The Power of Plants

By Sharon Palmer, RD

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 Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, nutrition advisor of the Vegetarian Resource Group. She says, “More people are interested in plant-based eating; it goes along with the movement to eat more locally grown vegetables and fruits and the availability of plant-based cookbooks.”

Plant Foods Add Health Benefits to Any Diet

The beauty of plant-based eating is that it’s flexible – and it doesn’t mean that you have to give up animal foods. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, tasked to look at the body of nutrition science in order to make recommendations for the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, defines a plant-based diet as a diet that “emphasizes plant 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 Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, a vegetarian food expert, at a presentation on plant-based eating at the California Dietetic Association Conference in Pasadena, CA on April 28, 2011.

Plant-based benefits
Scientists have observed that the “Western diet,” the typical dietary pattern in the U.S. that is 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 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 overall 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 whole plant foods, you naturally reduce the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you eat. And 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 October 2010 scientific report from the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition in which researchers conducted an environmental impact assessment on foods in the Food Pyramid. “Eating one to two vegetarian meals a week is more effective than driving a Prius [hybrid car] 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. Here are 10 simple steps for making a plant shift in your diet.

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 that you might want to start 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 way to get started.

2. Change your mindset. Don’t think of meat as the “center of the plate.” When you’re planning your menu, start with the vegetable and whole grain components 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 if you use meat as a flavoring instead of as 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 ways 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,” suggests Mangels. Invest in a vegetarian cookbook, dust off your slow cooker to make one-dish bean and vegetable stews, and visit websites like VegetarianTimes.com for cooking ideas. Try to perfect one easy “go to” recipe that you can fall back on.
6. Keep it simple. Plant-based meals don’t have to be complicated. It can be as easy as black bean burritos or meatless chili and cornbread.

7. Try ethnic flair. Some cultures know how to do vegetarian meals right. Mangels suggests that you visit ethnic restaurants such as Mexican, Indian, Thai or Vietnamese and observe how dishes are prepared in order to take home a few culinary tricks.

8. Convert your favorite dishes. Trim the meat and load up 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 up on refined carbs such as white flour and sugar. Plan every meal around fresh vegetables in season, whole grains like quinoa and bulgur, legumes such as lentils and soy as well as 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 farmers market and feast your eyes on the rainbow of plant foods.

Sharon Palmer, RD is a Registered Dietitian and writer covering health, wellness, nutrition, cooking, wine, restaurant reviews and entertainment. She is passionate about environmental issues, eco-friendly culinary practices, sustainability, food safety, humane animal practices and food security.

Sharon’s features have been published in a variety of publications, including Better Homes and Gardens, Prevention, Oxygen, LA Times, Cooking Smart, Delicious Living, Food Product Design, Today’s Dietitian, and Culinology. She has contributed to several books, including “Food & Cultural Issues for the Culinary, Hospitality and Nutrition Professions.”

Her new book, “The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today,” is now available on amazon.com. For more information, please visit http://www.sharonpalmer.com.

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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