you continue taking insulin at the same dose while your body is adjusting to your new way of eating you could experience extremely low blood sugar. Blood pressure also can decrease quickly. Close monitoring in conjunction with your doctor may be needed to detect low blood sugar levels and low blood pressure (3).
Why I don’t like the term “vegan”…
A whole-food plant-based diet can be vegan but not all vegan diets are necessarily healthy. The term vegan was created in 1944 by the Vegan Society with an abiding creed to eat nothing that originates from an animal source. Some vegans also refuse to use products from animal sources such as leather, fur, honey, rennet, some cosmetics and any products tested on animals. Veganism places no particular importance on the consumption of healthy whole foods. This means that processed foods could constitute a major part of an essentially unhealthy vegan diet.
1 Kaiser Permanente guide, The Plant-Based Diet: A Healthier Way to Eat, 2013 SCPMG Regional Health Education Pamphlet
2 Campbell T.C., Parpia B., Chen J.; Diet, lifestyle and the etiology of coronary artery disease: the Cornell China Study. Am J Cardiol. 1998:82 (10B): 18T – 21T
3 Tuso, P.J., Ismail,M.H., Ha,B.P and Bartolotto, C. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. Perm J. 2013 Spring; 17(2): 61–66.
4 Heyssel, R.M., Bozian, R.C., Darby, W.J., Bell, M.C. Vitamin B12 turnover in man. The assimilation of vitamin B12 from natural foodstuff by man and estimates of minimal daily dietary requirements. Am J Clin Nutr. 1966 Mar; 18 (3):176-84.
5 Health Canada. www.hc-sc.gc.ca. Vitamin D and Calcium: Updated Dietary Reference Intakes. March, 2012
6 US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. November, 2016