Friday, October 18, 2013

The Experts Weigh In: The Benefits of Being Plant-Based!

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Plant-based eating - it strikes fear into the hearts of die-hard omnivores everywhere, right? It sounds like a diet of cabbage and grass, more akin to rabbit food than people food, and something that conjures up images of pale waifs with dark circles around their eyes (after all, without all of that meat, aren't we missing out on something?).

In fact, plant-based eating is much more nutritionally sound - AND much more flexible - than many people think!

The idea, at its core, is to make plants the focus of the diet: rather than considering them mere sides to a hunk of meat, we place the emphasis on our daily intake of things that come from the ground, particularly in the least refined form possible (think 'whole pieces of corn', not 'Corn Pops'). This whole-foods, plant-based way of eating - where veggies, fruit, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds make up the bulk of the diet - has many benefits, as the primary way of eating OR when used to complement an omnivorous diet.

I decided to cut all the animal products (meat, poultry, fish, dairy and animal fats) from my life in 2009 after years of battling issues with digestion, weight management and mood. The shift in my life was incredible: everything from my physical being to my emotional being changed. I began to devour books and articles on living this way. A friend introduced me to The China Study by Dr. Colin T. Campbell, one of the biggest proponents of vegan eating in the last two decades (Read this book. It will change your life). 

The more I read, the more I found myself invested in the ethical, environmental and health implications of being plant-based. As far as nutrient density (that is, number of essential nutrients per calorie), plants are where it's at: we get more from plant-based foods than we do from animal foods, and often with less monetary expense (not to mention, the impact on the planet is far lower when it comes to producing plant foods instead of animal products). Four years later, I feel incredibly fortunate to work with my clients to help them make the best choices possible for their unique lives, incorporating as many plants as possible.

We can experience the advantages of this way of eating by making nutritious foods from the ground the focus of our meals rather than an afterthought. Working in more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans helps us reap a ton of fabulous health benefits...

LOWER BODY MASS. More colorful vegetables means lower BMI and an easier time keeping weight in check (not that weight is the be-all, end-all of health, but a healthy weight does keep us at a lower risk for 'lifestyle' diseases like heart disease, stroke and diabetes).

MORE ANTIOXIDANT ACTIVITY. That is, a better fighting chance against free radicals floating around the body. Fruits and veggies are a great source of antioxidants. They take the brunt of attacks from these toxic compounds, rather than allowing our cells to be attacked. Consistently replenishing our supply of antioxidants by eating more plants means we can better defend against damaging compounds.

BETTER SKIN. The skin is a pretty good indicator of what's going on in the body. If the skin is red and inflamed, chances are, so are the organs (and inflamed organs can't perform their roles as well). Plants help us stay hydrated and help flush toxins from the system. A clean system means clear skin.

BETTER DIGESTION. All of that awesome plant-based fiber keeps things moving: imagine kale and broccoli as the little scrub brushes for the inside of your intestines.

LOWER CHOLESTEROL. Cholesterol is an animal fat; as humans, we naturally have it in our bodies. It becomes problematic when we add too much additional cholesterol from our diets (ie. animal foods). More focus on plants means less room for flesh foods, which means the relative amount of cholesterol in our systems decreases.

BETTER NUTRITION. Pretty obvious, right? The more variety we have of foods that provide whole, usable nutrients, the more likely we are to have our nutritional bases covered. Eat from a spectrum of plant foods to avoid deficiencies.

MORE ENERGY. Plants take less energy to digest than animals. Think of all you could do with the energy you save when more of your meal is easier to break down.

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How to do it? Easy peasy. Here are some tips that helped me when making the transition to a vegan lifestyle...

Take it a step at a time. The idea behind initiatives like Meatless Monday is to be just a little more mindful of what ends up on our plates. Even one more veggie-centric meal each week is a step in the right direction (and if you can work one veggie-centric meal into each day, even better!).

Be aware of how many plants make their way into your shopping basket. Hint: they should outnumber everything else.

Fill at least half of your plate with things that came from the ground. Vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and whole grains. Bonus points if they look similar to the way they looked when they were growing!

Check out a farmers market. NYC has a ton: visit GrowNYC's website to find one near you!

Experiment, experiment, experiment. Try new veggies and whole grains. Determine which ones you like. Make those the center of your meal.

Plant-based eating can add variety and healthful benefits to any lifestyle. I truly believe it can help anyone increase their whole-life well-being, physical health and mental clarity. So give peas a chance (get it?!)!

Stay tuned for this coming Monday's post with a great family-friendly vegan recipe that just happens to be gluten-free too!  Thanks, nature!

Take care,

Amy Height is a Holistic Health Coach and founder of From the Ground Up Wellness. She works with individuals and families looking to reestablish their relationship with food and build a strong foundation of lasting, healthy habits. She specializes in plant-based nutrition, weight loss, nutrition for children and young families, and managing food intolerances. A graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Amy combines a breadth of nutritional training - and the concept of 'food as fuel' - with personal experience to provide motivation and resources to empower personal transformation. She is certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. Visit her website at and check out her 10 Day Detox Program here!

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