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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 Results Are In… Hottest Patient Education Resources of 2014

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The Results Are In…

And We’ve Got the Best Patient Education Resources of 2014

Click here to see the top 10 patient education resources in nutrition education from 2014. As chosen by you all, the customers… these results are based on which resources were most used by you in 2014!

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Visit the Updated NCEScatalog.com for Nutrition Education Resources

Browsing for the most relevant nutrition education resources has never been so easy!

With almost 500 products to choose from, it isn’t always easy to find exactly what you’re looking for. To make it easier, we’ve reorganized our website to better suit your professional needs. Whether you need professional resources for heart health or patient education handouts for diabetes, it’s all easy to find!

Below is a guide for navigating the main elements of the website. If you see anything that would make the site easier to browse, please Contact Us to pass that information along.

NCES Nutrition Education Resources

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FNCE Recap: A Dietitians Rundown on the Best of FNCE 2014

I just returned from the 2014 annual Food & Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) in Atlanta and I don’t know about you but I am energized!  Most people return home from this conference exhausted, but I tend to return home each year energized.  I love all the great people I met, the knowledge gained from the sessions I attended and all the new and fascinating products in the Expo hall.

Logo_FNCE

One of my favorite sessions this year was on branding, titled “Creating Fame: The Power of Branding to Elevate Your Career” presented by Yvette Quantz and Thomas Karam and moderated by Sarah Koszyk. This session was well presented and provided many take away points that I will be incorporating into my professional toolkit. The presentation focused on how to brand yourself as a dietitian, no matter the focus of your practice. The also demonstrated how two simple things, “vocal tone” and your “default look”, can determine whether someone will like/trust you within the first 10 seconds of meeting you.  This was excellent information to be reminded of since we, as dietitians, deal with patients, clients, vendors and many other groups of people on a daily basis. The session served as a great reminder of the importance of focusing on making a positive first impression.  Because we interact with so many new people on a daily basis, the first impression is key to our success. If we fail to impress, it lessens the impact of the rest of our message.

Another favorite for me this year was the expo hall. Come one, who doesn’t like a place where great food vendors and sponsors showcase their products.  This year, I especially enjoyed learning about the new natural food products on the market, and the trend of decreasing processed ingredients and additives that are currently in so many of our foods. This is a trend that dietitians have been focusing on for quite some time. It’s great to see it becoming a more mainstream trend.  While I believe there is room in a person’s diet for most foods, I also believe it is important to get back to the basics.  Because of this, it was nice see so many companies working with dietitians to produce a healthier product for consumers to choose.

For those who were able to attend the 2014 FNCE conference, I would love to hear about your favorite session(s), as well as your favorite part of the expo.  For those of you who were unable to go this year, I look forward to connecting next year in Nashville.  Finally, for those who are questioning whether it is worth it to attend FNCE in the future, I would definitely recommend it. Although it is a long weekend, I think you will be surprised at how you leave feeling more energized and excited about the future of our profession.

Talk to you soon!

Carrie

Carrie Mark NCES

 

 

 

 

Carrie Mark, MA, RD, LD

Chief Acquisitions Director

NCES, Inc.

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Turning Your Nutrition Product IDEA in to a Sellable Product

Have you created a product or written a book that you’re ready to take on to the next step? Being around so many dietitians all the time, we know that many of you have great talent, are very creative and have the drive to create a product aimed at helping people live healthier lives!

At NCES, one of our proudest reputations is that of helping dietitians create the products that they dream of creating. NCES was actually started as a way to distribute a book that had been written by a dietitian who needed an outlet for distributing her book. We have continued that tradition throughout the years as we create and select new products to bring to you at NCEScatalog.com. Roughly 35% of our current vendors are other dietitians that we are proud to work with and support.

Our production team will help no matter where you’re at in the creation process. With our team of dietitians, writers and graphic designers, we’ll help you take your idea from concept to creation. We also provide access to our extensive network of printers, illustrators, packaging specialists and much more.

Lastly, we help you with distribution through NCEScatalog.com and related media outlets. Currently, our combined social media reach is approximately 36,000 nutrition professionals.

Unlike many in this industry, whose success is based solely on selling their own products, NCES is proud to support other dietitians. From carrying products created by other dietitians, like “Super 15” and “Lipo Visuals” to helping dietitians make their dreams a reality, like we were fortunate to be able to do with “Lainy’s Polite Bite”, we love having the opportunity to work with dietitians from across the country and across different specialties.

If you have an idea you’d like to work with us on, please email Carrie Mark or give her a call today at 877.623.7266. Carrie will work with you to get started on your project right away.

I think I’ve said enough about this for one day! But, before you go, listen to what Emma Fogt has to say about it all! Emma wrote the children’s book “Lainy’s Polite Bite” and worked with NCES to turn her story in to a bookshelf worthy book that is now selling at NCEScatalog.com.

Emma Fogt Lainys Polite Bite Video Cover

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How To: Create the Perfect Nutrition Education Kit

NCES Primarily ProfessionalOur staff here at NCES are always working hard to bring together the most comprehensive catalog of nutrition education teaching tools in the industry. As part of our mission to save you time and money we have created themed nutrition education kits that include everything you would need to get started as a nutrition educator. These kits include topics like children’s nutrition, diabetes, and even basic nutrition. But, we also understand that there are times when you need to create your own kit based on the needs of your colleagues or clients. So, what goes in to creating an all-inclusive, impactful nutrition education kit?

  • Resource Books – When you’re considering venturing out in to a new presentation topic, it’s important to have a complete understanding of the topic at hand. In all of our nutrition education kits, we offer at least one professional resource book that can be used to learn more about a new concept or just to reference when necessary if you need to freshen up on a topic.
  • Visuals – Each kit needs to contain a visual that demonstrates your lesson. Posters offer an easy way to demonstrate to a group the message that you’re going to be teaching. Hands-on visuals like Glucose Wands or Test Tubes are also great for demonstrating your message. As you know from past experiences sitting through presentations, words can get lost. However, if you help your audience to visualize the message, they can more easily understand and remember.
  • Take Home Piece – As humans, we are constantly being overwhelmed with more information. Sometimes, it’s just too much to retain. However, if you include a take-home piece that your client can use at home, they will be more likely to remember your message because it can be displayed at home or work to reinforce your message. This can easily be done with a handout. Many of our NCES posters have matching handouts that accompany them. Or, you could also send home something useful like the NCES Right-Size Portion Plate for a take-home piece that your audience can actually use.
  • Follow-Up – Create a way to follow-up with your audience after your presentation. While you’ve got them listening and interested in your message, get their email address so you can follow-up with them with updated notes, further discussion or even just to check in on progress. You can follow-up with each one individually. Or, the NCES Health Beat newsletters offer 24 pre-designed newsletters chalked full of great nutrition information that you can use to continue to bring your message to your audience even after they’ve left your presentation.

A good nutrition education kit is one that is all-inclusive with everything a professional nutrition educator needs to do their job effectively. There may be some kits that require more than these essential elements. However, this is the basic guide we use when we begin creating a new kit. One thing that sets NCES apart is our on-staff dietitian that is always willing to help you choose the products that will fit your needs. Contact Us anytime for help creating the perfect nutrition education kit.

Our staff here at NCES are always working hard to bring together the most comprehensive catalog of nutrition education teaching tools in the industry. As part of our mission to save you time and money we have created themed nutrition education kits that include everything you would need to get started as a nutrition educator. These kits include topics like children’s nutrition, diabetes, and even basic nutrition. But, we also understand that there are times when you need to create your own kit based on the needs of your colleagues or clients. So, what goes in to creating an all-inclusive, impactful nutrition education kit?

  • Resource Books – When you’re considering venturing out in to a new presentation topic, it’s important to have a complete understanding of the topic at hand. In all of our nutrition education kits, we offer at least one professional resource book that can be used to learn more about a new concept or just to reference when necessary if you need to freshen up on a topic.
  • Visuals – Each kit needs to contain a visual that demonstrates your lesson. Posters offer an easy way to demonstrate to a group the message that you’re going to be teaching. Hands-on visuals like Glucose Wands or Test Tubes are also great for demonstrating your message. As you know from past experiences sitting through presentations, words can get lost. However, if you help your audience to visualize the message, they can more easily understand and remember.
  • Take Home Piece – As humans, we are constantly being overwhelmed with more information. Sometimes, it’s just too much to retain. However, if you include a take-home piece that your client can use at home, they will be more likely to remember your message because it can be displayed at home or work to reinforce your message. This can easily be done with a handout. Many of our NCES posters have matching handouts that accompany them. Or, you could also send home something useful like the NCES Right-Size Portion Plate for a take-home piece that your audience can actually use.
  • Follow-Up – Create a way to follow-up with your audience after your presentation. While you’ve got them listening and interested in your message, get their email address so you can follow-up with them with updated notes, further discussion or even just to check in on progress. You can follow-up with each one individually. Or, the NCES Health Beat newsletters offer 24 pre-designed newsletters chalked full of great nutrition information that you can use to continue to bring your message to your audience even after they’ve left your presentation.

A good nutrition education kit is one that is all-inclusive with everything a professional nutrition educator needs to do their job effectively. There may be some kits that require more than these essential elements. However, this is the basic guide we use when we begin creating a new kit. One thing that sets NCES apart is our on-staff dietitian that is always willing to help you choose the products that will fit your needs. Contact Us anytime for help creating the perfect nutrition education kit.