For the past seven years I’ve been fielding questions and concerns about the healthiness of plant-based eating. This approach to eating can be radically different from what many of us were raised on, what we thought was healthy, and what our social norms, marketing agencies, and even health professionals encourage. No wonder people are perplexed when I talk about forgoing meat, dairy and eggs for better health! My goal has always been to help people make informed decisions about their food choices. No matter where you are on the spectrum between veg-curious and established plant-based eater, I hope this run-down of the top 5 FAQs will be of value!
1. WHERE WILL I GET MY PROTEIN?
This is the #1 concern expressed about plant-based eating. Yet protein deficiency isn’t actually much of a heath issue. High blood pressure, high blood glucose and obesity sure are though! Along with tobacco use and inactivity, they are the leading global risks for death in the world (see here).
The fact of the matter is that we can get all the protein we need from plants. On average, plant-based eaters get 70% more protein than we need, every day. And it’s worth noting that Canada’s new evidence-based food guide recommends we “choose protein foods that come from plants more often”. Lentils, beans (especially tofu), nuts and seeds are high in protein. Whole grains are also a good source of protein. Vegetables have less, and fruit generally has the least.
Refer to my Plant-based Protein 101 post for the full scoop.
2. BUT I NEED TO CONSUME DAIRY TO GET ENOUGH CALCIUM!
The “milk builds strong bones” concept is a marketing tool. There are far healthier sources of calcium than dairy. When we make our food choices we need to keep in mind that food is a package deal. Dairy comes packaged with saturated fat and cholesterol, whereas plant-based sources of calcium come packaged with fibre, antioxidants and many other beneficial nutrients. Further, a 2014 review of all the best studies concluded that there was no overall association between milk intake and hip fracture risk in women.
Tofu, broccoli, kale and almonds are good plant-based sources of calcium. For bone health we also need to look at the bigger picture: we need to ensure we get enough weight bearing exercise and vitamin D.
3. WON’T ALL THOSE CARBS MAKE ME GAIN WEIGHT?
We know that populations in the world living the longest, healthiest lives (see The Blue Zones) are eating a plant-based diet, which derives about 50% of calories from carbohydrates. And the World Health Organization supports this with their definition of the healthy diet: fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains. Animal products are not on the list.
But if your main concern is weight loss, consider this study of 89,000 Californians showing that only the plant-based eaters (compared to vegetarians and omnivores) had a body mass index, on average, within the healthy range.
The low-carb high-fat ketogenic diet may well lead to weight loss short-term, but the longer-term health implications are frightening. A study published in 2018 in The Lancet Public Health looking at the impact of carbohydrate intake on health showed, “Both high and low percentages of carbohydrate diets were associated with increased mortality, with minimal risk observed at 50–55% carbohydrate intake.”
For more on the ketogenic diet, check out this post.
4. WHAT ABOUT FISH? I THOUGHT IT WAS HEALTHY TO EAT.
As with all other animal products, fish contain cholesterol and saturated fat. But fish (along with fish oil supplements) also contain toxic pollutant contaminants such as PCBs, dioxin and mercury.
We can fulfil our “good fat” omega-3 requirements by eating plant sources such as walnuts, ground flax, chia seeds and hemp seeds. And we can also supplement with EPA and DHA from algae (which is where the fish get it!). I use Deva Vegan Omega-3 DHA-EPA. If you’d like to learn more about fish and our health, check out this comprehensive overview from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.
5. ISN’T SOY BAD FOR ME?
Soy has a long history of use in Asia and within vegetarian populations throughout the world, and has been extensively researched. Research shows it is indeed a healthy option. Consider this:
- Traditional soy foods are generally the most healthful choices. They fall into two categories: fermented (e.g. tempeh and miso) and unfermented (e.g. tofu, soymilk and edamame soybeans).
- Non-traditional soy foods (e.g. veggie meats and protein powders) are more processed and generally lower in fibre and may contain added fat, sugar and salt, so check the labels.
- Regular soy consumption may provide a variety of health benefits, including lower risk of coronary heart disease, reduction in hot flashes, protection against some forms of cancer (ovarian, multiple myeloma and breast), and possible protection against osteoporosis. In addition, compared with animal protein, soy protein may protect kidney function.
- Soybeans are high in protein and B-vitamins, and a good source of minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium and copper.
To maintain the low insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1) levels associated with a plant-based diet, eat no more than 3-5 servings of soy foods a day, as high IGF-1 levels have been associated with increased cancer risk.
For more information about soy and our health, see here.
THE CHOICE IS OURS TO MAKE
When I first heard about the significant and potentially life-saving health benefits of plant-based eating I recall thinking, “This sounds crazy! How can it possibly be true?” By then, I had earned a Nutritional Science degree and had worked for many years in the field of clinical research…yet I was still shocked. I felt compelled to learn more about it. So I continued to read books and articles about plant-based eating, written by credentialed individuals who supported their statements with references from peer-reviewed medical journals (and I read those too). I became convinced and eventually made the transition. I know that I’ll forever consider it one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!