Plants on Your Plate

Every year the National Restaurant Association releases its food trends and predictions. This year, there’s a surprising, but welcome, star of the show – vegetables.

No longer meant to be pushed to the side, vegetables are making their way to the center of the plate and eaten as the main course. Choosing plant-based meals has myriad benefits. From naturally lower intake of saturated fats to higher intakes of fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals, the benefits of eating more plants abound.

What’s more, some plants are also a source of protein. Well-known plant-based proteins include legumes and beans such as soy, but others like quinoa or lentils are often overlooked. In fact, plants can provide all of the essential amino acids needed for health. This fact dispels the common myth that vegan and vegetarian diets are lacking in protein. Individuals can meet their protein needs by choosing a variety of plant-based sources of protein throughout the day. Pairing protein sources in one meal is not necessary (such as beans and rice) as research has shown that what counts is the sources of protein throughout the day versus what’s consumed in one meal.

Why Plants?

Eating a plant-based diet is known to not only benefit individual health, but it’s also linked to environmental health. Plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk for chronic disease such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Eating a plant-based diet means choosing foods that are naturally lower in saturated fats and are a source of fiber. Fiber adds bulk to meals which helps to increase fullness and decrease total calories. Additionally, plants-based diets increase the amount of potassium in the diet which has been associated with a lower risk for developing high blood pressure. Plant-based diets are also high in antioxidants known as phytochemicals which aid in the reduction of chronic inflammation and prevention of certain chronic diseases. 

Flexitarian Approach

When adopting a plant-based diet, some may find that flexibility is key. Enter the flexitarian diet. By definition, a flexitarian diet is one that allows some meat and seafood, but is mostly composed of plants. This diet is sometimes referred to as “semi-vegetarian” and may be the ideal way for some people to increase the amount of plants in the diet while simultaneously decreasing total meat intake. A flexitarian day may include a meat-free breakfast and lunch, but a meal including meat at dinner.

When skipping meat, opt for plant-based sources of protein such as:

  • Whole grains, such as quinoa, bulgur, or brown rice.
  • Beans and legumes, such as soybeans (edamame, tofu, tempeh), black beans, chickpeas, or kidney beans.
  • Nuts and seeds, such as peanuts, almonds, chia, sunflower seeds, etc.

Written by Allison Knott, MS, RDN, LDN.

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