The plant versus animal-sourced protein debate has been a hot topic for a long time now. Thanks to documentaries like Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives and The Game Changers, people are contemplating their relationship with food, specifically with animal-based protein foods. But what is the truth? Is a plant-based diet better for your heart health? Is an animal-sourced protein diet a silent killer, as many of these films suggest? Whether plant-based or animal-based, eating a balanced meal using Canada’s Food Guide as a reference will help promote good heart health.
What is a Plant-Based Diet?
People who follow a plant-based diet are essentially focusing on eating foods that are derived mainly from plants. Examples include fruits and veggies but also nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes and beans. A plant-based diet does not automatically mean a person is vegetarian or vegan, it simply means they are opting to select most of their foods from plant-based protein sources.
Vegan Versus Vegetarian – Are They the Same?
These two terms are often confused, with some people using the terms interchangeably. They are different, however. While vegans and vegetarians both choose not to eat meat, veganism is much stricter than vegetarianism. Veganism prohibits the consumption of dairy, eggs, honey and any other items that derive from animal products, such as leather and silk. Strict vegans will not consume or wear any products that are derived from animal products.
Are there Negative Effects of Eating a Plant-based Diet?
Plant-based diets tend to be rich in many nutrients, low in saturated fat and cholesterol and higher in dietary fiber. But there are many nutrients that might be missing with a plant-based diet. If not careful, a purely plant-based diet can lead to adverse effects on the body and brain, which ultimately affects heart health. Many who choose a plant-based diet do so without seeking medical advice or working with a dietitian. This can lead to vitamin deficiencies including B12, iron, zinc, Vitamin D, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. All of these are necessary for maintaining good heart health.
When choosing a plant-based diet, it’s important to focus on the source rather than the amount of protein being consumed. Plant-based protein sources such as beans and nut also include healthy unsaturated fats and fibre, both of which help lower harmful LDL cholesterol levels. The extra fibre that comes from eating a plant-based diet can help lower blood pressure.
Are There Negative Effects of Eating Animal Protein?
Typically, animal-based protein sources contain high amounts of saturated fat, which is less healthy than unsaturated fat. Eggs and red meat also contain compound known as carnitine – when gut bacteria break it down it forms a substance that has been linked to hardening of the arteries. When it comes to heart health, certain types of fish are very rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The benefits of omega-3s have shown to help prevent blood clots, calm irregular heart rhythms and lower blood pressure.
For those choosing to eat an animal-sourced protein diet, it’s important to limit the intake of red meat. According to Harvard Medical School, studies have shown that red meat consumption is associated with diseases such as heart disease or colon cancer. Therefore, lowering red meat consumption is better for your heart health. For those who prefer a meat-based diet, medical experts suggest eating more white meat and less red meat. Eating less meat reduces the risk of:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
- Many cancers
How to Start a Plant-Based Diet
So, you want to try a plant-based diet? First off, it’s important to see your doctor before starting any kind of ‘diet’ or eating program. It might also be helpful to work with a dietitian to ensure that you’re eating a balanced diet and enough of each food group based on the most current Canada Food Guide. Here are some helpful tips from Harvard Medical School to begin a plant-based diet:
- Eat lots of veggies – Aim to fill half your plate with vegetables for two meals. Include colourful vegetables and be creative!
- Think about meat in a different way – Begin by eating smaller portions of meat. For example, use your vegetables as the main dish and any meat as the side dish or garnish.
- Eat good fats – Fats in olive oil, olives, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and avocados are particularly healthy choices.
- Cook a vegetarian meal once a week – create meals around beans, whole grains, and vegetables.
- Include whole grains for breakfast – Start with oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat, or barley. Then add some nuts or seeds along with fresh fruit.
Despite all the negative media around plant-based versus animal-sourced protein, it’s important that, regardless of the type of diet you choose, you consult a doctor and dietitian, to ensure that you’re eating a balanced diet, which promote a healthy heart. Missing out on important nutrients and vitamins can be detrimental and have a negative impact on heart health.