Debunking myths: Plant-based foods are the way of the future

By Riana Topan

As anyone in the food industry knows, consumer interest in plant-based foods has skyrocketed in recent years. The space is exploding, with new products and technologies emerging every week. But even as the ethical, environmental, and health benefits of eating more plants become widely known, myths and misinformation continue to circulate.

One of the areas in which this is most evident is nutrition, despite a large body of evidence that diets rich in plants are optimal for health.

While it is true that processed foods should not form the bulk of any diet, the evidence suggests that in addition to being kinder and more sustainable, even processed plant-based foods are usually healthier than their animal-based counterparts. For example, plant-based ground beef can be a good source of fibre (entirely absent from animal meat), folate, and iron, with less saturated fat than conventional ground beef. Plus, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has categorized processed meat as a carcinogen and red meat as a probable carcinogen.

Moreover, the research is abundantly clear that whole plant foods such as fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, seeds and nuts, whole grains, and herbs and spices are the healthiest choices out there. There are impressive conclusions from studies around the world, including:

  1. Replacing only three per cent of calories from animal protein with plant protein has been shown to reduce overall mortality by 10%.
  2. Plant-based diets may reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 16 per cent, and risk of dying of this disease by about 31 per cent.
  3. Increased fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with a 20 per cent reduction in the risk of dementia and cognitive impairment.
  4. A whole food, plant-based diet is highly beneficial for preventing and treating type 2 diabetes, and for reducing the risk of certain cancers.
  5. Eating mostly plant-based may increase your chances of living to age 100.

Canada’s Food Guide has de-emphasized animal products, in all forms, for good reason.

Given that heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada, that hundreds of thousands of Canadians are living with dementia, and that nearly one in two Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetimes, the potential for our food choices to have such life-saving benefits is profound. Who wouldn’t want to reduce their risk of dying by 10 per cent with a simple, subtle dietary shift?

RELATED: Many more Canadians saying no to meat during pandemic

If you are interested in consuming more plant-based foods, you may have specific nutrition questions, such as how to get enough good quality protein or how to ensure adequate intake of vitamins D and B12. The good news is that it’s quite easy to meet all of your nutritional needs with plants.

On the commonly-asked protein question, the first misconception is about how much protein we need in the first place. The average healthy adult needs as little as 10 per cent of their calories to come from protein (for most people, this equals about 45-60 grams per day). Plant-based foods have plenty of protein – just half a cup of beans or lentils has between six and 12 grams of protein, and plant-based protein can be of the highest quality. The idea that certain plant foods need to be combined to form “complete proteins” was debunked many years ago. As long as we eat a variety of whole plant foods, it isn’t hard to get enough good quality protein.

Most Canadians struggle to get enough Vitamin D, especially in the winter months. It is a good idea to take a supplement during the coldest season, no matter your diet. Vitamin B12 can require a bit more planning if you only eat plant-based foods, but by choosing fortified foods (such as plant-based milks and nutritional yeast) and/or taking occasional supplements (1000 mcg of B12 two to three times per week), you can get enough of this vitamin while enjoying the many benefits of a diet rich in plants.

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The Canadian food guide is a helpful tool for anyone unsure of where to start: it emphasizes that half of your plate should come from fruits and vegetables, a quarter from whole grains, and a quarter from protein, with a recommendation that the majority of your protein come from plants. Whole foods are best, but processed plant-based products, such as plant-based meats, can still play a role in a healthy diet, providing a convenient, delicious way to diversify food choices. Plus, plant-based meat offers significant environmental and animal welfare benefits, protecting our planet and the animals we share it with, making it a more responsible choice than conventional meat products in an era of impending climate catastrophe.

Ultimately, there is an unshakeable consensus based on nutrition research and related sciences: Well-planned, whole food, plant-based diets have enormous health benefits. We could all improve our well-being, and that of our planet, simply by making plants a bigger part of our diets. As an article geared towards physicians summarizes: “Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.” Truly, the power of plant-forward eating cannot be overstated.

The majority of Canadians are already choosing to eat more plants, having voted with their forks in regard to the future of food.

Riana Topan is a campaign manager with Humane Society International/Canada. She runs the organization’s Forward Food program, which helps institutions across Canada increase their offerings of delicious and nutritious plant-based options that are better for animals, the environment, and human health. Forward Food provides free culinary trainings, recipes, and menu development support, as well as help with marketing and communications.

Anyone looking to learn more about plant-based eating and how to consume more plant-based foods may want to visit the HSI website, where you can download free recipes and our Guide to Plant-Based Meals.