For many, the idea of moving to a flexible dieting program like counting macro’s can be a little daunting especially if you’ve been used to following restrictive diets like low carb, for example. The focus is on protein and not much else. While this nutrient is certainly important for muscle growth, we also need to look at other foods like plant based foods to get a wide range of other nutrients that we can’t get from animal foods.
What are plant-based foods?
Any food that comes from the ground is considered a plant-based food. This includes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (such as wheat, barley, rye, quinoa), herbs, spices, beans and legumes.
Why are they important?
It’s these foods that have been found to lower our risk of diseases such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, macular degeneration and cancer. These are just a few to say the least.
What makes these foods so special? The unique anti-inflammatory and protective mechanism is due to the phytochemicals and antioxidants present in the plants.
Phytochemicals help protect our body from damage caused by inflammation. The inflammatory chemicals we put in our body come from things like processed foods, excess sugar, smoking, and radiation. In short, they fight disease from the inside out. There are over 10,000 phytochemicals to date and this number continues to grow as the research grows. Some well know phytochemicals are lycopene in tomatoes, isoflavones in soy, beta-carotene in carrots, and polyphenols in tea and grapes.
Antioxidants are phytochemicals but also vitamins and other nutrients that help protect the body from the damaging effects of free radicals (molecules that can damage healthy cells). Herbs with the highest antioxidant levels include oregano, sage, clove, allspice and cinnamon. Some well know antioxidants are lutein in red peppers and corn, vitamins A (beta carotene), C and E.
Phytochemicals and antioxidants are what provide most plant foods with their unique colors. In addition, fruits, vegetables and whole grains are high in fiber – another disease fighting compound that many of us are lacking. Fiber is great at helping to keep us fuller for longer – a bonus for those trying to control/lose weight.
How much to eat?
General recommendations are to aim for 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. A serving is ½ cup 100% fruit/vegetable juice; ½ cup cooked vegetables; a medium size piece of fruit; ¼ cup dried fruit or ½ cup cooked beans.
Of particular interest
Divided into their categories, a few plant foods listed here tested a little higher in antioxidants than some others, although all are important contributors to your diet:
Spices: cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin
Herbs: oregano, parsley, basil, sage, rosemary
Fruits: acai, cranberries, elderberries, blackberries, prunes, plums, pomegranate
Vegetables/Other Plants: garlic, ginger, artichokes, kale, aloe vera
Beans/Legumes: cocoa powder, black beans, kidney beans, green lentils
Here are 10 easy tips to get the most from your diet:
- Include at least a serving of fruits/vegetables with each meal and 1 with each snack. If you eat at least 3 meals and 2 snacks daily, you will have reached your goal (If you need to watch your carbs, go for low carb veggies)
- Juicing or buying 100% fruit/vegetable juices is a great way to boost your phytochemical levels. Just be careful to limit your intake to no more than 2 (4oz.) servings per day as too much can provide excess sugar and juices often lack the all-important fiber.
- Drink fresh brewed tea instead of iced/bottled tea. Allow your tea bag or loose tea to steep in boiling water for at least 3-5 minutes to maximize its antioxidant potential.
- Buy or borrow vegetarian cookbooks (just listen…). This will give you so many ideas on how to incorporate plant foods into your diet in fun and different ways. After a while, salads and steamed veggies can get boring – and yes, you can always add some meat/fish to the dish!
- Experiment with a variety of spices and herbs for a true boost in phytochemicals. Add a pinch of cinnamon to your morning oats or ½ teaspoon of turmeric to your chili. Use cilantro in your Mexican meals or tear up some fresh basil with your pasta.
- Go with convenience. Buy no chop veggies such as baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, or pre cut celery sticks to encourage you to snack healthily during the day.
- Substitute ranch dressing for hummus for a more nutritious dip. Or make your own dips using yogurt, garlic and herbs/spices for a low fat, less processed, version!
- Dark leafy greens such as spinach and romaine lettuce have much more vitamins and antioxidants than iceberg lettuce. Make an easy switch for a big boost.
- Swear to eat the fruit, the whole fruit! Don’t waste any part of a fruit or vegetable. For example, many of us discard the albedo, or the white part of citrus fruits. An extremely nutrient rich piece that should not be missed. We also throw away broccoli stalks and leaves eating only the florets (heads). These parts of the vegetable contain fiber and phytochemicals. Save your money and your nutrients by eating every piece nature gave.
- Remember eating clean means eating less processed – Eat as close to the ground as possible and you can’t go wrong. (Oh, don’t be so literal – you know what I mean)
Tejal Parekh, MS, RDN, LDN Registered Dietitian Lean Machine Nutrition