“Eat your vegetables!” It’s a message we’ve heard since we were children. And now, science is picking up the refrain where mom and dad left off.
Somewhere along the line, vegetables developed a bad rap for being soggy, squishy lumps of questionable-tasting substances — something to be avoided whenever possible.
However, those who really know how to prepare vegetables, and appreciate their nutritional value, say that many of us just don’t know what we’re missing! Among the most enthusiastic of these advocates are those who eat a plant-based diet.
There are numerous monikers for people who eat mostly vegetables, explained Elaina Moon, a certified health coach who runs Healthy Eats Nutrition Services in Yakima.
There are vegans (pronounced vee-guns), who eat no animal products whatsoever, including meat, dairy, eggs or fish, and whose lifestyle may include shunning products made of fur or leather or products tested on animals.
Then, there are vegetarians, who fall into several categories. Typically, vegetarians eat no meat or seafood. However, lacto-vegetarians include dairy in their meals. Pescatarians include fish. Lacto-ovo vegetarians also consume milk and eggs. Finally, those known as flexitarians eat mostly plant-based foods with occasional fish, eggs and/or dairy, Moon said.
“I grew up in a steak-three-times-a-week family,” observed Moon, age 31, a self-described flexitarian who holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Central Washington University in Nutrition & Nonprofit Management and teaches a variety of cooking classes locally. “Once I started doing it (eating more vegetables), I started feeling a lot better and I lost about 30 pounds.”
Having a plant-based diet is “a different way of eating,” Moon admits, but to her, “it’s a very healthy way of eating.”
A plant-based diet, which must include some sort of peas, beans, nuts and/or seeds for protein, doesn’t need to be boring or unappealing, added Linda Sloop, a registered dietitian in Yakima.
Since we tend to “eat with our eyes as well as our fork,” it helps to highlight color, she says.
For example, lightly steam broccoli instead of boiling it to mush, to maintain its bright green color. Add peppers or red onions to a salad. And to appeal to your taste buds, try pairing an extra vegetable with something that you already enjoy eating, she suggests. For instance, try adding sautéed onions, peppers or mushrooms to a spaghetti sauce which you like.
Moon agreed. Her favorite meal is tacos made with beans, colorful tomatoes, lettuce and avocado, with perhaps a little sweet potato added in. Try preparing vegetables in a different way for interest, like roasting a vegetable, she recommends.
“When some people hear the word vegan, they might think, ‘Oh, this is going to taste bad!’” Moon observed. However, that doesn’t need to be the case. “I think a lot of people think that they don’t like vegetables, whether they have tried any recently or not,” Sloop said. “I used to think that myself. Growing up, I didn’t like to eat vegetables. My Mom insisted that I try each one she served. Over time, I grew to like them.”
Sloop, who began the process of becoming a vegetarian at age 17, emphasizes that vegetables “are an excellent source of just about every nutrient we need: vitamins, minerals, fiber.” They contain very little fat, no cholesterol and fewer calories than many foods. Scientific studies tout the value of their antioxidants. These substances may delay or prevent some types of cell damage. Phytochemicals, which help to protect plants, may also benefit humans. Eating vegetables also tends to fill you up, helping to avoid the snacking that occurs when you’re hungry, Moon added.
“Nutritionally speaking, vegetables are probably the biggest powerhouse of all of the foods we eat,” Sloop enthused, noting that those who include many vegetables in their diet may have a reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. “The sooner you start, the better,” Sloop added. “If you start children young, they don’t know any differently.”
Help children grow a vegetable plant or two, she suggests. It can be fun to grow your own sugar snap peas or cherry tomatoes and then pop one in your mouth, fresh from the vine. Or, allow your child to pick out a brightly colored vegetable in the grocery store to add to a meal.
Fresh vegetables are ideal, but, surprisingly, frozen vegetables may be even better nutritionally, if they’re frozen at their peak, Sloop advised. Canned vegetables are her third choice because the heating and processing may reduce nutrients and salt is almost always added.
Sloop, who’s 54, believes that she is seeing the healthy benefits of her diet. Unlike both of her parents, who suffered from heart disease and diabetes, she is free of these conditions thus far.
For those who think that a plant-based diet sounds too complicated to adopt, try adding just one more vegetable per day, Moon suggests. Then, after a while, add another. Increasing the plant-based foods in your diet is an automatic win, she said. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”
One Yakima woman who’s taken several of Sloop’s classes says that she’s become a believer in the plant-based diet. “It’s really not that hard,” said Reba Norman, 59, a professional massage therapist who has lost about 12 pounds and lowered her cholesterol count by eating more vegetables. “It’s really wholesome, it’s healthy. I feel better.”
Where, before, Norman might have a burger and fries from a fast-food drive-through for lunch, now she can enjoy a salad or just quinoa (the seed of a plant closely related to the spinach family), beans and/or peas. She may have an apple for dessert.
“I haven’t had a burger in ages,” she said, although she doesn’t stress about sticking to a totally plant-based diet. She might have fish once a week. Maybe a piece of pie now and then.
“Just give it a try,” Norman suggests. “Change up one thing. Just begin small.”
For more information on Elaina Moon’s cooking classes, visit healthyeatsnutrition.com or their Facebook page, Healthy Eats Nutrition Services. For more information on Linda Sloop’s Adventist Healthy Lifestyle classes, visit www.healthyyakima.com.