Healthy Living in the North

Northern Table: Canada’s food guide and plant-based proteins

A cauliflower and bean taco is shown.

The new Canada’s food guide suggests eating more plant-based proteins (like this cauliflower-bean taco), and less meat.

There’s been a lot of buzz about plant-based proteins lately! The new Canada’s food guide encourages Canadians to enjoy a variety of foods, and to choose proteins that come from plants more often. This includes foods such as:

  • Beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Peanuts
  • Products made from these foods, like hummus, tofu, nut butters, and fortified soy beverages

In a previous blog post, Amelia Gallant shared some great tips and recipes, and discussed the benefits of eating more plant-based proteins. She also pointed out that plant-based eating means different things to different people, and that it doesn’t mean having to forgo all meat or dairy products. For most people, taking small steps to include more of these foods will be a more enjoyable and sustainable approach.

What might this might look like in real life? I asked a few Northern Health colleagues to share what eating plant-based proteins means for them. Here’s what they had to say:

Partial or full substitutes for meat

“For our family, it means adding lentils with our rice in the rice cooker (only split lentils, otherwise it won’t cook in time!), using tofu in saucy dishes, and adding beans and lentils in soups, stews, or pasta to partially or fully substitute for meat. We’ve found that by using plant-based proteins, you can have meat more for flavouring rather than bulk, which helps expenses and the environment.” – Scott Christie, Environmental Health Officer

Not what I grew up with

“I’ve started to use more beans – black bean brownies, mashed black beans with ground meats to add volume, black eyed peas in stews. Most of these were not served when I was growing up in southern Ontario. I remember … meat and potatoes kind of meals.” – Valerie Preston, Regional Administration Support

Not just for vegetarians

“I’m certainly not a vegetarian, but I do enjoy plant-based proteins and serve them for my daughters as well. I started doing this originally for economic reasons, but found that I enjoy the taste and texture differences. I particularly enjoy hummus, natural peanut butter, tofu, chickpea and lentil soups, chia seeds, and hemp hearts.” – Nathan Hoffart, Speech Language Pathologist

An opportunity to try new things

“For me, it means tasty opportunities to be creative and try new things, as well as enjoy some old favourites. One of our current favourites is roasted cauliflower and lentil tacos. We also like modifying family favourites (e.g., lentil shepherd’s pie), making small modifications (e.g., red lentils to spaghetti sauce, beans or nuts on top of salad), and enjoying old favourites (e.g., peanut butter smeared on apple slices, baked beans, pea soup, etc.)” – Flo Sheppard, Registered Dietitian

Learning as a family

“For my family, it involves meal planning and finding inspiration in cookbooks and websites, and asking others for recipe ideas. I like to involve my two children in different ways … as I find this increases the chance that they will try and enjoy a variety of plant-based foods.” – Dana Vigneault, Regional Nursing Lead, Injury Prevention

What strikes me most about these quotes is that people value plant-based proteins for much more than just their nutritional benefits. We heard:

  • Taste
  • Texture
  • Environmental impact
  • Budget
  • The opportunity to try new things and teach new skills

Now, it’s your turn! Tell us what eating plant-based proteins means to you?

For more blog posts that explore the new Canada’s Food guide, see:

Emilia Moulechkova

About Emilia Moulechkova

Originally from the Lower Mainland, Emilia started her career with Northern Health as a dietetic intern in 2013. Since then, she has worked in a variety of roles as a Registered Dietitian with the population health team. In her current role, she supports schools across the north in their efforts to promote healthy eating. Emilia is passionate about food’s role in bringing people and communities together, and all the ways it can support physical, mental, and social health. Her overall philosophy on healthy eating can be summarized by this Ellyn Satter quote: “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.” In her spare time, she loves exploring the beautiful northern outdoors by foot, skis, bike, or canoe!

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Northern Table: Plant-based sources of iron

A hand holds a plate of Moroccan lentils on rice and broccoli.

Many health organizations are suggesting that you should eat more plant-based proteins, like this dish of Moroccan Lentils, brown rice, and broccoli.

Do you pay attention to how much iron you consume? Most people don’t, but many health organizations are urging people to choose plant-based proteins more often, and this could mean taking a closer look at where your iron comes from.

Iron is a very important mineral that carries oxygen throughout the body. Symptoms of iron deficiency can include fatigue, a weakened immune system, and difficulty regulating body temperature.

There are two types of iron:

  • Heme iron, which is found in animal products like meat and seafood.
  • Non-heme iron, which is from plants.

Non-heme iron doesn’t get absorbed as well, so people who eat a vegetarian or vegan diets need to consume almost twice the recommended amount of iron as people who eat meat. Also, women need more than twice the amount of iron than men, and pregnant women need even more!

The best way to make sure you’re getting enough iron is to include a good source of iron at each meal and snack. Other than the small amount of iron in a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin, it’s important not to take an iron supplement unless you’ve received a diagnosis of iron deficiency and have spoken to your doctor.

You can find iron in a variety of plant foods. Some of the staples in my diet include:

  • Dried apricots, tomato paste, and greens (for instance: spinach, kale, and beet greens)
  • Oatmeal, bran, and iron-fortified cereal
  • Edamame, tofu, lentils, beans, chickpeas, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and tahini
  • Blackstrap molasses

If you’re trying to increase your iron intake, it’s important to squeeze in extra iron wherever you can:

  • Sprinkle savoury dishes with sesame seeds.
  • Use peanut butter and tahini to create a sauce or dressing.
  • Use blackstrap molasses in place of some of the maple syrup or honey in baking.
  • Include a variety of fruits and vegetables with each meal.
  • Use onions and garlic frequently in your cooking. Onions and garlic can increase absorption of iron.
  • Vitamin C also increases the absorption of iron.

There are many factors (other than intake of dietary iron) that can affect your iron levels. If you have questions about how much iron you should be consuming or if you think you might be iron deficient, speak with your doctor or a Registered Dietitian.

Sarah Anstey

About Sarah Anstey

Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Sarah moved to Prince George in 2013 to pursue her career as a Registered Dietitian. Since then, she has enjoyed developing her skills as a Clinical Dietitian with Northern Health, doing her part to help the people of northern B.C. live healthy and happy lives. Sarah looks at her move to Prince George as an opportunity to travel and explore a part of Canada that is new to her, taking in all that B.C. has to offer.

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Northern Table: About those “meaty” veggie burgers…

A hand holds a meaty-looking plant-based burger.

“Meaty” veggie burgers are offered at many popular restaurants and are made by a variety of food companies.

I’ve never really liked veggie burgers. You know the ones I’m talking about? They typically consist of a mixture of mashed vegetables and beans. They can be soggy, lacking in flavour, and leave you wanting more. That’s why I was excited and intrigued to see the recent rise in popularity of the “meaty” veggie burger. These patties are manufactured by a variety of food companies and offered at many popular restaurants. They’re meant to look and taste like meat and appeal to the masses, not just to vegans.

As a plant-based eater, I was very excited to see this trend gaining popularity. I was glad to have more appealing options to choose from when on a road trip or invited to a friend’s house for a BBQ. However, as a dietitian, I’m frequently asked what I think about these new burger options and if a processed veggie patty is really healthier than a less processed meat patty.

The answer can be complicated.

We know a whole food, plant-based diet is healthier for our bodies than a diet rich in animal products. No, this doesn’t mean you have to be vegan. Instead, the new Canada’s Food Guide emphasizes the importance of choosing plant-based protein sources more often.

So, does that mean these new veggie burgers are healthier than their beef counterparts? Not necessarily.

Most patties are heavily processed and contain added salt, oil, and other preservatives to keep them fresh and give them that meaty look and taste. They may contain peas, lentils, or soy, but they’re not considered “whole foods,” which is what Canada’s Food Guide recommends.

From an environmental standpoint, veggie burgers are likely a better choice. Recent studies show that veggie burgers use less land and water, and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions during their production.

It’s always difficult to say if a particular food item is healthy or not. If you ask a dietitian, they’ll often answer: “it depends.” Keep these points in mind when choosing the right option for you:

  • Are you looking to make changes in your diet to reduce your environmental impact or are you making changes in other areas of your life?
  • What tastes best to you? What will you enjoy most?
  • What options are available to you in your area?
  • How frequently are you choosing processed foods, prepared outside of the home?

Remember, cooking at home with whole foods is always a healthy choice! So, I’ll wrap up by challenging you to learn how to cook and prepare a plant-based protein for you and your family this week. And feel free to tell me how it went in the comments!

Whichever patty you choose, enjoy it!

Sarah Anstey

About Sarah Anstey

Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Sarah moved to Prince George in 2013 to pursue her career as a Registered Dietitian. Since then, she has enjoyed developing her skills as a Clinical Dietitian with Northern Health, doing her part to help the people of northern B.C. live healthy and happy lives. Sarah looks at her move to Prince George as an opportunity to travel and explore a part of Canada that is new to her, taking in all that B.C. has to offer.

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