The newly released 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans highlight vegetarian eating patterns, including vegan diets, lacto-ovo vegetarian diets, and diets that include small amounts of meat, poultry, and seafood. The guidelines state, “In prospective studies of adults, compared to non-vegetarian eating patterns, vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes—lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality. Several clinical trials have documented that vegetarian eating patterns lower blood pressure. On average, vegetarians consume a lower proportion of calories from fat (particularly saturated fatty acids); fewer overall calories; and more fiber, potassium, and vitamin C than do non-vegetarians. Vegetarians generally have a lower body mass index. These characteristics and other lifestyle factors associated with a vegetarian diet may contribute to the positive health outcomes that have been identified among vegetarians.”

Plant-based diets are even linked with environmental benefits. According to an October 2010 scientific report from the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, foods at the base of the food pyramid, such as fruits, vegetables, bread, pasta, and whole grains, have a lower impact on the environment, while foods such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs have a greater impact.

Although the term “plant-based diet” has not been officially defined and is often considered to be vegetarian, the DGAC (Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee) calls the plant-based diet one “that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.” It’s a manner of eating that allows animal food sources to give way to more plant food sources. Thus, it might have different meanings to different people. Clinton’s plant-based diet features primarily legumes, vegetables, and fruit. He even switches out dairy for almond milk. For others, following a plant-based diet might be a more gradual process of including more plant foods and shifting away from the traditional Western diet that is high in meat, fat, saturated fat, and sodium and low in fiber.

It’s a simple idea that doesn’t require complicated instructions to promote good health—people just eat more whole, unprocessed foods that come directly from plants.

Results of an evidence-based review showed that plant-based diets reduced the risk of ischemia, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes; lowered LDL and blood pressure; reduced body mass; and reduced overall cancer rate. Risk of chronic disease is reduced due to decreased intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, and increased intake of vegetables with more fiber and phytochemicals, nuts, and soy proteins.  A review of the scientific literature showed plant-based meal plans are an acceptable and effective strategy educators can use to improve diabetes management and lower the risk of complications from the condition.


Tips for Encouraging a Dietary Shift

1. Start slowly. For people who eat animal protein three times per day, starting to choose more plant proteins represents a monumental shift in behavior. You may choose to eat vegetarian one night a week to experiment. The Meatless Monday program offers recipes and cooking tips.  People can eat one meatless meal or go meatless all day.

2. Rethink breakfast. Why do you need to eat meat at breakfast?  Eat a vegetarian meal in the morning. With so many breakfast foods from which to choose, such as oatmeal and other whole grain choices, whole grain breads and quick breads, fruits, nuts and nut butters, and even vegetables—baked tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, and sautéed asparagus—people don’t have to rely on meat at every breakfast.

3. Change your mindset. It takes a real shift in thinking to start planning your meals around grains, fruits, and vegetables instead of meat.  You can have something like hummus as a plant-based food at a meal or snack. People can even cut down on the amount of meat they consume at one meal by taking one individual portion of meat or chicken and using it to flavor an entire family-size meal of stir-fry, casserole, or stew. Meat does not need to be the center of the plate at every meal.

4. Make it simple and delicious. There’s a common misperception about the vegetarian diet: It’s laborious, complicated, and bland. Try dishes like lentil soup or vegetarian chili (both recipes are here on my website). People think that they can’t go meatless because they think that they have to eat a nut loaf. But it can be simple and delicious. People can easily convert their favorite dishes—from lasagna and tacos to spaghetti and chow mein—into vegetarian family favorites. You can replace chicken with black-eyed peas or eat bean burritos; it’s pretty painless.

5. Invest in a good vegetarian cookbook. Our experts stress the importance of owning at least one good, simple vegetarian cookbook. A cookbook can give home cooks valuable ideas for putting together simple, delicious meals.   There are also numerous vegetarian recipes and ideas here on the site.

Rely on cookbooks to identify dishes that you can easily make meatless. Try a new recipe every week.

6. Get inspiration from restaurants. Order vegetarian meals at your favorite restaurants and then try to reproduce them at home.  Turn to ethnic restaurants to find inspiration for preparing delicious vegetarian meals at home. From Indian to Thai, delicious vegetarian dishes may be found in nearly every ethnic cuisine.

If you see a good salad bar at a restaurant, duplicate the ideas at home.

7. Think positive. Instead of thinking about all of the things you can’t have at a vegetarian meal, think of all the things you can have: a rainbow of delicious fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Pile up your plate with lots of servings of these delicious plant foods.

8. Make one dish go a long way. One way to make vegetarian cooking simple and delicious is to rely on more one-dish meals. Try chili, stews, casseroles, stir-fries, and pasta dishes filled with whole grains, legumes, tofu, and vegetables. A Crock-Pot is a great addition to a plant-based eating style.

9. Transition from “fake” to “real.” A typical assumption is that the only way to navigate plant-based eating is to pop a soy-based meat substitute in the microwave at each meal. But one look at the ingredients label will give people a clue as to how highly processed these products can be. However, these products can serve their purpose.

When you’re shifting from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet, people often go through a processed food period, where they eat ‘fake’ meats such as soy-based meat substitutes. The goal is to eat ‘real’ food, but if it works as an in-between stage to get people away from a meat-based diet, then people should do it.

Source:  Sharon Palmer, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 13 No. 5 P. 16