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The myriad health benefits of vegetables and other plant foods and/or concerns about animal welfare and the environment lead some people to choose a vegetarian dietary pattern. Plant-based diets are becoming more mainstream, and the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans includes a vegetarian eating pattern as one of its three examples of healthy diet plans.
You don’t have to become a vegetarian to improve your diet, but studies of vegetarians do provide convincing evidence of the health benefits of eating more plant-based foods. In one such study, vegetarians were 32 percent less likely to suffer coronary artery disease than non-vegetarians. The benefits were seen in participants who had been following a vegetarian diet for less than five years, as well as in long-term vegetarians. Other research has found that vegetarians tend to have lower risks of heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.
Or, you might want to give up meat but keep seafood on the menu: Some research suggests that a pescatarian diet—one that includes fish as well as an abundance of plant foods—might be even more healthful than a strict vegetarian regimen. One report showed that people who are otherwise vegetarians but eat fish at least once a month had the lowest incidence of colorectal cancer. Adding fish to a vegetarian diet was associated with less risk than any other type of vegetarian diet, including a vegan regimen, which includes no dairy, eggs, fish, or animal products of any kind.
Some vegetarians eat foods produced by animals, but not animal flesh; this dietary style is called a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, because it includes milk and milk products and eggs.
Protein-Rich Plant Foods
Some people think that a plant-based diet can’t provide an adequate amount of protein, but this isn’t true: You can meet your protein needs by consuming legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), soy foods, nuts, and seeds. Many whole grains also provide some protein; for example, whole wheat, quinoa, oats, and many other grains provide between 3 and 4 grams of protein in a half-cup cooked serving, and one cup of whole-wheat spaghetti provides 7 grams of protein. In addition, the Tufts’ MyPlate for Older Adults emphasizes that beans and nut butters are good sources of lean protein, as well as fish and seafood, eggs, low-fat and nonfat dairy products, and other animal-sourced foods.
You can follow a plant-based diet even if you’re not a vegetarian; it’s not an all-or-nothing choice. There’s no ironclad definition for the term “plant-based diet”; generally, it means that the majority of foods eaten are from plant rather than animal sources. If your diet includes several servings of animal proteins each day, chances are you’re not getting enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It would be a healthy move to eat more plant-based foods and fewer animal-sourced foods, even if you’re not giving up beef, pork, or poultry completely.
Finally, following a vegetarian diet doesn’t guarantee that the diet is healthy; it all depends on which plant-based foods you choose.
“Fries and a Coke are vegetarian,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “More important than what you avoid is what you actually eat. The healthiest diets are rich in fruits, nuts, fish, vegetables, yogurt, beans, vegetable oils, and whole grains. Being or not being a vegetarian does not add much to that.”
Making the Most of Vegetables
You can find nutritious vegetable options in the produce section, the frozen foods case, and even the canned goods aisle. To be a smart vegetable consumer, keep these tips in mind:
- Buy fresh vegetables in season, adapting your menus to match the harvest. In-season vegetables will be cheaper and are likely to be at their peak of flavor and nutrients.
- Keep bags of frozen vegetables handy in your freezer to quickly heat up in the microwave as a side dish or to add to soups, stews, and casseroles.
- Pay a little more for convenience if it means you’ll eat more veggies. Pick up pre-washed bags of salad greens, spinach, or kale, packages of baby carrots, or pre-cut celery sticks.
- Microwaving and steaming generally preserve more of the nutrients in vegetables than boiling them. Roasting and grilling bring out the sweetness in many veggies; if that tempts you to eat more, it’s worth sacrificing some nutrients to prolonged or high heat.
- Beware of sauces and seasonings that can add calories, saturated fat, and sodium to vegetables. Before buying pre-seasoned canned or frozen vegetables, check the Nutrition Facts label and/or the ingredients list to see if the product is high in sodium, calories, and/or saturated fat.
- Look for canned vegetables labeled “reduced sodium,” “low sodium,” or “no salt added.” You can further reduce the sodium content of canned vegetables by draining and rinsing them in water.
Since all vegetables are good sources of a variety of valuable nutrients, select those that most appeal to your taste buds and budget. In the rest of this chapter, we provide more information about an array of vegetables that will help you meet your nutritional needs as you age, including tips on how to store and serve them. You may be less familiar with some items than others, such as fennel and celeriac, so consider this an invitation to experiment.
For more information on healthy diet plans, purchase The Healthy-Aging Diet at www.UniversityHealthNews.com.