Plant Based Diet 101: What you need to know before becoming veganđŸŒ±

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

Plant based nutrition is becoming more common in the recent years. A 2018 study by Dalhousie University states that 9.4% of Canadians are now adherent to a plant-based diet. As this way of eating is becoming more popular, many of us may wonder what the big fuss is all about. Is this a better way of eating? Or just another fad diet? ? Well my friends, I am here to answer all of your questions!! Lettuce (Let us.. lol) dive deep on plant based nutrition!


Basically it is a way of eating that focuses on plant based foods which includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Animal products are either completely excluded or limited. Plant based diet Is NOT about eating lettuce and grass as many like to portrait it! #notarabbit

As this diet is becoming more popular- many are personalizing it to their needs (pescatarian, lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, flexitarian/semi-vegetarian, vegan) . The most common plant based diets are vegetarian and vegan.


Vegetarianism is a diet restricting all meat, poultry, fish and seafood but allows for animal by-products such as eggs, dairy, honey and gelatin. There are different form of vegetarianism such as:

  • Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian: Individuals consumes dairy and eggs but no animal products (meat, poultry, fish or seafood)

  • Lacto-vegetarian: Individuals includes dairy but avoid any other animal products (eggs, meat, poultry, fish or seafood)

  • Ovo- Vegetarian : Individuals includes eggs but avoid any other animal products (dairy, meat, poultry, fish or seafood)

Veganism is a more restrictive diet as all animal products and by-products are eliminated from diet (including dairy, eggs, honey, gelatin, etc). Some vegans also avoid any purchased goods containing animal by products such as clothing, soaps, lotions, make up, etc.


There are many different reasons why someone might decide to follow a plant based diet. The most common one is for ethical reasons. Some believe that killing animals for the sole purpose of human consumption is unethical. The argument often stipulates that our ancestors had to consume animal products as there was no other alternatives. With the food industry today, there is no real need to keep consuming animal products as you can have a balanced diet without consuming meat. Furthermore, farming is not what it used to be. In the past, animals were wild and free, lived a nice life until they were brought to the slaughter house. Nowadays, animal cruelty is unfortunately an issue in our food industry.

Another reason individuals choose to stop eating meat is for environmental factors. Livestock take a large amount of land and are the biggest contributor to CO2 gas emission. According to a 2018 article by Oxford University, ''avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way to reduce your impact on Earth''. Furthermore, eating a plant based diets can help save clean water. Did you know that 96% of the earth's water is undrinkable? And 3% of the earth's water (drinkable) is used for food and agriculture industry. Therefore there is only 1% of earth`s water left for human consumption. This may not seem like a big issue for us living in Canada or USA, as clean water is very accessible, however many third world countries do not have this luxury. This being said, it takes a lot more water to produce meat than any plant based protein source.

Finally, many will start the plant based journey in order to improve their health and lose weight. (Check section below for health benefits and risks!)


Plant based diets have been extensively studied in the last decades due to growth in popularity. Findings have shown that vegans typically have:

1. Decrease risk of heart disease in men (no evidence in women)

2. Decrease blood cholesterol levels

3. Decrease risk of hypertension

4. Decrease risk of type 2 diabetes

5. Decrease risk of certain types of cancer

6. Lower rates of obesity (lower BMI)

*However, all of these benefit only applied to participants who ate a lot of high-quality plant-based foods like whole grain, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables and not to participants who ate a lot of less healthful plant-based foods like fries, chips, candy and refined grains.

Another great benefit of being plant based is saving money! It's no surprise that animal products are much more expensive than plant based foods. According to a study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, plant based individuals save approximately 940$ CAD a year compared to meat eaters.


Risk of deficiency

Any diet that is restrictive puts you at risk of becoming deficient in micro nutrients. Individuals who decide to eat a plant based diets are even more at risk because of the extreme restrictive nature of this way of eating. This being said, a well planned and balanced vegan diet can fulfill all nutrient needs. (Check section below for micronutrients and macronutrients to be aware of when eating a plant based diet).

Lack of availability

Although vegan diets have become more common in the recent years, it's only a minority of the population who follow this lifestyle. This means that the demand for vegan products is small in comparison to animal products which leads to few offers. It can be difficult for a vegan individual to find adequate balanced meals on the go (especially plant based proteins!). Again, it is totally doable, you just require more planing and nutrition knowledge.

Restrictive nature of the diet

As a dietitian who works with many people with disordered eating, it's important to highlight that the restrictive nature of plant based diet may lead to some disordered eating behaviors. Some will start their plant based journey only to lose weight and therefore can get caught in the diet mentality (restriction/binge cycle). For some with existing eating disorder, will use veganism as a way to hide their restrictive nature. It is important to understand why someone decides to start a plant based journey in order to support them in the best possible.


  • Protein - essential for growth (through cycle of life), building/keeping muscle, healthy red blood cells, ...

  • Incomplete protein (do not contain all essential amino acids in the right amount - therefore require combination!)

  • Beans, legumes, lentils -->

  • Whole grain products (wheat, barley, bickwheat, rice, ...)

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Complete protein (contain all essential amino acids in the right amount)

  • Soy products (Edamame beans, tofu, tempeh)

  • Quinoa

NUTRITION TIP: For incomplete proteins, you don't need to combine proteins in 1 meal/ 1 sitting. You just need to combine different protein sources and consume enough calories throughout the day.

  • Calcium - essential for for strong bones, teeth, muscle contraction

  • Plant based sources:

  • Dark leafy greens (kale, collard greens, bok choy)

  • Broccoli

  • Fortified millk alternatives beverages (soy, rice, almond, coconut, cashew)

  • Fortified soy products (tofu, tempeh)

  • Almonds, Brazil nuts

  • Sesame seeds & sesame butter (tahini)

  • Amaranth grain

  • Figs

NUTRITION TIP: To increase absorption make sure you are consuming enough vitamin D, limit salt intake ( because salt increases calcium excretion), limit/reduce caffeine intake (because caffeine inhibits calcium absorption)

  • Vitamin B12 - essential for formation of red blood cells, cell divisions, maintenance of nervous system and fat metabolism

  • ​Plant base source:

  • ​Fortified milk alternatives (soy, rice, almond, coconut, cashew)

  • Fortified soy products (tofu, temphe, meat alternative)

NUTRITION TIP: A vitamin B12 supplement may be required if these foods are not eaten regularly. (Talk to physician or dietitian before taking supplements)

  • Vitamin D - essential for calcium and phosphorus absorption into bones and supports immune system

  • Plant based source:

  • Fortified foods such as: margarine and milk alternatives (soy, almond, rice, oats, coconut, cashew)

  • Mushrooms

NUTRITION TIP: The best way to absorb vitamin D is through sun exposure (approximately 20 minutes daily). However, in Canada (especially in winter months) most of us don't get enough vitamin D therefore supplementation is often recommended ( talk to physician or dietitian before using supplement).

  • Omega 3 (linolenic acid) : Essential fatty acids that plays crucial role in overall health (eye, nerve and brain) and prevention of mutliple diseases.

  • Plant based source:

  • Oils: Flaxseed, Canola, Soybean, Walnut

  • Flax seeds. hemp hearts and chia seeds

  • Walnuts

  • Soybeans

  • Seaweed

NUTRITION TIP: Both omega 3 and omega 6 are essential fatty acids. However, most of us have an omega 6 imbalance (too much omega 6 vs omega 3). Try to reduce omega-6 consumption and increase omega-3 consumption by switching from sunflower, safflower & corn oils to canola, soybean or olive oil.

  • Iron - essential for oxygen transportation in the body

  • Vegans/vegetarians need 2x more iron than meat eaters because plant based iron ( non-heme iron) is not as well absorbed as iron from animal (heme iron).

  • Athletes will need even more than that because activity increases iron requirements.

  • ​Plant based source:

  • ​Fortified soy products ( tofu and tempeh)

  • Fortified milk alternatives (soy, rice, almond, coconut, cashew)

  • Fortifies grain products (Bread, cereal)

  • Beans (kidney, pinto, adzuki)

  • Peas (chickpeas, black-eyed peas)

  • Lentils (red, brown, green)

  • Cashews, almonds

  • Pumpkin and sesame seeds

  • Spinach, kale, potatoes (skin on)

  • Black strap molasses

NUTRITION TIP: To increase iron absorption, eat iron rich foods with vitamin C rich foods such as : citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes), kiwis, mangoes cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, sweet peppers, broccoli, snow peas, tomatoes). Avoid drinking tea and coffee with meals ( tannins in tea and coffee inhibit iron absorption). Avoid taking calcium at the same time (inhibits iron absorption)

  • Zinc- essential for growth, development, strong immune system and wound healing.

  • ​Plant based sources:

  • ​Fortified soy products ( tofu and tempeh)

  • Dried beans, peas and lentils

  • Pecans, cashews

  • Peanut (peanut butter)

  • Pumpkin seeds and sesame seed butter (tahini)

  • Whole grain and fortified cereal

NUTRITION TIPS: TO increase zinc absorption, soak legumes before cooking or used canned legumes. Consume with acid containing foods such as citric acid ( found in citrus fruits, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, rhubarb and tomatoes)


It's unhealthy for kids to be vegan : FALSE. Kids can be raised to be very healthy following a plant based diet. However, more planning is involved to make sure they are not deficient in any nutrients (If you are raising your child plant based- please talk to a registered dietitian to ensure the diet is complete)

It's unhealthy for pregnant woman to be vegan: FALSE. Again, as long as the diet is well planned out it can be totally healthy to be vegan when pregnant.


Living a plant based life style has many benefits, as long as it is done right! The most important things to consider is :

1- WHY do you want to be plant based?

2- PLAN PLAN PLAN your diet more thoroughly to avoid any nutrient deficiency

3- Vegan ≠ healthy. It can be very healthy, but it can also be very unhealthy. Beware of marketing and go back to step 2 (PLAN!)

If you are thinking of becoming vegetarian, vegan or just reducing your overall meat consumption, a registered dietitian can be a great ally to get you started off right, give you correct information and ensure your body gets all the nutrient it needs!

I hope this article was helpful, Thank you for reading!

Marie-Pier Pitre-D'Iorio, RD


Bradbury KE, Crowe FL, Appleby PN, Schmidt JA, Travis RC, Key TJ. Serum concentrations of cholesterol, apolipoprotein A-I and apolipoprotein B in a total of 1694 meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014;68(2):178-183.

Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets: what do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases? Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(5):1607S-1612S.

Hu, F. B. (2003). Plant-based foods and prevention of cardiovascular disease: an overview. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 78(3), 544S-551S.

Key TJ, Appleby PN, Crowe FL, Bradbury KE, Schmidt JA, Travis RC. Cancer in British vegetarians: updated analyses of 4998 incident cancers in a cohort of 32,491 meat eaters, 8612 fish eaters, 18,298 vegetarians, and 2246 vegans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(Supplement 1):378S-385S.

Orlich MJ, Singh PN, Sabaté J, et al. Vegetarian dietary patterns and mortality in Adventist Health Study-2. JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(13):1230-1238.

Orlich MJ, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Sabaté J, Fan J, Singh PN, Fraser GE. Patterns of food consumption among vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Br J Nutr. 2014:112(10):1644-1653.

Stehfest, E., Bouwman, L., Van Vuuren, D. P., Den Elzen, M. G., Eickhout, B., & Kabat, P. (2009). Climate benefits of changing diet. Climatic change, 95(1-2), 83-102.


Tantamango-Bartley Y, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Fan J, Fraser G. Vegetarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2013;22(2):286-294.

#vegan #plantbased #vegetarian #nutrition #weightloss #environment #health #balancednutrition

104 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

The Balanced Practice

founded by The Balanced Dietitian (Marie-Pier Pitre-D'Iorio)

  • White LinkedIn Icon
  • White Facebook Icon
  • White YouTube Icon
  • White Instagram Icon