BY Dr. Natasha Turner ND

Have you ever heard someone describe their diet as they “don’t eat anything that has a face”. If not, I am sure you are familiar with the more common term, a vegan or vegetarian diet. The current trend, however, is to refer to this style of eating as a “plant-based diet”. And in very simple terms, it means trying to eat more plants and less animal products. 

A whole-food, plant-based diet is centered on whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants. It’s based on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes; and it excludes or minimizes meat (including chicken and fish), dairy products, and eggs, as well as highly refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oils. Currently, over 3 million Canadians are vegan or vegetarian, according to recent research completed by Dalhousie University. This number is up 900k from 15 years ago – with the majority under 35 years of age.

A few important reasons one may choose to eat only plants include:

  1. Health. Many people switch to eating plants because they want to lose weight, improve their heart health, stay healthy as they age, improve blood pressure or deal with diabetes. A plant-based diet has been shown to help with all of these things — if you also stay away from the processed foods. Some of the healthiest populations in the world are plant-based, including the Okinawans, who traditionally eat almost all plants such as sweet potatoes, soybeans, lots of veggies, with a little fish.
  2. Environment. The biggest way to reduce your carbon footprint is to stop eating animal products. The animals we raise for food production use a ton of resources, eat way more plants than we do (which in turn also require resources to be grown), give off huge amounts of planet-warming methane, breathe out a lot of carbon dioxide, and create a lot of pollution. 
  3. Compassion. This is the most important reason to move away from eating animals and their products. I personally find the idea of massive chicken and dairy farms, which no longer permit the animals to move from their cages or stalls, very disturbing. The heartbreaking process of pig farming and transport to slaughter is another reason to quit eating pork and to consider a plant-based diet.
  4. Cancer prevention. Plant-based diets including vegetarian and vegan diets are generally considered to be cancer protective, as most large prospective observational studies show that vegetarian diets are at least modestly cancer protective (10%–12% reduction in overall cancer risk).  A broad body of evidence links specific plant foods such as fruits and vegetables, plant constituents such as fiber, antioxidants and other phytochemicals, and achieving and maintaining a healthy weight to reduced risk of cancer diagnosis and recurrence. Also, research links the consumption of meat, especially red and processed meats, to increased risk of several types of cancer.

The Hormone Diet Approach to a Plant-Based Diet

While a completely vegan diet can run the risk of protein deficiency, which often leads to weight gain and hormonal imbalance (I had a patient gain 30 pounds on a vegan diet!), this does not have to be the case. There are lots of different products you can try to stay healthy, even if you’re vegan. For example, hemp protein is an excellent source of fibre. In addition I have concerns for these groups:

  • Pregnant and breast-feeding women – due to risk of nutrient deficiency without focusing on being a true “foodie” and taking the right supplements.
  • Those with low muscle mass, low bone density and athletes – due to the risk of low protein intake without making essential adaptions.
  • Middle aged women who can run the risk of hormones plummeting (including growth hormone, estrogen, progesterone, DHEA and testosterone) on a completely plant-based, raw food diet – as I have seen in clinical practice.

If you, however, want to join the plant-based trend, or perhaps try Veganuary, modifications have to be made to correct for nutrient and macronutrient imbalances and protein intake to maintain hormone balance (specifically insulin, cortisol, thyroid hormone and sex hormones), muscle mass, metabolism, energy and strength. The Hormone Diet (HD) tweaks include:

  • HD Plant-Based Tip #1: A vegan or vegetarian diet is free of animal products – but it does not ensure freedom from food sensitivities that can contribute to immune imbalance, fatigue, inflammation, and more. The inclusion of corn, gluten and wheat as a permitted foods in a plant-based diet can be problematic for some. I highly recommend the Supercharged Hormone Diet 30 day detox diet as the best way to determine if these plant-based foods could be an issue for you. The detox involves the removal of allergenic and inflammatory foods for two weeks, and the re-introduction of them one at a time during the third week of the detox – while noting possible reactions and foods sensitivities. This is the most important part of any detox as it allows you to identify how foods they make you feel.
  • HD Plant-Based Tip #2: A completely plant-based diet must include protein supplements to ensure the minimum daily protein intake is met to maintain muscle mass. For non-active people this is 1.6 grams per kg of body weight, and more active people should aim for 2.0 to 2.2 grams per kg of body weight. This makes pea, hemp, or pumpkin seed protein powders a must. I suggest two shakes per day – and to rotate your protein sources daily to avoid sensitivities. For instance, this may look like having two hemp protein shakes on one day, and two pea-based protein shakes on the next.
  • HD Plant-Based Tip #3: Restrict your consumption of sources of legumes and grains (lentils, black beans, quinoa, rice, rye, buckwheat, etc.) to your evening meal. When starchy carbs such as these are consumed at breakfast, lunch or mid-afternoon it tends to increase cravings during the daytime or hunger after dinner, as well as weight gain. Meanwhile including one source of these, about the size of your fist in your evening meal, will improve cortisol and serotonin balance, which is important for sleep and stress reduction. Excess consumption of starchy carbs and low protein is what increases the risk of weight gain on vegan diets.
  • HD Plant-Based Tip #4:There are now excellent plant based products available for sources of both omega and protein supplements. For instance, you can avoid whey protein by opting for pea, rice, pumpkin or hemp protein powders and avoid fish oils with the use of plant based omega supplements like my personal favourite choice for myself as well as my patients in omegas, Pure Form Omega, which has zero risk of rancidity and carries a list of benefits that are outstanding.
  • HD Plant-Based Tip #5:Several supplements are essential to ensure a plant-based dietary approach is safe. These include:
    • Vitamin B12 – suck, do not chew, one per day that provides 1000 to 2000 mcg of vitamin B12, typically only sourced from meats.
    • Lecithin – 2 capsules 2 times a day – as a source of phosphatidylcholine, a nutrient that is deficient in all plant-based diets and often in pregnancy.
    • Iron – Blood levels of ferritin should be monitored. If levels are lower than 70 in women, a supplement of iron glycinate may be a good idea. Another option for women is to take a prenatal multivitamin daily, as these tend to contain more iron and can help to prevent deficiency.
    • Vitamin D3 – 2,000 to 5,000IU per day to prevent deficiency.
    • Zinc – I suggest 50 mcg of zinc picolinate at bedtime for twelve weeks to restore optional zinc levels and then to continue with a multivitamin.
    • Taurine and Carnitine – Two amino acids that become deficient in a vegan diet. These can be replaced with supplements of each taken once or twice daily.

In my 20 years of clinical practice and via my personal health practices, I have observed these adaptions have made a plant-based dietary approach one of the best health-promoting and preventative lifestyles to follow.

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