Plant Based Diet

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"Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," says Michael Pollan in his 2008 book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.  This sums up the plant based diet approach of healthy eating. Of course Healthy Girlfriend sings the praises of fruits and veggies here and here on this site, but we thought it worthwhile to examine it from a different angle, one that is more approachable than the raw food diet, which is challenging to sustain for a long period of time, even for health nuts like us.

Lovers of cheese and steak devotees, this diet is for you, too. But before we try to persuade you to install Meatless Mondays, consider this: Many edible plants contain liberal amounts of medicinal components that provide the body with super immunity against disease and common complaints associated with aging. That means eating a plant based diet is the closest thing to a magic bullet of protection from colds, flu, and even cancer. Yep, Mother Nature gave us both food and medicine.

Thankfully, these super foods aren't expensive, exotic wild Himalayan berries or roots from the Amazonian rainforest but everyday foods you're probably already eating such as blueberries and onions. Yes, you're going to need to eat more broccoli (or cauliflower if you prefer) or at the very least, stuff some kale into your morning smoothies.

There's more good news for folks who enjoy cooked food in addition to their salads and smoothies (which is most of us.) More nutrients than previously thought are actually retained in the heating process. Carotenoids found in carrots and tomatoes, for example, are only assimilated by the body when cooked. It's true that most vitamin C is lost when heated, so it's important to get this from fresh fruits and uncooked veggies, but for the wide array of nutrients, it's just fine to lightly steam or sauté your veggies. Just avoid roasting and grilling to the point of charred edges (see "It's About What you Leave Out" below.)

Most Nutrient-Dense Plant Foods

According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman in his book Super Immunity, we should strive to eat our "GBOMBS" daily. To you and I, that's greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, and seeds. These foods represent the top foods for superior health. We've detailed a more thorough (but not complete) list of the top foods below:

  • kale, swiss chard
  • cabbage, bok choy
  • leaf lettuce, spinach
  • brussels sprouts
  • carrots
  • broccoli, cauliflower
  • sweet peppers
  • cooked mushrooms (white button variety is fine)
  • asparagus
  • tomatoes
  • berries
  • grapes
  • canteloupe
  • onions, garlic
  • seeds, nuts
  • beans (all varieties, canned ok)

You can find all of these in the grocery store. Remember to always opt for organic when possible, especially produce that can't be peeled. If you can't afford to go all organic, a good resource for the most pesticide-containing foods is "The Dirty Dozen," published by the Environmental Working Group. Avoid eating non-organic if it's on this list. They also publish "The Clean 15" which lists non-organic produce that have minimal amounts of pesticide residue. The list is updated every year to reflect the changing patterns of the agriculture industry.

If you can make these foods the mainstay of your diet and eat many of them uncooked, you'll be adding years to your life. Check out our anti-aging article for more ideas.

It's About What You Leave Out

As always, the healthiest diets are based on what we don't eat. Even Paleo aficionados agree. You know the drill; fast food, processed food, preservatives, refined flour and sugar products, trans fats. These foods are not okay by any amount of rationalizing, and in fact, promote disease and cellular aging. Specifically, avoid daily use of white flour products like pasta and white bread. We've trained our taste buds to really enjoy these foods but they're stripped of nutrients and raise blood sugar. As addictive as they are, just say no.

Absolutely stay away from chemically-laden meats such as deli-style lunch meats, sausage and ham. Better to make your sandwich from leftover cooked chicken, turkey or roast beef but if you get a bad jones for sausage with home-made mustard (like someone here at Healthy Girlfriend) opt for brands like Boulder Sausage or Safeway's Open Nature line. These don't have nitrates or nitrites added. You can also find similar uncured meats at Whole Foods and your local health food store.

Most foods that come in a box or bag are highly processed, meaning they contain preservatives and food additives designed to create an addiction to them. Learn to read labels; if the ingredient list is long and contains words that are hard to pronounce it isn't real food. Not to say that all canned and boxed food is forbidden. Whole wheat, artichoke and quinoa pastas are fine as are plain cooked beans or coconut milk in BPA-free cans. 

The Fried. Foods. Have. To. Go. We don't mean to mess with your mother's famous hash browns or your deep fried dill pickles (we know who you are) but you should know that even a nutritious vegetable is turned into a toxic mess when deep fat fried, especially those cooked in the typical trans-fats as opposed to an oil such as coconut.  A chemical called acrylamide is formed when plant foods are fried at high temperatures which the FDA acknowledges is linked to cancer. Even whole grain bread toasted to a very dark color is an indication that acrylamide is formed. 

Best practice: steam your veggies or water sauté them. We know that might not be your favorite way, but when you add a small amount of grass-fed butter or organic ghee (clarified butter) and plenty of herbs or spices before serving, they're delicious as ever. Even boiling them is preferable to frying and doesn't affect nutrients as negatively as was once thought. Roasting is okay as long as the food isn't browned, so watch it carefully. Just remember, if the veggie has browned edges, acrylamide has formed. 

If you like sciency explanations on how cooking methods affect the nutrients of produce, check out this article from the U.S. National Library of Medicine will give you the low-down on broccoli.

Fried meat and charred, grilled meat is even worse. Chemicals called heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are produced when meat is cooked at temperatures exceeding 300 degrees. The more well-done the meat, the longer it's been cooked, the more of these toxic substances you're ingesting. Even the National Cancer Institute acknowledges that we should be avoiding eating meat cooked at high temps. Fortunately, you can minimize the damage by first microwaving foods that you plan to grill, turning the meat often when grilling or frying, and by using cooking methods such as low temperature roasting. Hard as it may be to avoid high-heat cooking, it's just not worth compromising your health over the party in your mouth. Change your habits, change your life.

And while you're at it, it's best to cut down on protein in general. Latest research shows that too much protein isn't even very good for us. Our protein needs, are in fact, much less than strength training professionals have taught.

Practical Ways to Implement a Plant Based Diet

If you're like most people you've figured out how to ditch many of the deadly foods by now, but it still may be difficult to think about and plan meals that assure you're loading up on the most nutrient-dense foods. We promise that your taste buds will adjust in time. We like to share the story of a good friend who went on a Buddhist retreat (affectionately known as Buddha Camp) in which the meals were entirely vegan.

This Healthy Friend was a meat-eater and great home cook who enjoyed rich, tasty foods of animal origin and otherwise, so the first day at the cafeteria there was disappointment and an expectation that the meals were going to be bland and boring all week. On the second day of the large and varied buffet, the food was just a tad tastier, though this friend was still unimpressed with the taste of the vegan offering and stuck mostly with salads, fruits, and bread. Surprisingly with each successive day, the friend began to try new dishes and actually enjoy them. By the end of the week, this person was enthusiastically trying new foods and appreciating how delicious the food was and how impressively varied the generous meals were. It surprised everyone when the friend returned home from the retreat and started cooking more and more vegetarian and vegan meals because she preferred them.

If you're anything like our friend was at the beginning of the retreat, here's what we would suggest as a meal plan to get you started on your health-promoting, plant based diet.

Breakfast:  Whole grain (not quick-cooking) oatmeal with cinnamon, nuts, berries and almond milk. OR a green smoothie (orange, banana, spinach, fresh ginger, coconut water.) You can add a little protein powder such as Spirutein or other high-quality plant protein powder to help you stay full longer.

Lunch: Large green, tossed salad. Add your favorite raw veggies such as shredded carrots or beets, radish, sprouts, red onion, broccoli florets and a half-cup of black beans or any other dried, cooked legumes. The high fiber content of the beans really makes a difference in a feeling of satisfaction and keeps hunger away for hours. Alternatively, a couple ounces of canned salmon or tuna makes a tasty and easy addition. Healthy girlfriend wants you to enjoy your salad, so use a tablespoon (or 2 if its a really big salad) of your favorite health food store salad dressing or make your own using cold pressed olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard and garlic. What the heck, if it will make you eat your greens, sprinkle on a little flavorful cheese such as parmesan, blue, or feta. If weight loss is your ultimate goal, you'll want to keep dressings, cheese, and meat to a bare minimum. Don't forget that leafy greens have lots of pesticide residues, so choose organic greens or home-grown whenever you have a choice. 

Dinner: Soups and stews are a great way to eat beans and veggies. Use any recipe or simply toss a generous amount of diced onions, garlic broccoli, carrots, green beans, red pepper, cabbage and cooked beans into a couple quarts of veggie stock or even home-made bone broth. Make a large batch on your day off and enjoy it for days. You can freeze some, too, as long as it doesn't have potatoes in it.

OR, have some vegetable curry with shredded coconut, or Mexican flavored beans and rice with avocado. Ethnic dishes are a great way to get into vegetarian meals. You can even add a couple ounces per person of pasture-raised beef or poultry for a familiar taste. Just don't forget the GBOMBS, please and thank you.

© Michael Flippo |