|By Sharon Palmer, Registered Dietician (RD) and Editor, Environmental Nutrition|
What’s the best diet for optimizing the health and welfare of humans and the environment? It’s becoming increasingly clear that people need to forsake their meat-heavy diets in lieu of more whole plants.Eat more plants. That’s the simple advice coming from everyone’s lips, from best-selling authors like Michael Pollan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For the first time, the nutrition establishment, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and registered dietitians, researchers and academics in the field of nutrition, is in agreement that the diet prescription for optimal health and well-being is one focusing on whole plants. Scientific research is accumulating on the health benefits of a plant-based eating style, which include reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and obesity. Throw in the environmental benefits, such as fewer resources required to produce food, and a plant-based diet seems like the clear winner in the race for defining the optimal diet for today, as well as the future.
Plant-Based Eating on the Rise
Plant-based diets, such as veganism, have grown in popularity thanks to attention from celebrities like Oprah, who requested her staff go vegan for one week on her television show last year; Alicia Silverstone, actress, vegan and author of The Kind Diet; and Ellen Degeneres, the popular talk show host who enthusiastically supports a vegan diet. Yet, plant-based diets are very personal and unique, thus covering a wide range of dietary preferences and observances. The definition of a plant-based diet is one that focuses on plants, which leaves room for a spectrum of choices, including vegan (no animal foods), lacto-ovo vegetarian (no animal flesh but allows for dairy and eggs), pescatarian (no animal flesh except for fish and seafood) and semi-vegetarian (small amounts of animal foods). Adding to the mix is today’s generation of plant-based omnivores – those who aren’t interested in giving up animal foods completely but who recognize the health and environmental advantages of reducing their animal food intake.
Thank the “Meatless Monday” program for fueling the idea that everyone – not just vegetarians – should eat less meat and more plants. Its message is sweet and simple: People and the planet can benefit by eating less meat, so just shun it one day per week. Why not Monday? Countless organizations, restaurants, schools and hospitals have jumped onto the Meatless Monday bandwagon to celebrate this simple concept. While the number of vegans and vegetarians is still relatively low – about 5 percent of U.S. adults are vegetarians and about one-half of those are vegans – 16 percent now report eating no animal flesh at more than one-half of their meals, according to a recent Vegetarian Resource Group poll.
Plants Provide Optimal Health for Humans
Getting back to one’s roots by eating more whole plants in their natural form has a multitude of benefits for humans. Since the beginning of time, people have enjoyed a unique relationship with the plants that nourish surround them. From the first time our early ancestors plucked wild seeds, grasses, herbs, grains
Plants developed thousands of phytochemicals, like flavonoids and phenols, often concentrating them in the colorful outer skins of their fruits. These compounds provided a self-defense system that ensured the species survived the test of time. Today, scientists know that humans have a symbiotic relationship with the plants that nurtured them throughout the millennia. People plucked their fruits, feasted on their nourishing properties and spit out their seeds, thus helping the plant to propagate and survive. This simple act helped to ensure the survival of both humans and plants, but people received something else in the bargain besides sheer calories to fuel their bodies. All those defensive compounds in the plants seem to confer similar properties to humans when they eat them.
It’s only been in the last few decades that scientists have begun to understand how the thousands of bioactive compounds found in plants, from resveratrol in grape skins to anthocyanins in blueberries, protect health. These compounds, which are often the pigment responsible for the plant’s brilliant color, offer a range of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and unique therapeutic benefits. Both oxidative stress, the damaging effects of free radicals on body cells, and chronic inflammation, when the body’s natural defense mechanism is triggered and doesn’t “shut off,” are at the root of today’s chronic disease killers, such as cancer and heart disease.
Indeed, study after study has linked consuming plant foods – rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties – with lower disease risk. And beyond that, particular plants and plant compounds have special activities. For example, lutein and zeaxanthin, found in yellow and orange vegetables like corn and orange peppers, protect against advanced macular degeneration, the number one cause of age-related blindness in older people. And tomatoes, rich in the ruby red pigment lycopene, show promise in the prevention of prostate cancer.
It’s important to note that the benefits found in plant foods are related to eating the whole food in its unique, complex form – fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and all. A synergy is found among all these nutrients in plant foods. When the nutrients are isolated and consumed individually in the form of
Quechua woman sells vegetables
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