by Karen Wehrstein, Nutrionist, with Ann Anderson

Eat all your colors! Add a fruit or vegetable to your daily diet. Eventually you may get up to 7 servings a day—it’s easy to count: that’s a piece of fruit (one that will fit in your hand); one handful (½ cup) of cooked vegetables or canned fruit; 6 ounces of juice or 1 cup (two handfuls) of leafy greens.  Plants provide energy, vitamins and minerals. They have additional positive health effects. Flavonoids, found in dark chocolate, black tea, blueberries, roasted soy beans, apples, oranges, purple grape juice and red wine (just to name a few sources) can help prevent and control cholesterol levels, blood pressure, diabetes and colon cancer risk. Flavonoids help prevent chronic diseases. Phytochemicals are pigment related and can be found in foods with strong distinctive coloring such as melons, broccoli, dark leafy greens, tomatoes, carrots, oranges and blueberries. Phytochemicals act as protective substances. Antioxidants, found in foods rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Vitamin E, and the mineral selenium reduce the adverse effect of substances called “free radicals” that can damage cells.  If you plan to eat a plant-based diet, remember that no single plant contains all the essential amino acids needed to build proteins in your body. By combining different plant food sources, it is possible to get all the essential amino acids, thus creating a complete source for protein.  Many years ago, Frances Moore Lappé, in A Diet for a Small Planet[1], provided some easy guidelines for creating complete-protein meals. Complementary proteins do not need to be eaten in the same meal to obtain the benefits. Three examples of combinations that provide complete protein are:

Grains (rice, corn, wheat, barley, etc.) + legumes (peas, beans, lentils) Grains + milk products Seeds (sesame or sunflower) + legumes

Traditional foods of most cultures have examples of this concept: corn tortillas and refried beans, stir-fry tofu with rice, chili beans and corn bread, Creole red beans and rice, pasta fasuli (spaghetti with beans).  Non-meat foods high in protein include eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, soybeans, mung and broad beans, peas, black beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, garbanzos, lima beans, tofu, lentils, nuts and seeds. Vegetables higher in protein include watercress, kale, broccoli, collard, cauliflower, mushroom, lettuce (iceberg), okra, radish, cucumber, squash, cabbage, celery, eggplant, green onions, corn, beets, pumpkin and turnip. Many are also high in water content, making it difficult to consume enough to obtain adequate protein.  How much protein do you really need to eat? Healthy adults need 0.4 grams per pound of body weight per day. If you weigh 100 pounds, then you need 40 grams of protein. A three-ounce serving of animal protein is roughly equal to 21 grams of protein; ⅔ cup of beans and rice equals about 15 grams. An average American’s current per-capita meat consumption is more than 10 ounces per day[2]—almost twice the total amount of protein required. Furthermore, meat is not the only available protein source. In fact, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, we don’t need any meat in our diet.

Protein has many important functions in the body and is essential for growth and maintenance. Protein needs can easily be met by eating a variety of plant-based foods. Combining different protein sources in the same meal is not necessary. Sources of protein for vegetarians include beans, nuts, nut butter, peas, and soy products (tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers). Milk products and eggs are also good protein sources for lacto-ovo vegetarians.[3]

As the world population grows it will become more difficult to sustain current levels of meat consumption. Meat production is also hard on the environment.

Demand for more a meat-centric diet is increasing as many nations achieve a higher standard

of living. The current rate of consumption of red meat in the United States is not sustainable as people in other nations increase their meat consumption and the world population increases from 6 billion currently to an estimated 9.5 billion by 2050. And meat (especially beef) is a poor converter of plant energy into protein. In the feedlot, it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef. Pork requires 7.3 pounds and poultry 4.5 pounds of grain, per pound of meat produced.[4] A pound of beef can provide five people one serving of protein. The twenty pounds of grain (if it were wheat) needed to produce that pound of beef could provide 55 people with a serving of protein.

 More land, water and energy are exhausted to produce meat-based protein than plant-based protein. It takes about 5.75 acres to raise a steer to maturity. An average animal will produce about 1,000 servings. The same resources could produce 26,000 servings of tofu. In terms of water use, the beef would consume up to 13 times more water than the soy.[5]  While it takes 20,000 calories of fossil fuel to produce a pound of steak, only 500 calories of food energy result. Twenty-two to forty times less energy is consumed in grain and legume production.[6] In addition, corn-fed livestock contribute 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.[7]

Not surprisingly, it is well documented that people who eat meat-heavy meals (particularly

processed meats) are more likely to have heart disease and an increased risk of colon cancer. If you eat beef, choose 100 percent grass-fed beef. It has lower levels of cholesterol and saturated fats and more of the good omega fats and vitamin E. In addition, grass-fed beef uses one-eighth the energy of feedlot beef.[8] Does this mean we have to stop eating meat altogether? No. It means cutting back on the quantity, changing the type of meat we eat, and supplying more of our protein needs from plant foods. Eating a more plant-based diet just makes good sense, both for personal health and the long-term health of our planet. Here’s to our health!

References[edit | edit source]

  1. P, Frances Moore. Diet for a Small Planet. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991, pp. 76, 129
  2. National Chicken Council, “Per Capita Consumption of Poultry and Livestock” (Current as of October, 15, 2008)
  3. USDA
  4. Roberts, End of Food, p. 210
  5. Lappé, supra, pp. 10, 74
  6. YES magazine, Spring 2009, p. 24
  7. Lappé, supra, p. 75
  8. Lappé, supra, p. 224
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