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As a dietitian in private practice, I was hard-pressed to meet a vegan or would-be vegan 20 years ago. That's not no longer the case. More and more, I am asked to craft plant-based vegetarian meal plans for clients.

It's hard to say how many Canadians are vegan today. As of 2003, 4 per cent of the population said they followed a vegetarian diet, although not necessarily a vegan one.

The prevalence of vegetarianism has undoubtedly increased over the past decade. And many more people are moving in this direction by cutting red meat from their diet.

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A vegan diet is the strictest form of vegetarianism. While a vegetarian might pour milk on cereal or eat cookies made with eggs and butter, a vegan avoids all animal products including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, even honey.

The motivation to adopt such a hard-core diet varies. Some do it for ethical reasons, not wanting to harm animals for human consumption.

Others like the fact a vegan diet is better for the environment than one based on meat. Large-scale meat production is thought to contribute as much as 22 per cent of greenhouse gases in the world each year.

The health benefits are a draw as well. A vegan diet has been shown to improve blood sugar in people with diabetes, lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and blood pressure, and promote weight loss. It may even help prevent colon cancer and heart disease.

Many people became interested when former U.S. president Bill Clinton drew international attention to veganism crediting his weight loss to a plant-based diet.

But perhaps more people are considering veganism because the diet is easier to follow than it used to be. Vegan soups, frozen entrees, energy bars, protein powders, even breads are available in mainstream grocery stores. And a growing number of restaurants are devoted to vegan fare.

Vegan cookbooks are proliferating too. So much so there are vegan cookbooks devoted entirely to slow-cooker meals and vegan entertaining.

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Even so, a vegan diet isn't for everyone. Some people find it lacking variety and can't stick with it. Others complain it takes too much planning and prep work.

A vegan diet isn't necessarily a healthy one. You can't just replace animal protein foods like meat and chicken with brown rice, pasta or vegetables.

The key to a healthy vegan diet is variety. If you're considering becoming a vegan, the following tips will help you adopt a meal plan that includes adequate protein, carbohydrate, fibre, vitamins and minerals. You might also think about consulting with a dietitian to ensure your diet is balanced and complete.

Protein

Vegans get protein from lentils, beans (e.g. chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, soy beans), tofu, tempeh, seitan (a protein made from wheat), soy beverages, nuts and seeds. Whole grains and vegetables also supply some protein. Rice, almond and oat beverages are low in protein.

Vegans can easily meet daily protein requirements providing their calorie intake is adequate. If calorie needs aren't met, some protein from the diet will be used for energy rather than muscle repair and making body proteins such enzymes and immune compounds.

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With the exception of soy beans, vegetarian proteins are missing, or low in, one or more essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Essential amino acids must come from food because the body can't make them on its own.

It was once thought vegans needed to pair certain protein foods together at meals to form a complete protein. It's now understood that as long as a variety of protein foods are eaten over the course of the day, protein combining is not necessary. Include at least one protein-rich food at each meal.

Vitamin B12

Naturally-occurring only in animal products, vegans need to include three servings of B12-fortified foods in their daily diet. One serving equals: fortified plant beverages (1/2 cup), nutritional yeast (1 tablespoon), fortified breakfast cereal (30 grams), or fortified soy products (42 g).

To ensure B12 needs are met, take a B12 supplement or multivitamin with 5 to 10 micrograms of B12.

Vitamin D

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Children and adults require 600 IU (international units) of vitamin D daily; at age 70 requirements increase to 800 IU. Some people may require more vitamin Dto maintain a sufficient blood level.

Food sources in the vegan diet include fortified plant beverages and orange juice (1 cup provides 100 IU).

To meet vitamin D needs, a supplement is required. Most multivitamins contain 400 IU vitamin D. Separate vitamin D supplements may be needed. Choose vitamin D3 over D2 as it's the more active form. The safe daily upper limit is 4,000 IU.

Calcium

Good food sources include fortified plant beverages and juice, tofu made with calcium sulphate, beans, cooked green leafy vegetables (kale, collards, Swiss chard, spinach), cooked broccoli, almonds, tahini, and blackstrap molasses.

To meet daily calcium requirements, a supplement may be required.

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Iron

Vegetarians require almost twice as much iron than meat-eaters each day since the body absorbs iron from plant foods less efficiently. Good sources include beans, lentils, nuts, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, breakfast cereals (non-sugary)and dried fruit.

Iron absorption can be increased by eating plant foods with vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruit, strawberries, red pepper and tomato juice.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Women need 1,100 milligrams of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) per day and men require 1600 milligrams.

The best food sources of this omega-3 fat include ground flaxseed (2 tablespoons has2400 mg), flax oil (1 teaspoon has2,400 mg), walnuts (7 halves have 1,280 mg), and soybeans (1/2 cup has 514mg). Soy beverages fortified with ALA provide about 300 mg per 1 cup serving.

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Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian, is the national director of nutrition for Body Science Centers, medical clinics focusing on healthy aging ( www.BSC5.com ).

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