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Plant-Based Eating: The Path to a Healthy, Sustainable Diet

Sharon Palmer, RDN

Eat more plants.  That’s the simple advice coming from everyone’s lips, from best-selling authors like Michael Pollan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  For the first time, the nutrition establishment, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and registered dietitians, researchers, and academics in the field of nutrition are in agreement that the diet prescription for optimal health and well-being is one that focuses on whole plants.  Scientific research is accumulating on the health benefits of a plant-based eating style, which include the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and obesity.  Throw in the environmental benefits, such as fewer resources required to produce food, and a plant-based diet seems like the clear winner in the race for defining the optimal diet for today, as well as the future.

Plant-based Eating on the Rise

Plant-based diets, such as veganism, have grown in popularity, thanks to the attention from stars like Oprah, who requested her entire staff to go vegan for one week on her television show last year; Alicia Silverstone, actress, vegan and author of The Kind Diet; and Ellen Degeneres, the popular talk show host who enthusiastically supports a vegan diet.  Yet, plant-based diets are very personal and unique, covering a wide range of dietary preferences and observances.  The definition of a plant-based diet is one that focuses on plants, which leaves room for a spectrum of choices, including vegan (no animal foods), lacto-ovo vegetarian (no animal flesh, but allows for dairy and eggs), pescatarian (no animal flesh, except for fish and seafood), and semi-vegetarian (small amounts of animal foods).  Adding to the mix is today’s generation of plant-based omnivores—those that are not interested in giving up animal foods completely, but recognize the health and environmental advantages of reducing their animal food intake.

You can thank the Meatless Monday program for fueling the idea that everyone—not just vegetarians—should eat less meat and more plants.  Their message is sweet and simple:  You and the planet can benefit by eating less meat, so just shun it one day a week.  Why not Monday? Countless organizations, restaurants, schools, and hospitals have jumped onto the Meatless Monday bandwagon to celebrate this simple concept.  While the number of vegans and vegetarians is still relatively low—about 5% of U.S. adults are vegetarians, and about half of those are vegans—16% now report eating no animal flesh at more than half of their meals, according to a recent Vegetarian Resource Group poll.

Plants Provide Optimal Health for Humans

Getting back to our roots by eating more whole plants in their natural form has a multitude of benefits for humans.  Since the beginning of time, we’ve enjoyed a unique relationship with the plants that surrounded us.  From the first time our early ancestors plucked wild seeds, grasses, herbs, grains, and fruits and saved them in pouches for the future, they realized that these powerful plants had the ability to nourish and sustain them.  Just like humans evolved over time to better suit their environment and survive threats, so did plants.  These remarkable, living plants built up defenses against forms of pestilence, such as the harmful effects of UV radiation, disease, and predators.  Plants developed thousands of phytochemicals, such as flavonoids and phenols, often concentrating them in the colorful outer skins of their fruits.  These compounds provided a self-defense system that ensured the species survived the test of time.  Today, scientists know that we have a symbiotic relationship with the plants that nurtured us over the melenia. We plucked their fruits, feasted on their nourishing properties, and spit out their seeds, thus helping the plant to propagate and survive.  This simple act helped to ensure the survival of both humans and plants, but we got something else in the bargain besides sheer calories to fuel our bodies.  All of those defensive compounds in the plants seem to confer similar properties to humans when they eat them.

It’s only been in the last few decades that scientists have begun to understand how the thousands of bioactive compounds found in plants, from resveratrol in grape skins to anthocyanins in blueberries, protect health.  These compounds, which are often the pigment responsible for the plant’s brilliant color, offer a range of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and unique therapeutic benefits.   Both oxidative stress, the damaging effects of free radicals on body cells, and chronic inflammation, when the body’s natural defense mechanism is triggered and doesn’t “shut off”, are at the root of today’s modern day chronic disease killers, such as cancer and heart disease.  Indeed, study after study has linked consuming plant foods—rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties—with lower disease risk.  And beyond that, particular plants and plant compounds have special activities.  For example, lutein and zeaxanthin found in yellow and orange vegetables like corn and orange peppers protect against advanced macular degeneration, the number one cause of age-related blindness in older people.  And tomatoes, rich in the ruby red pigment lycopene, show promise in the prevention of prostate cancer.

It’s important to note that the benefits found in plant foods are related to eating the whole food in its unique, complex form—fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and all.  A synergy is found among all of these nutrients in plant foods; when the nutrients are isolated and consumed individually in the form of a supplement, we don’t gain the same benefits.  Something special happens when we eat the plant food in its whole form, whether we chew a kernel of whole grain with its bran coating, endosperm and germ, or bite into a fresh strawberry and savor its skin, flesh, juice and seeds.  Unfortunately, our diets have grown distant from the whole plant foods that sustained us; today we often feast on processed foods that are unrecognizable from their plant origins.  The health benefits found in a plant-based diet are not attached to a diet filled with such refined, carbohydrates such as sugars, oils, and white flour—all technically plant foods.

Most traditional diets around the world, from the Mediterranean to Asia to South America, are based on plants.  In many less developed countries, where people still eat their traditional, plant-based diets, chronic disease rates are very low.  But when people move away from these countries to the U.S. and switch to a Western diet, characterized with the inclusion of large amounts of meat, saturated fat, processed foods, and salt and low amounts of whole plant foods, they begin to experience a surge in chronic disease rates.  This has been observed in many populations; probably never as famously as in the Pima Indians of Mexico, who enjoy very low rates of obesity and diabetes in their native environment, but once the Pimas leave their homeland for the U.S. and consume a Western diet, they are rewarded with obesity and one of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in the world.

Our Meat Lover’s Society

Americans love their meat; a large steak sizzling on the barbeque is practically a national icon.  The problem is the size of that steak has swelled over the years, according to surveys.  Many steakhouse menus proudly offer a 16-ounce cut—a full pound of meat—and call their 8-ounce portion the “petite” serving.  This oversized attitude toward meat also pervades American home-style cooking, where we plan our meals based on what animal protein will star at the center of the plate.  An 8-ounce steak may be an ordinary dinner in America, but it’s considered obscene in many parts of the world, where it would be the appropriate amount to feed an entire family for a meal or even a week.  According to the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. consumes meat at more than three times the global average.

Our meat obsession wasn’t always so grand—the last century was marked with periods of economic hardship and food scarcity during which meat was considered precious.  A small piece went into a pot of soup or beans for flavor and the best cut was reserved for Sunday dinners.  Meat consumption has most assuredly risen over the years—it’s doubled between 1909 and 2007.  Across the world, meat consumption is typically an indicator of economic wealth: As income levels rise, so does meat consumption.  Despite a current shift toward higher poultry consumption in the U.S., red meat—including beef, veal, pork, and lamb—is still the clear winner, representing 58% of the meat we consume.  Americans are eating on average eight ounces of meat per person every day.

So, what’s the big problem with eating so much meat?  Several well-designed studies indicate that a high-meat diet—especially red meat and processed meat, such as bacon and hot dogs—is likely to cause health problems down the road, such as the increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and metabolic syndrome—the clustering of several risk factors that put you at high risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease (Circulation, 2010; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009; PLoS Med, 2007).  The negative effects of this type of diet could be caused in part by the presence of carcinogenic compounds in cooked and processed meats and by the absence of health-protective plants in this style of eating.  In fact, researchers from the National Cancer Institute report that, given the plausible scientific evidence linking red and processed meats to cancer and chronic disease risk, it might be time for health experts to start working on bringing our levels of meat intake down.

At the same time, research supports a number of bonuses from taking on a vegetarian diet.  In a position paper published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, in which an independent and systematic review of all the research on vegetarian-based diets was evaluated, the organization concluded that well-planned vegetarian diets are completely healthful and nutritionally adequate for people throughout all stages of life and that they have a number of health advantages, including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes.  In addition, vegetarians tend to have a lower body weight and lower overall cancer rates, lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals.

A Healthier Diet for the Planet

There’s no doubt that our human ancestry withstood the test of time thanks to its hunter-gatherer traditions.  While we typically conjure up images of cavemen brandishing hand-crafted spears in pursuit of wild beasts, archaeologists like to remind us that early humans were probably prey more often than predator.  Plants were a much safer source of nourishment and early humans gathered an abundance of plant materials along their pursuit for survival.  Our early ancestors certainly relied upon animal foods such as game, fowl, and fish to supplement their plant food diets, but today’s world is vastly different.  The animal foods they consumed were wild, lean and rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but today’s meat supply is based on a modern system of confined animal feeding operations.  In a CAFO, animals are pressed together so tightly they can barely move, where they will live short, miserable lives, caked in manure and fed a grain diet laced with antibiotics they were never meant to eat—all for the purpose of providing cheap meat to the masses.

Today, we consume billions of pounds of animal products, contributing to inhumane animal practices and the use of large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to produce animal feed, as well as large volumes of water and fuel to take animals to market.  Byproducts of animal food production include greenhouse gas emissions, toxic manure lagoons, deforestation, and pollution of groundwater, rivers, streams, and oceans.

You can make a serious impact on your carbon footprint by eating fewer animal foods, according to several studies.  Italian researchers performed a life-cycle assessment to evaluate the cradle-to-grave environmental impact of several dietary patterns (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2006.)  They discovered that an organic vegan diet had the smallest environmental impact, while a conventionally farmed diet that included meat had the greatest impact on the environment—and the more meat consumed, the greater the eco-impact.  Additionally, beef was the food with the single greatest impact on the environment; other high-impacting foods included cheese, fish and milk.  In essence, animals make inefficient “food production machines,” using up lots of feed, water, and fossil fuels to turn plants into protein, said the scientists.  To produce 1 calorie from beef requires 40 calories of fossil fuels, whereas producing 1 calorie from grains requires only 2.2 calories of fuel.  Thus, plant-based diets can play an important role in preserving environmental resources and in reducing hunger in poor nations.

According to a recent analysis conducted by CleanMetrics for the public advocacy organization Environmental Working Group, greenhouse gas emissions generated by conventionally raising lamb, beef, cheese, pork, and farmed salmon—from growing the animals’ food to disposing of the unused food—far exceed those from other food choices like lentils and beans.  EWG found that eating less meat can significantly reduce your carbon footprint.  If you ate one less burger a week for a year; it would be the equivalent of driving 320 miles less.  And if your four-person family took steak off the menu one day a week for a year, it’s like taking your car off the road for almost three months.  If everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese for just one day a week, it would be like taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

Sure, our country is facing runaway obesity rates, but keep in mind that one billion people around the world don’t even have enough food to eat—a fact that will become even tougher to deal with in 2050, when nine billion people will fill the planet.  Let’s face it:  Our current agricultural practices and diet patterns are unsustainable.  But environmental experts agree on one important principal that could increase the world sustainability of food for the long haul: Growing animal feed on prime croplands, no matter how efficiently, is a drain on the human food supply.  Dedicating croplands to direct human food production could boost calories produced per person by nearly 50%, according to a recent report from researchers from Canada, the United States, Sweden, and Germany (Nature, 2011).

When you put the evidence altogether, the argument is quite compelling.  While our dietary past focused on balancing a plate with animal protein at its center, today’s plate should be focused on a variety of whole plant foods—whole grains, beans, lentils, peas, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruits.  This diet paradigm should help ensure the health of both humans and the planet for years to come.

Sharon Palmer, RDN, NCESSharon is an award-winning nutrition expert and author of The Plant-Powered Diet and Plant-Powered for Life (The Experiment). She also serves as editor of Environmental Nutrition, writes for her blog The Plant-Powered Blog, and is a judge for the James Beard Awards. Living in the chaparral hills overlooking Los Angeles with her family, she speaks on plant-based nutrition frequently.

Author: Sharon Palmer

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The 5 Most Amazing Tools to Have in Every Healthy Kitchen

We’ve all been there! We’re interested in preparing healthy snack and meals at home. But, we don’t have all the right tools. It seems like in order to get ourselves back in shape, we have to spend a lot of money getting our kitchens back in shape too. Based on the foods that wreak the most havoc on our waistlines, there are only a few essential items that you need in order to update your kitchen and lighten up your cooking.

Salad dressings are one of the most commonly overused foods. If we’re eating a salad, it’s healthy, no matter what we top it with, right? The truth is that salad dressings hide a lot of empty calories. So, limiting the amount used on a salad is a great way to cut back on overall calorie intake. Reusable dressing lids that measure portions make it super easy to watch portions and still enjoy your favorite dressings. This tool is also great for kids as they learn how much dressing they should be using on their salads.

NCES Healthy Step Pasta BasketI don’t know about you, but in my house pasta is a staple in many of our meals. It offers a great base for many vegetables and proteins. The key with pasta, like with any other food, is to keep an eye on your portions. The Healthy Steps Pasta Basket is perfectly sized for an individual portion. Plus, it hangs on the side of your pot of boiling water for easy draining when the pasta is done and collapses flat for easy storage after use. Truly, it doesn’t get much easier than that!

The Perfect Portions Food Scale also makes keeping an eye on portions easier. Not only will it weigh your foods before you add them to your favorite recipes, it will also give you the nutrition information for that food, including calories, fat grams, protein and much more. It’s like having your own personalized nutrition label for any amount of any food!

The best way to add flavor to any dish is by using fresh herbs. Cooked in to your favorite recipe or cut fresh on top of a salad, herbs are a great low (or no) calorie addition. If you don’t use them quickly enough though, they tend to go bad. The Herb Savor Pod stores them neatly and also helps to keep them fresher longer, prolonging their life by up to 3 weeks.

And, finally, no healthy kitchen is complete without this hands-free countertop tool, the iPrep iPad Holder. As technology changes, printed cookbooks are quickly becoming ‘so 1995’. In their place are online recipes, meal planning sites and digital cookbooks. What’s better to access them from than an iPad? But, those mini computers aren’t cheap so you don’t want it setting on your counter with all of your ingredients while you’re cooking. Instead, have it safe and secure in the iPrep holder for easy recipe viewing. It also comes with a stylus so you don’t have to touch the screen with dirty, meal prepping hands. It’s basically the cookbook holder of 2014!

Cooking healthy meals can be a lot of work. However, with the right tools, you can really simplify the process. The Wellness Spot, backed by NCES, offers an entire line of products just like you’ve seen in this blog. We chose these five as essentials for every healthy kitchen, but there are many more available to browse through by category. If you have any ideas for healthy products that should be featured on The Wellness Spot, send them in and we’ll see about getting them added. We hope you enjoy your new tools and your healthier kitchen!

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Understanding Type 1 & Type 2 Diabetes

For those with diabetes, there is probably no confusion about the differences between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. However, to an outsider (especially the general public) there is a lot of confusion about the differences. What causes diabetes? How does it affect a person’s everyday life? Is it fatal? These are some of the questions that many people don’t have the answers to. So, our goal today is to clear up the confusion on these questions and provide a resource for those who are looking to learn more about diabetes.

The first thing that is important to understand is that Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented. Symptoms typically appear in childhood or young adulthood. Diagnosis comes because the bodies immune system destroys the cells that release insulin, meaning that the body cannot absorb sugar to produce energy. Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, can typically can be prevented, or at least delayed with a healthy lifestyle including a proper diet and exercise. The signs of Type 2 Diabetes typically appear in adulthood. However, there have been more and more cases of childhood type 2 diabetes in recent years. Diagnosis for Type 2 Diabetes occurs because the body doesn’t use insulin properly, resulting in its inability to absorb sugar to produce energy.

Treatment for Type 1 vs Type 2 diabetes can also look very different. In Type 1 Diabetes, because the body doesn’t produce its own insulin, a patient must inject insulin to regulate their body’s sugar absorption. Many cases of Type 2 Diabetes can be treated with a lifestyle change. Getting appropriate physical activity and eating a well-balanced diet can reverse the affects of Type 2 Diabetes for many. However, many patients with Type 2 Diabetes may end up taking Insulin at some point in their life as well.

Because Type 2 Diabetes is the most common form of diabetes and can be prevented, there are many diabetes educators, nutritionists and dietitians working to educate our society on the dangers of diabetes and preventative measures they can take now to avoid living with diabetes.

To aid in this, NCES has selected and created a robust line of diabetes education tools, books and other resources designed specifically for the diabetes educator and patient. If you’re a person living with diabetes and looking for resources, please browse our diabetes selection to see what’s available to help you. If you’re a diabetes educator, there are a lot of resources that can help you spread your message. Plus, you can share this blog to help others around you understand Type 1 versus Type 2 Diabetes. Simply use the links in the blog or click Diabetes in the header to start browsing NCES diabetes products.

Here are just a few of the many great products you’ll find when you visit us!

Right-Sized Diabetes Plate

diabetes plate

 

 

 

 

Diabetes Food Models

NCES Diabetes Food Model Kit

 

Glucose Wands

Glucose Wands

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What is Cardiovascular Disease?

As we celebrate American Heart Month, we wanted to put together something that would help to raise awareness of heart health issues in America. While browsing through pamphlets at the doctor’s office, you’ve probably seen the term cardiovascular disease. But, what does it mean? Of course, we all know that it has something to do with heart health. Which, let’s admit, for most of us is a concept we don’t think about until we have too. However, understanding and focusing on cardiovascular health before it becomes a problem can help prevent cardiovascular disease in the future.

The term cardiovascular disease simply refers to any disease that relates to the heart (cardio) or the blood vessels (vascular). It’s pretty simple once we dissect the words. Two of the most common forms of cardiovascular disease include heart disease and stroke, a couple of terms that we’re probably all a little more familiar with. They are also two of the three top reasons for death in developed countries.

NCES Artery SectionThe good news is that healthy eating habits combined with physical activity can improve our cardiovascular health and prevent many cardiovascular diseases. As we all know, our blood is pumped throughout our bodies through blood vessels. As cardiovascular health deteriorates, plaque begins to build up on the inside of our artery’s, making it more difficult for blood to travel through the body as it needs to. This concept is demonstrated in the Artery Section (product # 4143 in the NCES catalog). As this plaque builds up, different cardiovascular diseases begin to develop, which can lead to catastrophic diagnoses and events.

The effects of cardiovascular disease are nothing to ignore. If left untreated, cardiovascular disease can leave a person paralyzed, permanently disabled and can even lead to death. If you’re interested in learning more, or need to educate others about cardiovascular disease and its long-term effects, take a minute to view our Cardiovascular Nutrition DVD. You can preview and purchase the DVD here.

We hope you’ve learned a little more about cardiovascular disease than you knew before reading this blog! At NCES, our dietitians have hand-selected products that can be used for heart health education. Click here to browse this category. To join the conversation on heart health for American Heart Month, take a minute to share this blog with your readers. Together, we can fight against cardiovascular disease in America.

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Family Meal Time: Why is Something So Simple So Important?

Family Meal

Did you know that August is Family Meals Month? With summer coming to an end, school getting in to full swing and all the activities that fill our calendars this time of year, it’s not uncommon to let family mealtime fall to the bottom of the priority list. However, by making family meal time a priority, you’re creating an environment for a healthy family, helping your kids make better decisions and do better in school, as well as saving your families hard earned money.

Did you know that kids who eat dinner with their family are more likely to perform well in school? Only 9% of students who eat with their family are likely to get C’s on their report card. However, this number over doubles to 20% in students who do not eat with their families this frequently.1 Family dinners are a great place to recap the day, both academically and personally. Take some time at dinner to discuss what’s going on in your child’s classes and also what’s going on in the hallways.

Another benefit of family meals is that you can use this as an opportunity to demonstrate healthy eating habits. Many kids only know what tastes good. They haven’t learned the importance of eating healthy foods to fuel their bodies and their brains. Cook foods that taste good and provide nutrition to your family. Not sure where to start? “The Sneaky Chef to the Rescue” offers many great recipes that help you introduce new foods to your family by cooking them in to foods they already love. After they’ve eaten (and loved) it, it’s up to you if you tell them what’s in the recipe or not!

Lastly, are you looking to save a little money? In today’s tight economy, many families are looking to tighten the purse strings a bit. Cooking and eating together at home can help save your family extra money that you can use to go on a family trip or purchase a new game that you can play together. Statistics show that meals at home, on average, cost half as much as meals outside the home.1 What does the math look like? If you’re family stayed home one night per week that you typically go out, a meal that would have cost you $45 will now only cost $22.50. Over 1 year, the savings adds up to $1170 over one year. That’s just by changing your habit one night per week.

The bottom line is that family meals are good for your whole family. There is not one aspect of your family life that would be negatively impacted. The key to making this successful is to turn it in to a fun activity; don’t make it a chore. Get everyone involved in the cooking and cleaning, you’ll be teaching your children great life lessons while enjoying some much needed family together time!

Need a little help? Let’s face it, schedules are tight! “Make Ahead Meals Made Healthy” offers delicious recipes that can be prepared ahead of time to make your evenings less stressful. Or, if you’re looking to make your meals as inexpensive as possible, “The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook” is filled will healthy recipes that will feed your family on a budget.

Why do you love family meal time? Please share your thoughts with everyone! You can always share here on the blog, on Facebook, Twitter or Google+. Let’s start the conversation!

1 Source: CNN.com

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Diabetes Plate Tackles Diabetes Education

Did you know that 25.8 million Americans are living with diabetes? Some are diagnosed and some still undiagnosed. And, unfortunately, this number is not shrinking. In 2010, 1.9 million new cases of diabetes were diagnosed in people aged 20 and over.** Not only is this a problem for the individual suffering from diabetes, it’s a problem for all of us as a society. How can we educate people on the causes and effects of diabetes? How can we take a population that is living with diabetes and get them back on the right track? How can we take a generation that is being raised addicted to food and teach them about healthy eating habits? Educate!

diabetes plateProviding education and the right tools is the best thing we can do. In the upcoming Fall 2013 edition of the NCES catalog, we’ve focused on diabetes prevention and education with our new products. Our new Right-Sized Diabetes Plate is designed specifically with the diabetic in mind. On this plate, our dietitians have tackled the major issues facing diabetics and given them tools to manage their diabetes right on the plate.

  • Portion Control: This is a very important consideration for all of us, but especially for a person with diabetes. Keeping blood sugars in check often means only eating proper portions of foods from each food group.
  • Carbohydrate Counting: More than just watching portions, a person with diabetes must keep track of the carbohydrates they consume. Because carbs play such a huge roll in blood sugar levels, monitoring carb intake helps a diabetic control their highs and lows.
  • Physical Activity: Managing diabetes through diet is only part of the equation. Maintaining a healthy weight and building a strong body is reliant on getting the recommended amount of physical activity.

The NCES Right-Sized Diabetes Plate combines these three concepts in to a visually appealing plate that can be used on a daily basis to help a person living with diabetes remember how to manage their diabetes through diet and exercise.

This plate and other new diabetes related products have been added to our growing Diabetes section in the catalog and at www.NCEScatalog.com. Take a second to view the diabetes section here today. Do you have ideas for us to add to the Diabetes section? Please share your ideas on Facebook, Twitter or email them to us at info@ncescatalog.com.

**Source: http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/diabetes-statistics/