July 2, 2021

Plant-Based Eating, and how animal foods fit

President's Blog
Margaret Hudson
President, Burnbrae Farms
4th Generation Farmer

I’ve been an advocate for healthy, balanced diets for many years, and love learning about how our eating habits affect our health. My plate is always filled with a bounty of vegetables, some delicious whole grains, and a good source of protein. And, I’ve eaten this way long before it became the model of healthy eating on Canada’s Food Guide plate .

The science behind Canada’s Food Guide includes studies that show how a healthy diet can help prevent chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer. A balanced eating plan needs to include enough vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre to protect your health.

According to the Food Guide, a healthy plate is made up in the following proportions:

- Half the plate is from vegetables or fruit (plants)
- A quarter of the plate comes from whole grains (plants)
- A quarter of the plate comes from protein-rich foods, which may be from plants (beans, tofu) or from animals (eggs, dairy, meat, fish and poultry)

As you can see from the proportions, about ¾ of the plate comes from plants (vegetables, fruit and whole grains), which is the platform behind “plant-based eating.” The final quarter of the plate – the protein portion – can come from plant or animal-based foods. And there is science to support both!

Being plant-based doesn’t mean you have to skip animal foods altogether. According to Harvard dietitian Katherine D McManus, a plant-based diet “doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat or dairy. Rather, you are proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources.” And we do that naturally just by following the Food Guide, where ¾ of the plate is plants!

Some plant-based diets carry the risk of inadequate protein, vitamin, and mineral intake, especially when they are not well-planned. It turns out that there are nutrients found in animal-based foods that are not as abundant in plants , such as:

- Choline in eggs
- Iron and zinc in meat
- DHA omega-3 fats in fish
- Vitamin B12 in animal-based foods

The best diet includes a wide variety of foods so that you meet all your nutrient needs.

Food for thought

Animal-based foods can play very important roles in the diet. There have been some recent studies that show that diets are BETTER when they include some animal products. One study showed that antioxidants including vitamin E are better absorbed from vegetables when they are paired with eggs, and another study showed the same result for carotenoid antioxidants.

An observational study showed that the rates of stroke were 20% higher among vegetarians, but this pattern was not observed in pescatarians (vegetarians who include fish in their diet).

It’s also important to note that many plant-based proteins do not contain a complete amino acid profile, which means they are not “complete” proteins. Animal-based foods, such as eggs, poultry, meat and fish are complete protein. Scientists frequently use eggs as a standard for measuring the protein quality of other foods. Protein is measured based on the rate of efficiency that it’s used for growth. At 97.3 percent, eggs score higher than any other food and are considered the gold standard for high quality protein.

Finally, it’s important to note that there is a difference between whole plant-based foods (vegetables, beans, grains) and ultra-processed plant-based foods (potato chips, veggie burger or plant-substitute  liquid ‘eggs’).

The Food Guide advocates for more whole foods and fewer processed foods, whether they are plant-based or not. But too many people see “plant-based” as a health halo and mistakenly think anything made from plants – even if it’s been highly processed – is nutritious. That’s just not the case.

Let’s compare liquid whole eggs with a vegan liquid ‘egg’ option. Egg Creations! Whole Eggs Original are made with only eggs and salt. Vegan ‘eggs’ are made from mung bean protein, oil, gums, colour, salt, potassium citrate, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, sugar and preservatives. Not exactly what we think of as “plant-based.” Eggs are also higher in protein, vitamin A, iron, choline, and antioxidants compared to the plant-based version.

Finally, while advocates say that plant-based eating is better for the environment, not all experts agree.

In fact, overall egg production is quite environmentally friendly – and comparable to growing plants! In fact, farming eggs uses less water and land space than farming many plants.

Some researchers believe that the environmental and greenhouse gas impact of livestock has been massively overstated, while the use of fossil fuels for transportation has largely been played down (even though it is undoubtedly the biggest contributor to GHG emissions). Plus, animal farmers have taken huge strides to improve practices and make their work more environmentally friendly.

If the topic of environmental sustainability interests you, check out the Canada documentary Guardians of the Grasslands , which details the role that cattle play in preserving our ecosystem, and read more in Why the vegan diet is not always green and Vegan shouldn’t be the last word in sustainability .

Margaret Hudson,

President, Burnbrae Farms