Much Ado about Veggies

June 11, 2013 in Foodland, Health, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

Elite athletes have traditionally focused upon large servings of animal protein, but even athletes trying to improve their performance are discovering plant-based diets. Is this move toward plants a signal for the rest of us? What’s going on? What are the athletes discovering? Why take a second look at veggies?

A study published on line ahead of print in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Michael J. Orlich, M.D. and his colleagues at Loma Linda University examined the death rates of a group of more than 70,000 Seventh-day Adventists. The participants divided into five categories of dietary patterns were assessed: nonvegetarians, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, and vegan. The adjusted hazard ratio outcome is that the vegetarian diets are associated with lower all-cause mortality. Pesco-vegetarians, (includes fish) 0.81; vegans hazard ratio .85; lacto-ovo-vegetarians (dairy and eggs) .91; semi-vegetarians 0.92 – compared with non-vegetarians at .95. So this study found the vegetarians that included fish had the best (lowest) hazard ratio.

What we can learn from this study is that a plant-based diet could improve health outcomes, especially when associated with eating fish as well. The findings are added to a growing body of evidence that vegetarians typically have less type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.

Another study that came from the University of Oxford, Francesca L. Crowe and her colleagues looked at data from a heart-study of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC).  In essence their observational study found that eating just one or more serving of fruits or vegetables daily cut the risk of dying from heart disease by 4%. But in people who ate eight or more daily portions the risk of heart disease was decreased by 22%, compared with those who ate only two or fewer daily portions of fruits and vegetables. Unlike the JAMA study, this study was not looking at vegetarians.

A third study, that came from the CDC, conducted by Chaoyang Li, MD, PhD and colleagues, of the CDC’s Division of Behavioral Surveillance, examined the blood levels of alpha-carotene and death rates from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They may have found one of the explanations of the two studies above. They discovered that people with the highest alpha-carotene in their blood were 39% less likely to die from all causes. Of course hundreds of carotenes, including alpha carotene are found in plants.

Because the JAMA study is epidemiological, it doesn’t prove that a vegetarian diet is a healthier choice. But as I’ve said in the past, I don’t think that we should wait to evaluate our diet decisions until science proves that there is either some significant ingredient in plant products or something in meat that is causing less health. We now have such a big body of evidence that we are either foolish or doing wishful thinking not to act on it.

The issue of vegetable intake is not a new problem. JAMA recently published an article that was originally published 100 years ago. The article quoted and cited Henry T. Finck as having said that “villainous and idiotic” are the adjectives that describe our methods of cooking vegetables. The assistant editor Jennifer Reiling who wrote the hundred year old article, also said that our people have a “contempt for the culinary art, as if it were beneath notice, or decadent.” She ends her article with the admonition to “pay proper attention to the flavor of food.”

I continue to believe that a large segment of our population does not realize how important including vegetables in the diet is to health; and second, and maybe even more importantly don’t know how to prepare vegetables so that they are delicious. At a minimum, it would be nice if those trying to prepare vegetables can go beyond believing that their cooked veggies really don’t have to look like a pile of over-cooked grey peas to be safe, or done.

Just making a flavorful dip can increase the acceptance of vegetables by 33% for preschoolers as shown in a recent study published in the Academy Nutrition and Dietetics Journal (formerly ADA). The most important goal with children is to get them to try the vegetables. How much they eat is not the prime goal. I’ve told the following story before:

My little story: When my children were young about 35 years ago, I was worried about them learning to eat vegetables. Their father did not like vegetables, so I felt that I had a valid concern. I would not introduce new vegetables at the dinner table, because I felt if their father rejected the vegetables, they would too. So I remember making myself a big plate of steamed vegetables (I am lucky that I grew up eating and liking vegetables.) All I did was put some frozen vegetables in the microwave. The children already had their lunch. But they would come over and ask what I was eating. I said that I was eating my lunch. Then invariably they would ask if they could have a bite. I shared – they all love vegetables. I never had a struggle with vegetables – lucky me.

The goal is that children learn to see themselves as venturesome people willing to try many different vegetables, cooked different ways. They learn to trust themselves to like some more and others less. Then they can build a healthy diet around their own choices as they grow up.

Whether it is you or your children (or both) who need to learn about vegetables; and especially, how to prepare them so they are yummy, it will probably take effort and attention. The evidence is overwhelming that making some changes and moving toward plant-based eating will certainly be worth that effort.