Harness the Power of Plants in Your Diet
Sharon Palmer, R.D.
Environmental Nutrition Newsletter
Make way for the plant-based diet, the latest buzzword for an optimal diet that focuses on plants, such as grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, rather than a diet of animal products like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy. Health experts extol the virtues of a plant-based diet as a healthy eating style that can help you fight chronic disease and obesity.
While plant-based diets are not novel, the fact that the trend is catching on is new, according to
The beauty of plant-based eating is that it's flexible--and it doesn't mean that you have to give up animal foods.
Thus, plant-based eating covers a spectrum of eating styles, from a strict vegan diet with no animal products to an omnivorous diet that includes more plant foods.
"Even if you ate vegetarian just one day per week and ate more plant foods overall, you could make a difference," said
Scientists have observed that the "Western diet," the typical dietary pattern in the U.S. that's high in meat, fat, saturated fat and sodium and low in fiber, is linked with an increased risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease. Evidence is mounting that if you include more plant foods in your diet, you gain a plethora of health benefits.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines report a number of advantages associated with vegetarian-style eating patterns, including lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality. Research indicates that plant-based diets reduce the risk of ischemia (restriction of blood supply to an organ,) hypertension, and type 2 diabetes; lower LDL and blood pressure, reduce body mass, and reduce cancer rate.
Why is a plant-based diet so healthy? It makes sense that when you cut back on animal products in favor of more plant foods, you naturally reduce the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you eat. If you're eating more whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts, you're gaining more health-promoting nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Many vitamins and phytonutrients act as antioxidants to protect your body cells against damage. And some phytonutrients go beyond their antioxidant status to provide a specific health bonus, such as plant sterols and isoflavones, that have documented heart health benefits. A diet diverse in a variety of plant foods that contain a range of bioactive compounds offers you the best eating strategy for optimal health.
Plant-based eating is not just good for you and your family; it's also good for Mother Earth. Plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, bread, pasta, and whole grains have a lower impact on the environment than foods such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs, according to an
"Eating one to two vegetarian meals a week is more effective than driving a Prius (hybrid auto) in terms of global warming," reports Nussinow.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH PLANTS
It's not as hard as you think.
Even if you're a meat lover, you can still make positive changes in your diet to emphasize more plant foods.
1. Look at where you are.
Keep a one-week diet record and see how many times you eat meat. If you eat it at every meal, you have room to cut back. Create a personal goal for how many meatless meals you want to eat. Mangels suggests starting out slowly, with one completely plant-based dinner per week. The Meatless Monday (www.meatlessmonday.com) website, filled with tips and recipes, is a great place to start.
2. Change your mindset.
Don't think of meat as the "center of the plate." When planning your menu, start with the vegetable and whole grain component instead of the animal protein. For example, if fresh green beans are in season, why not feature a green bean and tofu stir-fry with brown rice?
3. Use meat as a "flavoring."
You can easily cut down on your animal products intake while emphasizing plants is you use meat as a flavoring instead of the main event. This eating style is the basis of many ethnic dishes, such as curries, stir-fries, stews and pasta dishes that are flavored with a small portion of beef, pork, chicken or fish and a pile of vegetables in order to serve a family-size meal.
4. Start the day "veggie."
Breakfast is one of the easiest places to skip meat, says Mangels. Who needs bacon when you can feast on oatmeal topped with walnuts and berries or buckwheat pecan pancakes with peaches?
5. Get cooking!
Don't be afraid to get creative in the kitchen. "Choose one night a week to experiment," suggest Mangels. Invest in a vegetarian cookbook, dust off your slow cooker to make one-dish bean and vegetable stews, and visit websites like VegetarianpTimes.com for cooking ideas. Try to perfect one easy, "go to" recipe you can fall back on.
6. Try ethnic flair.
Some cultures know how to do vegetarian meals right. Mangels suggests that you visit ethnic restaurants, such as Mexican, Indian, Thai and Vietnamese, and observe how dishes are prepared in order to take home a few culinary tricks.
7. Keep it simple.
Plant-based meals don't have to be complicated; they can be as easy as black bean burritos or meatless chili and cornbread.
8. Convert your favorite dishes.
Trim the meat and load up on the veggies in your favorite dishes. Love pizza? Top it with broccoli, cashews, red onions and basil.
9. Keep it whole.
The "whole" point of a plant-based diet is to reap the nutrition rewards of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Don't pile on refined carbs such as white flour and sugar. Plan every meal around fresh vegetables in season, whole grains like quinoa and bulgar, legumes such as lentils and soy, and fruits.
10. Think "yes".
It's not what you can't have, stresses Mangels. It's what you can have! Take a trip to the produce section of your supermarket or visit a farmer's market and feast your eyes on the rainbow of plant foods available.
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