Ideas for Increasing Plant-based Menus

December 25, 2012 in Diabetes Management, Foodland Chronicles, General, Health Claims, Mediterranean, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

In the October issue of the Nutrition Action Health Letter the cover story is: Going Organic What’s the payoff? In the story Charles Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University is quoted as saying: The single most important diet change you can make is to eat more fruits and vegetables and less bad fat, added sugar, and highly processed foods. The second most important thing is to seek out organic fruits and vegetables. If you’re already past the first step, you may be interested in reading the comprehensive article on organic products, but if your still on step one, maybe some of the information below will serve as a resource to consider more plant-based foods, get motivated or work on making it a reality in your life.

The last point of last week’s blog – Avoiding the Train Wreck, discussed a plant-based diet as an area where we can make an important impact on our health. Just in case you’re considering increasing plant foods in your diet during the coming year, I wish to share some information and ideas for healthy implementation of a plant-based eating style.

Although the focus of this blog is on the health benefits and how to implement a diet with more plant foods, there is a side effect: the environmental impact. The carbon footprint of lamb, beef, pork and cheese has a very large force. Even when you merely begin, but with seriousness, to replace red meats and cheese with fish, chicken, milk, and eggs, you have taken a step of benefit to the environment as well as to your own health.

To begin with, remember that you don’t need to become a vegan (strict vegetarian, who eats no animal products at all) to benefit from increasing the ratio of plant-based foods to animal based foods in your diet. A trend was identified in research done by a Santa Ana, California advertizing company, the Values Institute at DGWB. The rise of ‘flexitarians’ was listed as one of the five top health trends in 2012. A “Flexitarian” is one who consciously reduces their meat intake for health and environmental reasons but still occasionally enjoys animal protein. This research was done to help companies make informed projections, but it can also serve as a suggestion to individuals.  Those of us who are striving to eat a diet higher in plant-based foods can learn that we are not alone.

There are so many studies that point us in the direction of improved health by moving toward plant-based diets. Today I’m not going to list lots of studies, but I’ll just list one related to the decreased risk of type 2 diabetes. It is a Harvard review reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in 2011. In a meta-analysis of more than 442,000 subjects, the researchers found that just swapping one serving of nuts every day for red meat decreased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 21%; and substituting whole grains reduced the risk by 23%. These are impressive reductions for a relatively small effort. You only have to cut back on red meat and substitute it with nuts or whole grains – but not with refined carbohydrates.

Because advertisers make nutritionally impoverished refined foods sound Soooo Healthy, I need to make it clear what I’m assuming that when I write about plants, you know that I’m thinking of healthy, whole, minimally-processed foods – I’m not thinking of impoverished cookies, crackers, cereals made with processed flour. Refining takes out the fiber and a large number of important nutrients, and adds a few artificial vitamins, and too much sugar, and salt. I am thinking of increasing whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

Because plant proteins are frequently missing some of the essential amino acids, people often think that plants are not good protein sources. But that is essentially incorrect. Some plant foods are an excellent source of a certain spectrum of amino acids and other plant foods contain what is often called the complementary amino acids. What you get when you eat both types of protein sources is a complete protein. It used to be thought that you need to eat the complementary amino acids at the same meal, but that has been shown through research not to be the case. We commonly consider a 24-hour period to be an adequate time range for consumption of a variety of protein sources. During this time, our incredible bodies will cleverly put the amino acids together into just those proteins our bodies needs.

In order to eat a more plant-based diet you are not restricted to eating tofu, soymilk and meat analogues. Certainly they can be healthy choices, but some people get scared away from trying a plant-based meal, because they’ve had a negative experience with tofu that wasn’t flavored enough. Some people just don’t like the texture. That’s where Loma Linda University’s Vegetarian Food Pyramid comes to the rescue. It’s a really nice graphic to help you see ways to ‘make it happen’ if your goal is to move toward a diet higher in plants.

You probably already know that beans and rice, both plant foods, together provide all the amino acids to make complete proteins. But if you look at the pyramid a little more carefully, you begin to discover that tofu and other soy products are naturally in the beans/legumes group, so there’s a plethora of combinations. But the point that I want you to discover here is that just eating ordinary plant foods, you can get enough protein without eating tofu, if that doesn’t work for you.

If you’re making your family’s favorite winter chili dish, and you decide that you are not going to add the burger or meat chunks, you may realize that you’ve always served your chili and beans with cornbread or biscuits, and thus, have the full spectrum of amino acids to deliver a complete protein. Since we’re using a chili example, one hint is to add a can of pumpkin puree to the chili, which makes a nice thick base, while you increase the nutritional profile even though you can’t taste the pumpkin. It can be that easy! This concept of combining complementary plant foods could be a chapter in a book, but on your own, what you will discover is that the options are vast. If you really want to be sure that each meal delivers all the amino acids, you can go to Self Nutrition Data; scroll down just a little way. See a purpley-blue fan labeled ‘protein quality’? At the bottom of that section you can click on a link to show you pairs of foods with the complementary profile.

The chart shows foods from both animal sources and plant sources. If you already know the rule that animal proteins have all the amino acids and you’re going to use an animal food in any menu, you don’t really need to worry about the lack of a certain amino acid. But the chart is still good, because you can discover that if you’re using mushrooms, in this example, just by adding grains, nuts or seeds you have rounded out your amino acid profile and now have all the necessary amino acids available for building healthy tissue

So oatmeal with a few sliced almonds, or a glass of milk, may not be bacon and eggs, but it can supply a complete complement of amino acids. A peanut butter sandwich is certainly a classic example (bread – a grain; and peanut butter – a legume).

Doing a plant-based meal or trying out a plant-based day is really not that difficult. Some of the foods that you presently eat are possibly already in your pantry. These ready-at-hand foods offer a good place to start. Also, know that you can feel perfectly comfortable in feeding your child this way too – plant-based foods are perfect for children and will support health and growth.

In addition to the Loma Linda Vegetarian Pyramid, another pyramid that may be helpful is the Oldways Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. It puts all the plant-based foods in one category. What I like about it is that nicely illustrates that the bulk of our eating should be chosen from the large group.

A third pyramid is actually a double pyramid developed by Barilla, the maker of pasta and pasta sauces. In just a glance, it illustrates the reverse impact on the environment and a recommended consumption pyramid. Don’t forget that the new, MyPlate is ¾ filled with plant foods; or you may prefer Harvard’s version with a little more information and no milk.

The Environmental Working Group has published some fine materials that can really help the consumer see the difference between eating a plant-based diet and a heavily animal-based diet. They do a nice job equating what eating one less burger per week; one less steak a week, etc. will mean to the climate/environment – don’t miss this section, if you need a little motivation.

Next week, I’ll share a few practical hints to continue on with the goal of moving toward a plant-based diet. Good Luck, good nutrition during the holiday season and remember Good Health Can Be Yummy.