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Plant-based eating is not just good for you and your family; it's also good for Mother Earth. "Eating one to two vegetarian meals a week is more effective than driving a Prius in terms of global warming," said Jill Nussinow, M.S., R.D., a vegetarian food expert. (TMS photo)
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Make way for the plant-based diet, the latest buzzword for an optimal diet that focuses on plants, such as grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, rather than a diet of animal products like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy. Health experts extol the virtues of a plant-based diet as a healthy eating style that can help you fight chronic disease andobesity.

While plant-based diets are not novel, the fact that the trend is catching on is new, according to Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D., nutrition advisor of The VegetarianResource Group. She says, "More people are interested in plant-based eating; it goes along with the movement to eat more locally grown vegetables and fruits, and the availability of plant-based cookbooks."

The beauty of plant-based eating is that it's flexible -- and it doesn't mean that you have to give up animal foods. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, tasked at looking at the body of nutrition science in order to make recommendations for the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, defines a plant-based diet as a diet that "emphasizes plant foods."

Thus, plant-based eating covers a spectrum of eating styles, from a strict vegan diet with no animal products to an omnivorous diet that includes more plant foods.

"Even if you ate vegetarian just one day per week and ate more plant foods overall, you could make a difference," said Jill Nussinow, M.S., R.D., a vegetarian food expert, at a presentation on plant-based eating at the California Dietetic Association last April.

Scientists have observed that the "Western diet," the typical dietary pattern in the U.S. that is high in meat, fat, saturated fat and sodium, and low in fiber, is linked with an increased risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease. Evidence is mounting that if you include more plant foods in your diet, you gain a plethora of health benefits.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines report a number of advantages associated with vegetarian-style eating patterns, including lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality. Research indicates that plant-based diets reduce the risk of ischemia (restriction of bloodsupply to an organ,) hypertension, and type 2 diabetes; lower LDL and blood pressure, reduce body mass, and reduce cancer rate.

Why is a plant-based diet so healthy? It makes sense that when you cut back on animal products in favor of more plant foods, you naturally reduce the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you eat. If you're eating more whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts, you're gaining more health-promoting nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.

Many vitamins and phytonutrients act as antioxidants to protect your body cells against damage. And some phytonutrients go beyond their antioxidant status to provide a specific health bonus, such as plant sterols and isoflavones, that have documented heart health benefits. A diet diverse in a variety of plant foods that contain a range of bioactive compounds offers you the best eating strategy for optimal health.

Plant-based eating is not just good for you and your family; it's also good for Mother Earth. Plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, bread, pasta, and whole grains have a lower impact on the environment than foods such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs, according to an October 2010 scientific report from the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, in which researchers conducted an environmental impact assessment on foods in the Food Pyramid.

"Eating one to two vegetarian meals a week is more effective than driving a Prius in terms of global warming," reports Nussinow.

Make friends with plants

It's not as hard as you think; even if you're a meat lover, you can still make positive changes in your diet to emphasize more plant foods.

1. Look at where you are.
Keep a one-week diet record and see how many times you eat meat. If you eat it at every meal, you have room to cut back. Create a personal goal for how many meatless meals you want to eat. Reed suggests starting out slowly, with one completely plant-based dinner per week. The Meatless Monday Website (meatlessmonday.com), filled with tips and recipes, is a great way to get started.

2. Change your mindset.
Don't think of meat as the "center of the plate." When you're planning your menu, start with the vegetable and whole grain component instead of the animal protein. For example, if fresh green beans are in season, why not feature a green bean and tofu stir fry with brown rice?

3. Use meat as a "flavoring."
You can easily cut down on your animal products intake while emphasizing plants if you use meat as a flavoring instead of as the main event. This eating style is the basis of many ethnic dishes, such as curries, stir-fries, stews, and pasta dishes that are flavored with a small portion of beef, pork, chicken or fish and a pile of vegetables in order to serve a family-size meal......
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