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 38.9 to 40.7.
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.
“I see a lot of patients nutritionally and I encourage them to increase their vegetable intake,” said Tara Richards, physician assistant and nutrition consultant with UBMD Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in Cheektowaga. “We’re not getting a good amount of nutrition. We have obese people who are malnourished and thin people who are malnourished.”
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.
While it’s easy to get stuck in a food jag and eat the same fruits and vegetables over and over, Richards advises patients to start eating more of the vegetables they like and then adding more so they consume a variety of produce to consume a wide spectrum of nutrients.
“Have a big salad loaded up with greens and vegetables,” Richards said. “Make a conscious effort to get a veggie in each meal. The whole base of your diet should be vegetables.”
Learning how to grocery shop and cook makes it easier to incorporate more vegetables and fruits.
Eating a plant-based diet carries a few caveats. Most people ramping up their plant intake find that they’re eating a lot more fiber than normal; however, drinking enough water can help the bowels work better.
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. Soy-based protein powder and other sources of soy can help with protein intake.
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.
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.
Erin Burch, registered dietitian nutritionist owner of Erin Burch Nutrition, with a master’s degree in exercise health promotion, said that instead of replacing meat with unhealthful foods, people reducing their meat intake should compensate for those calories with nuts, seeds and other healthful sources of protein.
“Get those vegetables high in iron, like leafy greens,” she said. “Use whole grains to get the most nutrient dense foods.”
She likes to fit more veggies in her diet by snacking on them or including them in other dishes such as omelets. She also serves a few different veggies at dinner.
“Veggies are the most colorful thing on the plate,” Burch added. “The more you get in, the more appetizing your meal looks.”
For convenience, pre-cut or frozen veggies and fruits can make serving more produce easier.