The benefits of a plant-based diet: A physician couple shares insights

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About two years into their relationship, then pescatarian Dr. Olivia Brooks became interested in following a plant-based diet. As she was the main cook at the time, her then omnivorous partner, Dr. Matt Brooks, became vegan by default. That was about 10 years ago when the couple were in med school in Ontario.

“In the first month or so, we would have cheat days when we would get sushi, but once you start to think about animals as sentient beings, you lose the taste for meat pretty quickly,” said Olivia.

The environmental impacts of meat consumption and animal husbandry were the main drivers for Olivia giving up meat and dairy. Matt has a congenital heart problem, so his health was his original reason for adopting the diet to optimize his cardiovascular fitness. Environmental implications came more to the forefront of his mind as he learned more about climate change and started a family.

“There’s a dwindling opportunity to turn things around; that’s a big component for why I continue to follow a plant-based diet,” said Matt.

Challenges to following a plant-based diet

The greatest challenge the couple have encountered has been the social ramifications.

“When my parents found out about it, their reaction was ‘what are we going to do for Christmas dinner?’!” said Matt. “I had to tell them I could still be at Christmas dinner, and I could still eat things.”

Learning how to cook plant-based meals can be challenging, the couple noted, but also fun as you learn ways to integrate different ingredients and try different recipes and flavours.

Olivia also noted that the culture in Ontario where they lived at the time was not as open to vegan meals  and options as here on the West coast. She found there was more planning needed to find suitable meals away from home.

Common misconceptions

“People often wonder how we get enough iron and protein,” said Olivia. “People traditionally associate these with meat, but there are so many great plant-based sources. Beans and tofu can be incorporated easily.”

“I often hear people say that just by being vegan you’re automatically healthy,” added Matt. “There are many vegan options that aren’t necessarily healthy, like Oreos. You still have to be mindful of what you’re consuming.”

A professional standpoint

Among other positions, Olivia is a family and addiction medicine physician on the Downtown Eastside, while Matt is a general internist who works at VGH and St. Paul’s.

“There’s evidence for choosing a plant-based diet in prevention and management of some chronic health conditions,” said Olivia. “That perspective does weigh in a little bit.”

“I’ll see patients who are pre-diabetic or women in the gestational diabetes range, and a lot of people with lifestyle illnesses,” said Matt. “I reference them to alternative diets that promote better cardiovascular health. Plant-based diets is one of the options I offer, but I don’t say it’s the only one. I do try to tell patients to reduce their consumption of animal products.”

Getting started

“I would tell people that it’s easier than you think to follow a plant-based diet,” said Olivia. “And it can feel good to feel like you’re doing something good for the planet. Also, it’s a relatively simple thing to do. Three times a day, I’m helping reduce my carbon footprint.”

“Sometimes doing gradual transitions makes it easier to adapt to change,” suggested Matt. “Swapping out your dairy milk for soy milk, for instance. Gradually incorporating dietary changes makes the transition easier. This can be especially helpful if you’re living with someone who is hesitant or with picky kids.”

“In the beginning, we got a cookbook with simple ingredients, mostly stuff we already had in the pantry, and every week I picked a few recipes,” remembered Olivia. “You learn the recipes you like and then build your repertoire. That made the goal more achievable.”

To get you going, Olivia and Matt have shared two recipes that you can find on our recipe collection webpage. After the first time they tried their mushroom and leek risotto, they made it multiple times in a week. It’s a solid crowd pleaser that non-vegans always enjoy. Their spicy peanut noodle recipe is one they recommend for days when you are on call. It’s fast and easy and good.

“It’s important that we revisit our day-to-day routines and look for easy ways to incorporate habits that are beneficial to our planet,” concluded Matt. “Dietary changes are something we have immediate control over. As people who are treating patients and looking after loved ones, we make every effort to be compassionate and to help them improve their lives. Following a plant-based diet is an extension of that.”

Get involved!

We’re hungry for more plant-based recipes. If you have one (or more!) that you would like to share, please submit it here.

We’re also looking for more VPSA members who follow a plant-based diet to profile. If you’re interested, please send us an email.

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