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How to Integrate More Plant-Based Foods Into Your Diet

February 12, 2024
green produce at the grocery store

There has been growing interest in the benefits of eating a plant-based diet and these advantages have also been well researched. Although there can be many variations, a plant-based diet doesn’t mean you can’t eat any meat or dairy. It can be as simple as choosing more plant foods and replacing some animal-based ones in the process.

This eating style is becoming increasingly popular because it’s not about counting calories, strictly eliminating certain foods or meeting specific daily goals which can be challenging and hard to maintain. Instead, by making a conscious effort to eat more whole foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds—you can experience an improvement in your overall health.

Learn more below about the benefits of a plant-based diet as well as some tips to help you incorporate additional plant sources throughout the day. And if you’re an older adult, read on for more specific recommendations to help you meet your changing nutritional needs.

Health Benefits of Plant-Based Eating

Everyone can benefit from increasing the proportion of plants in their diet and studies suggest that more plant-based foods may:

  • Boost the Immune System: Essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals (which protect plants against bacteria, viruses and fungi) and antioxidants found in plants all strengthen the body’s immune response.
  • Maintain a Healthy Body Weight: A diet that is high in fibre and low in saturated fat—with less processed food choices—can help contribute to a healthy weight.
  • Lower the Risk of Chronic Health Conditions: The combination of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre in plant-based foods may lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and help eliminate toxins which can lead to inflammation. This can reduce the risk of certain cancers, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • Improve Cognitive Function: Plant compounds and antioxidants may slow or prevent cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease in older adults.

Switching to a plant-based diet has other benefits beyond your physical health. Plant-based protein sources including lentils, tofu, nut butters, seeds and beans are generally less expensive than animal proteins. As well, plant-based foods have a smaller environmental impact because they use less water, land and create fewer emissions during production than other animal products.

Tips For Making More Plant-Based Choices

Here are some manageable ways to increase the amount of plant-based food in your daily diet:

Up Your Veggies

Aim to fill half of your plate with fruit or vegetables at each meal and reserve a quarter of your plate for protein (either plant or animal-based). Find ways to add vegetables to meat dishes or substitute a meat or refined grain with a vegetable. If you’re making spaghetti, consider replacing the ground meat with lentils or using spaghetti squash instead of pasta. Grate squash, carrots, or zucchini into meatballs, macaroni and cheese and baked goods. Add tomato or spinach to scrambled eggs and blend cauliflower or avocado into your breakfast smoothie.

Try ‘Meatless Mondays’

It doesn’t have to be Monday, but choose one day of the week to eat a vegetarian meal. Focus on legumes, whole grains and vegetables and make sure you include a plant-based protein. If you find this challenging, make your animal protein a side dish, garnish, or condiment once a week instead of the main feature.

Make a Salad Your Main

 A great way to increase your plant-based food intake is to enjoy a hearty salad as a main dish. Fill a bowl with leafy greens like spinach, kale or romaine, add an assortment of vegetables and a protein source like tofu, beans, peas or some lean chicken or salmon. There are many different salad ideas, many of which are seasonal, which makes this a great plant-based meal option that you won’t easily grow tired of.

Experiment with New Plant Foods

It can also be fun to buy and try vegetables and fruits that are new to you. Squash blossoms, dragon fruit, broccolini, fiddleheads, lychee, rutabaga and passion fruit are some examples that may be new to you to try. This can help keep things interesting and offer more variety to your plant-based diet. Trying different methods of preparation—steaming, grilling, roasting, stir-frying—can also add variety as you try new things to see what you like best.

Enjoy Fruit for Dessert

If you enjoy something sweet at the end of a meal, try some delicious fruit. Choose fruit that is in season and at its prime like peaches, watermelons, or strawberries. This may surprisingly satisfy your sweet tooth after a meal and give you an extra serving of plants for the day.

Considerations for Older Adults

Although the health benefits of a plant-based diet have been well-documented, there may be some specific challenges for older adults. Always speak to your doctor or a dietitian before making any changes to your diet.

As we age, muscle mass and bone density naturally decrease, which means that your protein intake becomes particularly important. If you are reducing or eliminating animal proteins, make sure that you substitute with a plant-based alternative at each meal. This may include: nuts and nut butters, seeds, mushrooms, lentils, quinoa, tofu, chickpeas, split peas, most beans, and sweet potatoes. Similarly, vitamin B12 is essential for good neurological health and cognitive function in older adults. The only naturally occurring B12 sources are animal-based and your ability to absorb this vitamin decreases with age. If you are an older adult and aren’t eating as much dairy, eggs, meat, poultry or seafood, you should talk to your doctor about a supplement.

Calcium is also important for healthy bones and teeth and to prevent osteoporosis and the risk of fractures in older adults. Adults over 50 require 1,200 mg of calcium per day. To meet these totals, include lots of leafy greens, almonds, oranges, plant-milks, figs, prunes and other calcium-rich foods in your diet. Talk to your doctor about a supplement if you’re worried about your calcium intake, particularly if you are reducing or eliminating dairy products.

Although convenient, processed plant-based meat substitutes like veggie burgers and sausages are usually high in saturated fat and sodium. Always read nutrition labels to account for daily totals, especially if you are managing a chronic health condition, and only use in moderation.

Start Small

You may want to enjoy the benefits of a plant-based diet but are feeling intimidated. Just go slowly and realize that you don’t have to revamp your entire diet. Change one meal at a time, try a new vegetable this week or swap out the protein source in your favourite dish. Regardless of the number of adjustments you make, any effort to eat more plant products will inevitably create positive change.

Reviewed By: Sahar Bhatti, Registered Dietitian at VHA Home HealthCare

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