An Optimal Plant-Powered Eating Style
By Sharon Palmer, RD
Even Oprah had a week of going vegan on her show. The concept of a plant-based diet is definitely catching on. Plant-based diets got another shout out from the scholarly experts of The Dietary Guidelines in 2010. The Dietary Guidelines reported that vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes, including lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, and lower total mortality. These positive health outcomes are likely due to the fact that the average vegetarian consumes fewer calories from fat (particularly saturated fat), fewer overall calories, and more fiber, potassium, and vitamin C than do non-vegetarians.
While health is a definite motivator for transitioning to a plant-based diet for many individuals, other factors come into play, such as reducing animal suffering and lowering one's eco-impact. Italian researchers that evaluated the effects of various dietary patterns on the environment discovered that a conventionally farmed diet that includes meat has the greatest environmental impact. And the diet with the least impact on the environmental? You guessed it. An organic vegan diet.
While this may not be news to us, the Internet and mainstream media is rife with misperceptions and inaccurate information surrounding vegetarian and vegan diets. While there seems to be no doubt that plant-based diets can promote optimal health (while also reducing your carbon footprint) they don't guarantee perfect nutrition.
It's possible to crowd out other essential nutrients in plant-based diets to make room for junk foods, such as snacks, sweets, baked goods, and sweetened beverages. The benefits of a plant-based diet come from choosing an abundance of whole, minimally processed foods, including legumes, soy foods, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables.
It's essential for current vegetarians and vegans to pave the way for those transitioning to a more plant-based way of eating. Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, Nutrition Advisor of The Vegetarian Resource Group urges, "Anything we can do to get this conversation started to help people eat a more plant-based diet with more whole foods that are lower on the food chain--more whole grains, fruits, vegetables."
In planning appropriate vegetarian and vegan meals, a few key nutrients and micronutrients merit consideration.
Protein: It's a widespread misconception that it's difficult to get enough protein from plant foods. We now know that it's very simple to achieve an adequate intake of protein and obtain all essential amino acids from plant-based sources. Legumes, soy, nuts and seeds are your best bets for protein--but whole grains and veggies contain protein too!
Calcium: Three servings per day of calcium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, almonds and broccoli should help you reach your daily calcium goal. You can also add calcium-fortified foods such as tofu, orange juice, or plant-based milk alternatives to the mix.
Vitamin D: Unless you're drinking vitamin D fortified milk, it could be difficult to meet your vitamin D requirements (600mg/day for 1 to 70 years of age). The solution? Sit in the sun for about ten minutes a day and drink vitamin-D-fortified beverages such as soy milk and orange juice. You may also want to consider taking a supplement.
Vitamin B12: The only vegetarian sources of vitamin B12 are some nutritional yeasts and fortified products, such as cereal and soy milk. It's recommended that you double check the label to see how much you're getting per serving; but since vitamin B12 deficiency can result in anemia and nerve damage, most experts recommend that all vegans or near vegans receive a daily vitamin B12 supplement.
Iron and Zinc: If you're eating a diet rich in a variety of whole grains, legumes, green vegetables, and nuts, you should be just fine in consuming adequate levels of these nutrients.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA are well known for their health benefits. Vegetarian sources of omega-3s come in the form of the short-chain omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, which can be found in walnuts and flax. ALA is only modestly converted into EPA and DPA so it may be beneficial to consider taking a vegan EPA + DHA supplement, which is derived from marine algae--where fish get their omega-3s in the first place. Another barrier to the vegetarian lifestyle is the mindset often associated with preparing meat-free meals. There's a common misconception that vegetarian meals are complicated and laborious to prepare, and often end with a bland-tasting result. But, gone are the days when vegetarian eating was about as hip and tasty as munching on alfalfa sprouts and granola.
Vegetarian meals have come a long way. Encourage others to start with their favorite dishes, from lasagna and tacos to spaghetti and chow mein. They can easily be converted into vegetarian family favorites. If you want another delicious vegetarian recommendation try this Southwest Black Bean Quinoa Salad from The Plant-Powered Diet.
Southwestern Black Bean, Quinoa and Mango Salad
The jewel-like black beans shine in this crunchy, zesty salad. Serve it with corn tortillas and vegetable soup for an easy, refreshing meal.
Yield: 6 servings (about 1 cup (240 ml) each)
1 cup (240 ml) cooked quinoa (according to package directions)
1 cup (240 ml) frozen corn
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup (240 ml) chopped fresh mango
1/4 cup (60 ml) chopped red onion
1/2 cup (120 ml) fresh cilantro, chopped (or 2 tsp dried if not available)
1 small fresh jalepeno pepper, seeded, finely diced
1 lemon, juiced
1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
Nutrition Information per Serving: