Plant-based Eating for a Healthier Planet

Happy Earth Day! What lifestyle changes are you making to help save our planet? You might be walking instead of driving to run errands or refashioning and recycling your house decors rather than trashing them. There is no change that is too small to make a difference in our environment!

The earth friendly changes I made consciously this past year include eating more plant-based food and reducing plastic bottles beyond disposable water bottles – think food containers and body care packaging. Eating more plant-based is not only better for the earth but it’s better for the body. Shifting to a plant-based diet contributes greatly to the reduction of greenhouse-gas emission. According to an Oxford University study, people who eat more than 0.1 kg (3.5 oz) of meat per day—about the size of a hamburger patty—generate 7.2 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) each day, while vegetarians and vegans generate 3.8 kg and 2.9 kg of CO2e, respectively. That means you can reduce your carbon foot print by more than 50% by eating a meatless meal. Just like any lifestyle change, it’s not easy to switch to a meatless diet overnight. You don’t have to go vegan if that’s not your thing. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Think of it as a sliding scale – the more plants you eat instead of meat the less CO2e is produced – and make that shift gradually!

As I push forward with my quest for a more plant-based diet, I want to share with you some flavorful and interesting ways to incorporate more grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables into every meal.

Have some fun making the shift to a plant-based diet

1. Explore some new plant-based foods

  • Try a new vegetable weekly. Don’t be intimidated just because you haven’t tasted or cooked it before. Check out your weekly farmer’s market for inspiration.
  • Buy fresh and seasonal to add interest and variety to your meals. Avoid processed plant-based food.
  • Experiment with high protein grains such as kamut, quinoa, spelt, teff, millet, and wild rice. They are easier to cook than you think. If you know how to cook rice, you can cook other grains.
Photo by Vie Studio on Pexels.com

2. Discover new seasonings

  • Use chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, and dill to flavor your grains
  • Add nuts and seeds to vegetables and grains for texture and taste.
  • Try spices from around the globe. You can learn a lot about cooking with spices from visiting a spice shop. If you don’t have one near you, try Oaktown Spice Shop (one of my fave) and they will ship your order to your door.
  • Sauce it up with tahini, hummus, sriracha, pesto, etc to heighten the flavor.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

3. Learn new cooking techniques

  • Checkout Instagram and YouTube for cooking demos to learn various cooking techniques.
  • Invest in a couple good cookbooks. One of my favorite cookbook by a fellow dietitian is Vegetable Cookbook for Vegetarians. It’s a perfect book for newcomers to the adventure land of vegetables. There are 200 recipes from artichokes to zucchini so you can be sure to find something new to try!
  • For plant-forward global recipes, I recommend Spicebox Kitchen, a new cookbook released in March, 2021 that throws a healthy twist to traditional recipes, such as whole wheat onion pancakes.

My Cooking Demo – an easy delicious plant-based meal


Vegan Food – Trick or Treat?

Plant-based diet is all the rage but is it healthier for you? There is no argument that eating less animal products is better for your body and for the planet. For years I have been advising the general public, eating a typical North American diet, to reduce meat intake and use meat as a condiment rather than the main focus of their meal. For some, my husband included, it is easier to go cold turkey and avoid meat altogether rather than tease the taste buds and be left feeling unsatisfied. The craving for the flavor of “meat” combined with the desire to go meatless has fueled the surging popularity of meat alternatives in grocery stores and restaurants, including fast food chains.

Trick

The plant-based food space grew 11% between 2018 and 2019 to $4.5 billion in the US which provided more options and also more confusion than ever for consumers. Have you noticed the growing number of plant-based milk, such as soy, almond, cashew, rice, and oat milks, on your grocery shelves? It can certainly be tricky to find vegan foods with the same nutritional profile as the animal products you are replacing. I recently replaced cow’s milk with almond milk and realized that I now only get 12.5% of my usual amount of protein (1 gram of protein in 1 cup of almond milk rather than 8 grams of protein in cow’s milk). That means I need to adjust my diet to eat other high protein foods to make up the deficit. Not easy to do without some nutrition knowledge and meal planning skills!

Plant-based foods designed to replace milk, cheese, and meat often have a lengthy list of ingredients and full of fillers. Have a look at the 18 ingredients in a Beyond Burger: water, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, apple extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, pomegranate fruit powder, and beet juice extract (the beet juice give the burger its meat-like “blood”). Pretty scary! If you are interested in a complete nutritional comparison between a Beyond Burger and a regular burger, check out this article  in Good Housekeeping. It’s clear that plant-based foods can be highly processed and may not be the healthy alternative we think we are eating.

Treat

Eating a vegan or plant-based diet is not just about avoiding animal products or eating meat look-a-likes. It is about eating an abundance of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Now, that’s a treat for your health!!!

Plan the main event of your meal around “meaty” vegetables such as mushrooms, eggplant, and squash.  This will easily increase your daily vegetable servings. Consuming enough fruits and vegetables as part of an overall healthy diet reduces the risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and obesity. The 20152020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults consume 1.5–2.0 cup equivalents of fruits and 2.0–3.0 cups of vegetables per day. These goals are much more attainable on a plant-based diet.

The best vegan food comes in its natural form. Nuts, seeds, and legumes are never processed and provide a signifiant source of protein and fiber. Many research studies have shown that the high fiber content in some nuts and legumes is good for your gut bacteria and provides protection to the gut lining and creates a healthier microbiome. The gut microbiome plays a vital role in helping with digestion and benefiting your immune system and many other aspects of health.

Another great source of plant-based protein is whole grains.  Whole grains have much more fiber, B vitamins, and iron than refined grains. Experiment cooking with some of the high protein grains such as quinoa, spelt, kamut, amaranth and millet, just to name a few. Their names may sound intimidating but they boil a lot like rice – just follow the cooking direction on the package and you can’t go wrong. To maximum your nutrition at each meal, learn to combine grains with legumes for complementary protein.

Meat is not necessary a villain. But in a culture where meat consumption is excessive and climate change is a concern, it is definitely a treat to have the food pendulum swing in favor of vegan food.