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Plant-based diets: Tips from a dietitian

Hand full of vegetables

The plant-based diet has been a popular health food trend, but what is it, exactly? What are the health benefits of eating mostly plants, and how is a plant-based diet different from a vegetarian or vegan diet? Amy MacDonald, a Registered Dietitian at The Ottawa Hospital dives in to all these questions, and offers tips on how to get started with plant-based eating.

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet: Carrots, green onion, star anis, garlic, mushrooms, cilantro and tofu

A plant-based diet consists of mostly plants, but can include processed foods and animal proteins in small amounts.

At the risk of sounding obvious, plant-based diets are diets that mostly include plants. Typically, this kind of eating minimizes animal proteins, but may contain some animal protein sources such as beef, chicken, fish, eggs, cheese, cow’s milk, etc. Overall, eating plant-based means eating mostly whole foods, but can include animal proteins and processed foods in small amounts.

What are the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet?

Scientific studies suggest that adopting plant-based eating can have many health benefits. It can reduce your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.  It typically contains potassium and electrolytes, which can help manage blood pressure. It also tends to be higher in fibre, which supports your digestive system. For people who already have a chronic condition, adopting a plant-based eating style may help reduce the amount of medication they need to manage those conditions.

How is a plant-based diet different from a vegetarian or vegan diet?

A lot of people think that plant-based, vegetarian, and vegan diets are the same, but there are some important differences. Plant-based eating tends to be more flexible in terms of food options compared to vegetarian or vegan eating. Keep in mind that just because something is vegetarian or vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Vegan diets have no animal proteins, but are not necessarily plant-based. Vegan and vegetarian diets can also include highly-processed foods like French fries and cookies, while plant-based diets tend to focus on non-processed foods. Finally, being vegan may expand from what’s on the plate into other parts of life, such as not using or wearing animal products.

Is eating a plant-based diet consistent with Canada’s Food Guide?

Canada’s Food guide: Have plenty of vegetables and fruits; eat protein foods; choose whole grain foods; make water your drink of choice

Canada’s Food Guide features whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and is consistent with a plant-based diet.

Yes! Canada’s Food Guide, which was updated in 2019, is, at its core, plant-based. The guide recommends that whole fruits and vegetables take up half your plate, whole grains take up one quarter, and proteins, including plant-based proteins take up one quarter.

How can I make sure I have enough protein in my plant-based diet?

There are many plant-based proteins to choose from. Try some tofu, legumes (chickpeas, beans, peas,) nuts and seeds, with every meal. You may need to take iron, B12 or other supplements to make sure your body has all the nutrients it needs. Talk to your doctor or dietitian for advice that is right for you.

How can I start eating more plant-based foods in my diet?

You don’t have to jump in to a plant-based diet with both feet. You can start by making one of these changes:

  • Start with fruits, vegetables and whole grains you like, and include more of those foods in your meals and snacks.
  • Try eating one meatless meal a week and slowly work your way up.
  • Replace meat with a plant-based protein in recipes you already make. For example, you could put beans in your chili rather than ground beef.
  • Look for opportunities to choose whole foods instead of processed food. For example, you could cook some potatoes instead of French fries.
  • Try a new recipe!
Plant-based diet: vegetables and legumes on two plates; spices above and below

To get started with plant-based eating, start with fruits and vegetables you like, and add them to more meals and snacks.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and making one change at a time is ok. Dietitians at The Ottawa Hospital tend to promote including foods that will help you achieve your health goals, rather than taking less healthy foods away and labelling them as “bad.” Being too restrictive can lead to unhealthy eating behaviours and an unhealthy relationship with food. If you need help with changing your diet, talk to your family doctor or a dietitian. Need help? Find a dietitian in Ottawa.

Is eating a plant-based diet more expensive?

It doesn’t have to be! In particular, plant-based proteins tend to be more affordable than animal proteins. Dried, canned and frozen fruit and vegetables can be good alternatives to fresh. For people living with low income and/or food insecurity in Ottawa, call 2-1-1 for more information on available programs and take a look at the resources below.

Where can I access healthy food in Ottawa?

The grocery store isn’t the only place to get whole, healthy foods. In Ottawa Good Food Ottawa is a local organization dedicated to helping both people who struggle to buy food and people who want to support local food systems. On their website, you’ll find food resources for isolated seniors, a list of organizations that make take-away meals for those in need, a food link directory that includes food banks, Meals on Wheels and other community meal programs, Good Food On The Move which supplies low-cost fresh fruits and vegetables for people with food insecurity, links to local farmer’s markets, a ‘buy local’ food guide, and grocery delivery listings.


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Rajiv kalsi - May 21, 2021

If only the Ottawa Hospital would follow the plant-based diet for patients in the hospital. I recently spent 2 days in the hospital recovering from surgery, and I found the food to be sub-par, and not at all a diet designed to enhance health.

Lisa Mishak - June 2, 2021

Thank you for this article!! It is great to start getting the discussions going. It would be great to note that there are hospitals that are switching to only feeding patients plant-based diets– Prevention of disease rather than treating symptoms.

Shelly Kett - June 2, 2021

Great information Amy!!!

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This website gives you common facts, advice and tips. Some of it may not apply to you. Please talk to your doctor, nurse or other health-care team member to see if this information will work for you. They can also answer your questions and concerns.