spread of many fruits and vegetables

I’m sure that like me, many of you are looking for ways to eat a healthier diet with more nutrient rich foods and encourage your families to do so as well. How can we up the percentage of veg on our plate and lower the amount of meat? Where do we start when considering a more plant-based diet? I have written about this before and now have some updates for you.

There was a talk on plant-based eating at the last NAMS (North American Menopause Society) conference this October, 2021. As it turns out, the more plants and legumes (beans) we eat, the happier our gut biome is. And happy gut bugs reward us by speeding up our metabolism, which is super helpful for those of us over age 40. Yes! It’s true. The universe of beneficial, healthy microbes in your GI system help control your metabolism, and they get sluggish with processed foods, and amped up with more vegetables. You can read more in my blog on the Gut Biome here. 

Interest in vegan and vegetarian eating is increasing, both for health reasons and because people are learning more about sustainable eating, factory farming, and how our diets impact climate change. Jonathan Safran Foer wrote an influential opinion piece in the New York Times in 2020 entitled The End of Meat is Here. Fifty-five percent of respondents in a 2020 Yale University survey reported that they were willing to eat less meat as a way to combat a warming planet.  Wow! Way to get on board with a win/win scenario.

It can be overwhelming to think about completely changing the way you cook and eat. And yet, the best way is to start slowly. Baby steps or in this case, small bites! One approach is to lose the big piece of meat as the centerpiece of your plate. Many ethnic cuisines rely on small additions of meat or fish incorporated into a dish that features more vegetables, beans, or grains as the centerpiece. Think of stir fry, or even a burrito. The meat or seafood is only a small element in a more complex mix of nutrient dense and healthy ingredients. This is a way to reduce your meat intake and get familiar with more plant ingredients and new flavors. Tip: Buy a good chopping knife and get better at slicing and dicing, it can be a satisfying part of cooking. 

New Ingredients and Recipe Ideas to Try

Also, begin by adding elements to your diet before you start taking things out. Start making side dishes that look like they would appeal to you; there are lots of vegan and vegetarian recipe sites with great ideas. Look for whole grain, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and tofu and start keeping them in your pantry or fridge. Ask a friend to send you their favorite meatless recipe. I’m Italian so I gravitate toward olive oil and garlic, but if you like Indian, Thai, or Middle Eastern their recipes and spices will tantalize your taste buds and add new recipes into your mix.

Try these ideas:

  • Tofu, tempeh and seitan: These provide a versatile protein-rich alternative to meat, fish, poultry and eggs in many recipes.
  • Legumes: Foods such as beans, lentils and peas are excellent sources of many nutrients and beneficial plant compounds.
  • I like to make my dips and dressings out of vegetables. There is a popular one now, a green goddess-esque with spinach, nutritional yeast, lemon, garlic, shallot, rice vinegar, and a little avocado oil. 
  • Incorporate more roasted butternut squash, sautéed with onion, zucchini, carrots and peppers a little olive oil, and garlic– a satisfying side dish that is filling and delicious. 
  • Pickled or plain beets, shredded carrots, pumpkin seeds drizzled with olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon. Try a dollop of goat cheese with it.
  • Next time you’re at Costco: pick up the sprouted quinoa salad, jazz it up with pitted kalamata olives and more lemon juice.
  • Dip your carrots in salsa or humus, make more full meal salads, like my garbanzo bean salad. 

My recipe for garbanzo bean salad: 

Mix together:

1 – 2 cans of drained and rinsed chick peas or garbanzo beans 

1 cup of halved cherry tomatoes

½ cup of chopped Italian parsley

1/3 cup pitted and sliced Kalamata olives

1 cup of diced Persian cucumbers

¼ cup finely chopped red onion

3 tablespoons of olive oil

Freshly squeezed lemon juice ½ to 1 lemon

2 minced cloves of garlic

Salt to taste

Options: Add in crumbled feta cheese or halved small mozzarella balls

It’s Not a Contest

No, you don’t have to commit to being a strict vegan in a month. It’s certainly not about being “All or Nothing.” It is about widening the possibilities of what to eat and finding new foods that you really do enjoy. There will be dishes grandma made, or traditional holiday favorites that people find too hard to give up. Let’s label ourselves healthy eaters, not necessarily vegan or vegetarian eaters.  

Vegan Fast Food – Is it Better for You?

The major fast-food companies are paying attention to trends. Franchises from McDonalds and KFC, to Dunkin’ Donuts are developing plant-based versions of their products. Bacon without the oink is being developed by old standbys like Hormel, as well as new players such as Outstanding Foods. Fast food places like Plant Power are opening up in California, New York, and in between.  

Marketers have been using terms like “all-natural,” “free range,” “pesticide free,” and many more, to convince consumers to buy their products. The term “plant-based” is now used as shorthand for super healthy. It is true that a 2016 review found that plant-based diets were generally lower in saturated fat, higher in fiber, and more nutrient dense and therefore linked to a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.

But they were referring to a daily plant-based diet over time, not a single Impossible Burger. Both the Beyond and the Impossible Burgers contain more than 350 milligrams of sodium per four ounces, compared to 75 milligrams in 85 percent lean ground beef. Too much sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke. Breaded and fried plant-based “nuggets” are also high in fat and salt and contain less protein than chicken nuggets. Highly processed food, even vegan, is not associated with good health but with higher risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Whole foods, fresh, colorful vegetables, greens, and fruits are the key. To quote the food and science writer Michael Pollan’s simple advice, “Eat real food, mostly plants, not too much.”

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