We’re continuing our four-part series on evidence-based nutritional guidelines with something near and dear to my heart: adopting a plant-forward diet. Before you stop reading, I’m not talking about becoming a vegetarian or a vegan (unless you want to, which is great). You don’t have to be either to enjoy the benefits of a “plant forward” diet. And the really great news? Eating less meat is also by far the most influential thing most of us can do for the planet.
#2. Eat mostly plants.
There is a mountain of evidence linking healthy, plant-based diets with lower rates of obesity, lower incidence of chronic disease (diabetes, heart disease), lower rates of death as a result of heart disease, and lower blood pressure (a risk factor for heart disease). Common health concerns related to plant-based diets—mainly that they don’t contain enough protein or iron—can be easily overcome, as can some of the less-common concerns around vitamin B12, calcium, and fatty acids.
So, what is a plant-based diet? Again, the key here is not (necessarily) being vegetarian—commonly considered to be a diet that excludes meat, seafood and poultry but includes eggs and dairy products—or vegan, which excludes all animal products. Instead, it’s emphasizing a wide variety of whole-food (unprocessed) plants, including vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds and small quantities of nuts with or without lean meats, fish, poultry and seafood.
Here are some ideas to get started:
Stop making meat the center of the meal.
You can use it as more of a garnish and highlight veggies and whole grains. For example, instead of a large steak with a little broccoli on the side, make a stir fry with broccoli, peppers, onions, mushrooms, and small amounts of flavorful chicken served over a whole grain, such as brown rice, quinoa, or farro. Look to world cuisines to help guide you on adding herbs and spices to make veggies more delicious.
Soups are such a great way to make an easy meal with minimal dishes and infinite varieties that incorporate lots of veggies, high fiber proteins, such as legumes or beans, and whole grains, such as whole wheat pasta. This is a great way to use leftovers from other meals and save money. A simple formula for a soup is to sauté some onion and celery in olive oil, add other veggies (your options are without limit), beans or legumes, and whole wheat pasta (my kids love orzo), plus herbs, spices and broth. Top with high-quality cheese and a drizzle of olive oil and serve with delicious whole grain bread. Soup leftovers are a favorite to take in lunches for my whole family.
Hide fruits and veggies in your smoothie.
Sometimes kids are not as enthusiastic about veggies as we would like them to be. If you make a great smoothie and add spinach or avocado (really, you don’t taste the avo, and it makes the smoothie creamy and decadent) they will never know. A simple formula for a nourishing smoothie is a protein source (plain Greek yogurt or silken tofu are easy options), 1-2 fruits (frozen is a good option here and helps with a frothy texture), a vegetable (handful of spinach frozen or fresh), a nut or soy milk base, and a little flax or hemp seeds for added fiber and protein. Avoid using fruit juice as a base to keep the sugar content lower, but if your kids need a little more sweetness, try honey or a splash of fruit juice. A friend of mine recommends chopping extra leafy greens (kale, spinach, etc.) up pretty fine, put the chopped greens in an ice tray, and then filling the tray with water and freezing. You can throw a couple of those green cubes in a smoothie easily over time. Smoothies are a great breakfast or after-school snack.
Whether you and your family find veggies delicious or need a little convincing, evidence shows that making them the cornerstone of your meals in place of meat is good for your health. Remember, try one or two realistic, concrete ways of making progress until they are second nature.
Be sure to read the other posts in our series to learn more ways to build healthy nutritional habits: