by Suzan McKenzie, North York General Hospital dietetic intern
You may read the title of this blog twice, thinking you read it wrong the first time. Yes! Lean beef is part of a healthful, nutritious plant-based diet. Surprised? That’s right – there’s no need to go meat-free in a plant-based diet.
There is a great deal of confusion over the definition of a plant-based diet, which is big news these days. And so it should be! A plant-based diet may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.
So what is a plant-based diet, anyway?
Simply, a plant-based diet is one that includes more plant than animal foods. A person can eat a plant-based diet ranging from eating 100% plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes) to eating some plant- and some animal-based foods.
At one end of the spectrum is a vegan diet, which includes only plant foods and excludes all animal-based foods such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs and honey. A vegetarian diet excludes eating meat, poultry, seafood and any other animal flesh, as well as rennet and gelatin, which are animal by-products. A vegetarian diet may or may not exclude dairy and/or eggs. Omnivores eat another variation of a plant-based diet, which includes a mix of animal and plant foods.
Of course, just because a food is part of a vegan or vegetarian diet doesn’t make it healthy. Cookies, french fries, potato chips and pop are all vegan foods, but eating too many of these, or other refined, processed and calorie-dense but nutrient-poor foods will not contribute to our health!
Would it surprise you to know that Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide recommends a plant-based diet? It promotes eating a variety of foods from the four food groups (vegetables and fruit; grain products; milk and alternatives; and meat and alternatives).
Vegetables and fruit make up the largest food group within Canada’s Food Guide, and Canadians are advised to eat most of their food from this group. Of course, the grain products food group contains only plant-based foods, such as bread, whole grain pasta, brown rice and quinoa, and it is recommended that adults consume six to eight servings per day.
Milk and alternatives include milk, cheese, and yogurt, as well as plant-based food such as fortified soy, rice and almond products. The meat and alternatives group includes lean meat, poultry, fish, and eggs and also includes plant-based foods such as legumes, soy products such as tofu, nuts and seeds.
Nature has indeed given us a basket of foods to enjoy, chockfull of health-giving nutrients that support our optimal health. However, at present, we live in an environment of negative messaging around many foods and nutrients – think eggs, fat, meat, grains – and there is a great deal of confusion about what to eat for optimal health.
It strikes me as strange to choose to eat only foods of plant origin. It’s like eating off one side of your plate and not the other. Then we have to plan well to make sure to get all the nutrients that our body needs for health – for example by combining plant sources of iron, with foods containing vitamin C in order to increase absorption, since iron is not well absorbed from plant-based sources. Or taking a separate B12 supplement, since vitamin B12 is found in animal products. One could meet these vital nutrient needs simply by eating some roast beef. The key to healthy eating is to include a variety of whole foods from all that nature offers us, and to minimize our intake of refined and processed foods.
Meat gives us protein, iron, zinc, magnesium and B vitamins, to name a few nutrients. And you don’t need to eat a large amount to reap the benefits. A serving of meat is only about the size of your palm or a deck of cards. Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide advises that adults need only 2-3 servings of meat and alternatives daily.
Planning a healthy meal? Select plant foods (non-starchy vegetables and fruits) for ½ of your plate, whole grains or unprocessed starchy food on ¼ of the plate, and include lean protein, such as beef, on ¼ of your plate.
Choose a plant-based diet that you enjoy, which keeps you feeling satisfied and energized, and which you can follow over the long term.
Yes, the good news is you do not have to feel guilty about eating meat as part of your plant-based diet!