Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Enter the Era of Plant-Based Eating

So long Atkins! A diet full of flora is the new craze.

sharon palmer

Photo: courtesy of Sharon Palmer

Sharon Palmer is a Registered Dietitian and freelance writer.

Welcome to a new era of eating, an era where low-fat and low-carb trends have been replaced by an emphasis on plant-based meals.

A New Way To Eat

Plenty of studies have led to one simple conclusion: The healthiest diet on the planet is a plant-based one. And why shouldn’t it be? Whole plants typically contain less calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium than animal products do. At the same time they’re full of all sorts of good stuff like slow-release carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals and a host of phytochemcials.

Additionally, a diet less focused on meat and more focused on plants can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. This is because animals make inefficient “food production machines,” using up lots of feed, water and fossil fuels to turn plants into muscle and fat. To produce one calorie from beef requires 40 calories of fossil fuels, whereas producing one calorie from grains requires 2.2 calories of fuel.

close up fish eye cow nose

Photo: Dave Wild (Flickr)

It takes a lot of water, feed and fossil fuels to sustain livestock.

At its core, a plant-based diet emphasizes whole plant foods, such as beans, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds. This ultimately leads to a dietary pattern rich of plant proteins, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and healthy fats.

One of the greatest perks about a plant-based diet is that it can be tailored to your own individual preferences and observances. To some, it may mean a strict vegan diet that includes no animal products. For others, it might take the form of an omnivorous diet that includes more plant foods.

Plant Proteins

It’s a widespread misconception that it’s difficult to get enough protein from plant foods. You can thank the low-carb, high-protein diet craze for that.

But whether you’re eating corn, quinoa, chickpeas, squash, peanuts or avocados, you’re taking in protein; and certain plant foods, such as legumes and nuts, are particularly rich sources.

Not only are plant proteins more than capable of meeting your protein requirements, they are also packed with other beneficial nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and phytochemcials and very little of the “bad stuff,” like saturated fat and sodium. Plant-based proteins may be one of the main reasons that vegetarians enjoy a longer lifespan, healthier weight and lower risk of disease.

macro mixed nuts

Photo: s58y (Flickr)

Concerned about protein intake? Grab a handful of nuts!

Here are three easy ways to include more plant proteins in your diet:

  1. Fall in love with legumes. Stock your pantry with a variety of canned beans such as chickpeas, adzuki, kidney, black, cannellini and pinto beans to add a protein jolt to your menu.
  2. Embrace soy, the superfood. Include up to three servings of soy per day by choosing soy products in their least processed forms such as whole soybeans, edamame, tofu, tempeh and soy milk.
  3. Get a little nutty. Eat a handful of nuts a day — about 1 to 2 ounces — such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pine nuts, cashews, macadamias, brazil nuts, pecans and hazelnuts to gain a plethora of health benefits.

Whole Grains

The secret of a plant-based diet that leads to weight loss, better health and longevity lies in healthy plant carbohydrates such as those found in whole grains. By including whole grains in your everyday diet, you reduce your risk of stroke and heart disease, and you decrease your chance of developing type 2 diabetes. Other benefits include increased satiety (or fullness), better weight maintenance and lower risk of asthma.

golden stalks of wheat bending under their own weight

Photo: zharcos (Flickr)

It's okay to eat grains. Just try to choose whole grains.

When we think of whole grains, we typically think of wheat — but don’t stop there! Enjoy your grains with diversity in mind by selecting from the following whole grains:

  • amaranth
  • barley
  • brown rice
  • buckwheat
  • bulgar
  • millet
  • oats
  • quinoa
  • wild rice

Shoot for at least half of your whole grain servings in their natural, intact form.

Vegetables

Vegetables are at the core of a plant-powered diet. When it comes to a food group that gives you the most nutritional bang for your calorie buck, it’s vegetables. They are the epitome of a nutrient-rich food.

While there’s no such thing as a bad vegetable, there are some veggies that deserve a special mention for their health benefits, including mushrooms, tomatoes, dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables and sea vegetables. These nutrient-dense vegetables have been linked to an array of health benefits ranging from anticancer and immune-enhancing activities to lowering inflammation and improving cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

sunny leeks and onions on table

Photo: Natalie Rae Good (the veganette)

Head to the produce aisle, stock up and stir-fry.

Here are some of the best ways to boost your veggie intake:

  1. Put vegetable stir-fry on the menu once a week. Sauté cabbage, broccoli, celery, snow peas, bell peppers, carrots, onions and/or mushrooms with tofu or nuts and your favorite spices. Serve with brown rice or whole grains like wheat berries.
  2. Include a garden salad or broth-based vegetable soup at every dinner.
  3. Make a big pot of vegetable soup and freeze in individual containers for a quick, microwavable lunch.

Fruit

Nothing can quite beat the intoxicating aroma of a perfectly sweet strawberry, fresh from the garden or a roadside stand. But fruits are more than nature’s desserts. There’s a reason for the phrase, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Every time you take a bite into a piece of fruit, you send a flood of powerful nutrients into your body, all of which aid in the fight against disease.

Your local farmers market is where fruits really happen. Grab that canvas bag, walk down the aisles, and let the kaleidoscope of vibrant colors and melange of earthy aromas wash over you.

Apricots in the sun

Photo: Natalie Rae Good (the veganette)

Good and good for you.

Healthy Fat

It wasn’t long ago when everyone was afraid of fats. They were blamed for the increase in our waistlines, as well as for the increase in rates of cancer and heart disease.

Now we know that it’s not so much the amount of total fat you consume but rather the type of fat. Healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids found in plant foods like nuts, seeds, avocados and olives lower your blood lipids, which actually decrease your risk for heart disease.

The moral of the story: Make peace with fats, especially the healthy plant-based ones.

Here’s why these fats are essential for normal health:

  1. They can help you absorb certain vitamins and phytochemcials more easily.
  2. They can increase your sense of fullness at meals, therefore promoting a more stable weight.
  3. They lower your risk for heart disease

Your plant-powered recommendation? Turn to whole plant fats such as nuts, seeds, and avocados first, and turn to olive oil as your preferred cooking and preparation fat.

More: Read more about a plant-based diet in Sharon Palmer’s The Plant-Powered Diet.

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