By Monique Richard MS, RDN, LDN
It’s time for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ annual National Nutrition Month® celebration, and the theme for 2017 is “Put Your Best Fork Forward,” reminding us that using this tool wisely and concisely can yield some positive changes to our health and habits. One small change at a time, like actively choosing what is picked up by our fork and put into our mouths, can lead to larger, more meaningful and positive changes over time.
It’s time to STOP going ‘on a diet’ and start thinking about your diet as overall choices you make for your health at every meal, every day. What does that look like and consist of? What can you do to incorporate more goodness into your diet? Do you know what foods are healthy, nutritious, and beneficial for you in your current state of health? The majority of my patients and clients need more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins, and water. When you incorporate these changes according to your individual needs (as advised by your registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and physician), the changes begin to happen almost immediately—more energy, weight management (loss or gain), blood glucose control, better systemic functions, more sound sleep, less stress, radiant skin, and so much more . . . things you may not even be able to see or tangibly measure but can feel.
Is there something in your diet that is in excess? Something that if you do not get larger portions of, you feel slighted or crave? Soft drinks, candy, chocolate, alcohol, pies/cakes/cookies, meat, fried foods, chips/crackers, ice cream? Is there room for improvements and increased opportunity to include more fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fermented foods (such as kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi), healthy fats (avocadoes, olives, hummus, plant oils), beans, legumes, or lentils? Have you thought about doing a meatless Monday or taking it all the way to a plant-based diet? What changes could you make today that would influence a better tomorrow for you (as well as the planet, the animals)?
The Power of a Plant-Based Diet
The evidenced-based research on the impact a vegetarian or plant-based diet can have on individual and environmental health cannot be refuted. Physicians have seen coronary artery disease reversed, lab markers for diabetes significantly altered, and medications for high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes reduced or eliminated entirely. Plant-based diet expert Brenda Davis, RDN stated beautifully that, “The science is complicated (regarding health, nutrition and metabolic pathways), but the solution is simple. The research on the power and positive health outcomes of a whole foods, plant-based diet has been around for years and years, but if we don’t give our patients and clients the option to go that route, the answer will automatically be a ‘no.’” Davis, a key player in a major diabetes intervention research project in Majuro, Marshall Islands and co-author of nine books, has seen first-hand the dramatic changes on an entire population implementing a plant-based diet.
Let’s see what that looks like and dispel some, often incorrect, perceptions. Plant-based diets can be healthy and adequate for all ages, if done correctly. Children and adolescents’ age groups are no exception. The amount of calories each person needs as well as percentage in each macronutrient category (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) is essential to making sure needs are met. Next, micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) and fluid needs also should be assessed and met.
Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat
The first question I usually get asked regarding a plant-based diet is, “How do you get enough protein and from what source?” Vegetarians and vegans can easily meet their protein needs. Most Americans consume two to three times the protein that they need daily; if the body isn’t using it and runs out of storage space, eventually the protein will be broken down and can be stored as fat. Too much protein can also cause the kidneys to be overworked and the byproducts of protein metabolism can be harmful in excess, not something you want to mess with (that especially goes for the gym-goers, who consume whey protein shakes and extra servings of everything protein, thinking it will build muscle faster; please see a sports dietitian ASAP).
Instead of protein from animal sources like chicken, turkey, eggs, or beef, it can come from legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), soybean products like tofu or tempeh, vegetables, quinoa, and seitan, as well as nuts and seeds. The legumes and beans are nutritional “powerhouses,” as they contain many essential vitamins and minerals and fiber, are satisfying, and are very easy on the purse strings.
Carbohydrates come from fruits, vegetables (although some have more than others, vegetables are a carbohydrate), and whole grains (brown rice, oats, whole wheat/rye/oat breads, ancient grains, and bulgur). Healthy fats like those in olives, canola, sunflower, olive oil, nuts and nut butters, and avocadoes are very important to our diets; keeping it to a minimum and not going overboard is the focus.
Remember though, just because a vegetarian swears off hamburgers and pepperoni pizza doesn’t mean potato chips and cheese pizza are healthier or more nutritious, even though they are meat-free. Getting a variety of these macronutrients in the right amount from whole foods is key to getting all the necessary nutrients.
Vitamins and Minerals of Concern
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium and Vitamin D are very important for everyone. Bone density is determined in adolescence and young adulthood, and Vitamin D and calcium help build strong bones and support growing bodies. Therefore, including good sources of calcium in our diet every day is necessary. Good sources of calcium include: tofu made with calcium sulfate (refer to the label), figs, beans, tahini (sesame butter), green leafy vegetables (collard greens, mustard greens, and kale), and calcium-fortified soymilk, ready-to-eat cereals, and orange juice, which are often fortified with Vitamin D, as well. Vitamin D is also made in the skin from sunlight—just 15-20 minutes of natural sunlight exposure is sufficient. A good supplement is also an option.
If you continue eating eggs and low-fat dairy products (a lacto-ovo-vegetarian, lacto-meaning milk, ovo-meaning eggs), Vitamin B12 should not be of concern, as you should be getting the required amount. Good sources include Vitamin B12-fortified foods—nutritional yeast, soymilk, meat analogs, or ready-to-eat cereals. Be sure to read the labels. If you decide to be a vegan (no animal products), however, then a Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) supplement is recommended, of no more than 100 percent of the Daily Value.
Iron carries oxygen in the blood and is important in cell growth. Sources rich in this mineral for vegetarians and vegans include iron-fortified breakfast cereals, spinach, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, turnip greens, molasses, whole wheat breads, peas, and some dried fruits (dried apricots, prunes, raisins). Soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and cooking beans, grains, and seeds can lower phytate levels, which may block iron absorption. Also pairing these foods with vitamin C, such as citrus, and vegetables can increase iron absorption.
Zinc contributes to a properly functioning immune system but is also involved in many other metabolic and systemic reactions. Zinc can be found in many types of beans (white beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas), fortified breakfast cereals, soy products, wheat germ, and pumpkin seeds. Milk products are a zinc source for lacto-vegetarians.
There are a variety of reasons an individual chooses to follow a plant-based diet or become a vegetarian. From refusing to contribute to factory farming practices, staving off heart disease or related health problems, to helping contribute to a more sustainable and “green” environment, as well as religious practices, to taste and tolerance preferences. No matter the reason for choosing a plant-based diet, it can be a healthy, beneficial, and enjoyable choice for you, your family, and all ages alike.
Whatever small changes you decide to do for the sake of health and improving your nutrition, remember a registered dietitian nutritionist can always help you put your best fork forward.
Check out these trusted websites and resources:
• The Vegetarian Resource Group – www.vrg.org
• Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine on vegan diets www.pcrm.org