Even if you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, eating more plants can benefit your health
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Many Americans don’t eat enough whole fruits, vegetables and grains. Actually, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s Trends in Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Among Adults, New Yorkers’ fruit and vegetable consumption has decreased.
From 2000 to 2009 (the most recent statistics the CDC offers on the topic), the percent of adults 18 and older who eat fruit two or more times a day plunged from 40.7 to 38.9 percent.
Those who eat vegetables three or more times a day decreased from 27.7 percent to 24.7 percent.
Even if you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, eating more plants may benefit your health, according to several local experts.
“Stick with whole foods, fruits and vegetables,” said Shauna Burke, personal trainer at Pacific Health Club in Liverpool. “I like to say, ‘The greener, the better.’”
Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals and are naturally low in calories. Preparation methods such as frying add calories, as does flavoring with butter or sugar. Whole fruits and vegetables also provide fiber.
Eating more produce offers direct benefits, according to Susan Branning, registered dietitian and clinical nutrition manager at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center.
“Studies have found that plant-based diets can have numerous health benefits, including lower levels of obesity — lower body mass index, lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease, lower LDL levels, and lower rates of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain cancers,” Branning said. “Vegetarians tend to consume fewer calories, fewer saturated fats, and more fiber than non-vegetarians.”
While it’s easy to get stuck in a food jag and eat the same fruits and vegetables over and over, it’s more healthful to consume a variety of produce to consume a wide spectrum of nutrients.
Vicki VanSlyke of Syracuse began eating a whole plant-based, vegan diet March 20, basically to promote better health. She has cut out all meat, dairy, refined sugars and has cut back on oil.
So far, she has lost over 30 pounds and her cholesterol has dropped about 20 points. She has Type 2 diabetes. Her A1C test which measures her blood sugar level decreased from 9.0 to 7.3 in three months. Health care providers use the A1C test for managing diabetes.
She has been able to quit taking several of her prescription medications.
VanSlyke said that removing off-limits foods from the home makes it easier to stick with a healthful eating plan. Cooking with new recipes and finding new, healthful foods makes the transition easier.
“Also remember that it’s an adjustment and you may not feel well the first couple of week —but stick with it, it gets easier,” VanSlyke said.
In addition to measurable results, she said that she feels healthier than ever, sleeps better and experiences greater energy. Her chronic pain disappeared.
While eating vegetarian or vegan sounds like it deserves a halo of healthfulness, it’s possible to eat a very unhealthful diet that’s technically vegetarian or vegan. For example, French fries made with vegetable oil are vegan, but not nutritious.
Some people choose vegetarian or vegan foods that are highly processed. Some of these foods contain lots of sugar, such as soy-based protein bars that are little better than candy bars.
VanSlyke reads labels to find sugar and fat content. She tries to buy foods that contain five or fewer ingredients.
Learning how to grocery shop for and cook healthful foods makes it easier to incorporate more vegetables and fruits.
“The key is to remember that it’s not only what we limit in our diet that can contribute to health, but it’s also what we include in our diet,” Branning said.
Some people switching to a plant-based diet find they’re hungry sooner than when they ate more meat; however, eating nuts, beans and seeds can help them with satiety and increase their intake of protein–another challenge to focusing on produce. For people not eating vegan, cheese and eggs can help maintain sufficient protein intake.
Branning said that plant-based proteins, except soy and quinoa, lack a few of the nine essential amino acids the body requires. Eating “complementary proteins” throughout the day provides them, such as grains and seeds/nuts; grains and legumes; and legumes and seeds/nuts.
Limiting meat intake makes it harder to get B vitamins; however, dark, leafy greens such as spinach can provide these and supplementation can also help.
“It’s possible to get adequate amounts of the above nutrients from a plant-based diet, but it can also be a challenge,” Branning said.
She recommends considering supplementation, especially B12, for people who eat a 100-percent plant-based diet and calcium for those who don’t consume dairy.