02/18/2013 02:31 EST | Updated 04/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Vegetarian Diet: Plant-Based Eating Good For Health And Energy

TORONTO - Leslie Beck has long been a proponent of the health benefits of a plant-based diet. But what really resonated with her when researching her latest book was the treatment of animals and the strain that is put on the environment by large industrial-style agricultural and fish-farming operations.

"The Plant-Based Power Diet: 10 Simpler Steps to a Healthier, Leaner, Energetic You" (Penguin) came out at the beginning of January and is the registered dietitian's 12th book.

She was inspired by a New York Times blog written by journalist and activist Michael Pollan, who wrote: "To peer over the increasingly high walls of our industrial animal agriculture is not only to lose your appetite but to feel revulsion and shame."

Beck noted that "we treat our pets compassionately. We can't stand it when we hear news reports about someone being cruel to a dog or a cat, but we really do turn a blind eye (to other animals) and a lot of people don't know as well. That was one of the real clinchers for me. That was the most eye opening when I was researching this book."

The well-known Toronto author, columnist and broadcaster acknowledged in an interview that she has been following plant-based principles for a long time, though she does eat fish and yogurt.

"I could eat beans and tofu all the time and I could care less about meat, but I've always been that way. Even when I was a kid I didn't really like steak."

A plant-based diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and healthier weight.

"I think the benefits people can expect to feel if they adopt a plant-based diet is they will feel leaner and lighter, physically they will," she explained. "They won't feel bloated. They just won't have that heavy feeling after eating. Digestive system will be in top form. And I think just from an energy perspective too people will have more energy. Absolutely."

Beck, who is also national director of nutrition for BodyScience Medical, said she has found more clients over the last few years seeking advice about healthfully incorporating less dairy and more beans, lentils and meatless meals into their diets.

She's noticed more shelf space devoted to vegan cookbooks at major bookstores and the growing number of plant-based products in grocery stores, whether almond or oat milk, coconut-based products or soy foods.

"And then I guess at the same time ... (U.S.) president (Bill) Clinton really brought international recognition to this way of eating because of weight loss."

There are lots of ways to easily and gradually make the transition to a plant-based diet, which excludes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, Beck said. There is a huge variety of foods available packed with fibre, minerals and antioxidants.

Try non-dairy milk in smoothies, on breakfast cereal or to cook with. Chow down on a veggie burger instead of a beef burger.

Eliminate animal foods you don't consume very often and therefore won't miss. For many, Beck said, this is red meat.

Have a meatless Monday. For breakfast, make oatmeal, whole-grain toast and almond butter, or fruit. Lunch can consist of black bean soup with a side salad.

Make grains and vegetables the centre of your dinner plate rather than a chicken breast, salmon fillet or piece of meat. Try a stir-fry with brown rice or quinoa, for example.

Switch to plant-based snacks: fruit and nuts, a soy instead of milk latte or smoothie, whole-grain crackers and hummus instead of whole-grain crackers and cheese.

Try eating plant-based condiments, swapping mayonnaise for a "vegenaise." Spread hummus, tahini, avocado or nut butter on bread or toast instead of butter or cream cheese.

Some people new to plant-based eating fear they won't get enough nutrients.

"In a day's worth of meals and snacks if you're eating a variety of foods you can get all the protein you need, even if you work out heavily, as well as calcium and iron," Beck said.

Beck does recommend plant-based eaters who aren't consuming foods or beverages fortified with vitamin B12 take a daily multivitamin containing five to 10 micrograms of that vitamin.

B12 is important for nerve function and red blood cells and occurs naturally in animal-based foods. "You can become anemic if your stores drop too low," Beck said. "It's really important for energy as well and metabolism."

Menstruating women should also take a multivitamin to meet their iron requirements. "Plant-based eaters have higher iron requirements and then women on top of that have even higher," Beck said.

Plant-based eaters can get omega-3 fats, normally obtained via fish oils, through a DHA supplement that's made from algae. She recommends 200 to 400 milligrams a day.

Beck admits it can be trickier to order the protein component when eating in restaurants on a plant-based diet and can require some creativity in terms of asking for substitutions. But it's possible to get good plant-based protein sources at almost any ethnic restaurant — Japanese, Chinese and Indian, for example.

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