Plant-Based Diet Supports Good Health

Even if you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, eating more plants may benefit your health, say experts

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Many Americans don’t eat enough whole fruits, vegetables and grains. According to the Centers For Disease Control & Prevention’s Trends in Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Among Adults, New Yorkers’ fruit and vegetable consumption has decreased.

From 2000 to 2009 (the most recent statistics the CDC offers on the topic), the percent of adults 18 and older who eat fruit two or more times a day plunged from 38.9 to 40.7.

Those who eat vegetables three or more times a day decreased from 27.7 percent to 24.7 percent.

Even if you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, eating more plants may benefit your health.

“They help you reduce your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, lower risk of cancer, improve your immune system with vitamins and minerals, and ultimately, they can create weight loss,” said. Christina Ganzon, a registered dietitian with Finger Lakes Health.

Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals and are naturally low in calories. Preparation methods such as frying add calories, as does flavoring with butter or sugar. Whole fruits and vegetables also provide fiber.

While it’s easy to get stuck in a food jag and eat the same fruits and vegetables over and over, Ganzon advises patients to “eat the rainbow” so they consume a variety of produce to consume a wide spectrum of nutrients.

Eating a plant-based diet carries a few caveats. Most people ramping up their plant intake find that they’re eating a lot more fiber than normal. Ganzon said that drinking enough water can help the bowels work better.

She said that some people switching to a plant-based diet find they’re hungry sooner than when they ate more meat; however, eating nuts, beans and seeds can help them with satiety and increase their intake of protein, another challenge to focusing on produce. For people not eating vegan, cheese and eggs can help maintain sufficient protein intake. Soy-based protein powder and other sources of soy can help with protein intake.

Limiting meat intake makes it harder to get B vitamins; however, dark, leafy greens such as spinach can provide these and supplementation can also help. There are also pre-mixed vegan protein shakes that offer a fantastic tasting source of vegan protein powder you can buy.

While eating vegetarian or vegan sounds like it deserves a halo of healthfulness, it’s possible to eat a very unhealthful diet that’s technically vegetarian or vegan. For example, French fries made with vegetable oil are vegan, but not nutritious.

Some people choose vegetarian or vegan foods that are highly processed. Some of these foods contain lots of sugar, such as soy-based protein bars that are little better than candy bars.

“It is easy to gain weight if you reach for processed foods that are vegetarian,” Ganzon said. “More important than a plant-based diet is one-ingredient foods that aren’t processed.”

Stephanie Frackenpohl, assistant manager at Lori’s Natural Foods Center in Rochester and 11-year vegan, said that eating foods as close to their natural state is the best way to go. To make this easier, she cuts up raw vegetables ahead of time, among other food preparation steps that enable her to grab food-to-go during a busy week.

She likes to add vegetables to a fruit smoothies, make a meal out of a vegetable stir-fry, and use cauliflower in place of rice.

Frackenpohl encourages clients to increase their vegetable intake by incorporating a “Meatless Monday” into their week, snacking on vegetables instead of processed foods, and trying new vegetables.

Peruse the produce section as well as frozen foods case to find veggies and fruits you haven’t tried. Whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, popcorn, whole oats offer more nutrition than highly processed grains such as white flour.

Cindy Fiege, certified herbalist, Nature’s Sunshine certified In.Form coach and owner of Harmony Health Store, LLC, in Spencerport, likes making a plant-based protein shake with the best electric protein shaker in the morning to eat more protein. Lunch is a salad full of crunchy vegetables. Vegetables predominate at dinner, too.

“Focus more on half your plate to be filled with vegetables, one-quarter with protein and one-quarter a carbohydrate, like brown rice,” Fiege said. “Hippocrates said, ‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.’ How true is that?”