I recently helped a 16-year-old learn about choosing plant proteins - she had decided to become a vegetarian, but she wasn't really sure just what that meant. Her decision was based on the fact she didn't really like eating meat. While we perused the grocery aisles that are now full of vegetarian choices, my goal was to help her make the best choices — whole grains, high quality proteins and lots of variety.
Turns out, making the right choices can be critical in whether a vegetarian diet is healthy or not.
For years, the mantra has been that eating lots of fruits, vegetables and grains will ward off heart disease, but a new study suggests that choosing the wrong ones may backfire. In a study of more than 200,000 U.S. health professionals, researchers found those who ate plenty of healthy plant foods — such as vegetables, beans and whole grains — did have a lower risk of heart disease. That was not true, however, if people loaded up on foods that are technically plant-based, but not all that healthy. In fact, diets heavy in pasta, bread, potatoes and sweets, appeared just as bad as, if not worse than, diets high in animal protein.
It's crucial that people consider the nutritional quality of the plant foods they choose, says lead researcher Ambika Satija, with Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. The study was published in the July 25 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
The findings involved three studies that began in the 1980s and 1990s. Every two to four years, the participants gave detailed information on their diets. Satija's team looked at the quality of the plant foods people typically ate, and how that overall quality related to their risk of developing heart disease.
By 2013, over 8,600 study participants had suffered a heart attack or died of heart disease. The risk was lower among people who regularly ate plenty of healthy plant foods, including fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains (such as cooked oatmeal and brown rice), the study found. Those in the top 10 percent for healthy plant-food intake fared best: They were one-quarter less likely to develop heart disease than those in the bottom 10 percent.
In contrast, the reverse pattern was seen among people who ate a lot of less-than-healthy plant foods — like potatoes, refined grains (white bread, pasta and crackers) and sugary fruit juices. Those in the top 10 percent were almost one-third more likely to develop heart disease, versus people in the bottom 10 percent.
People who loaded up on animal products — such as meat, cheese and butter — also showed a heightened risk of heart disease. But the link between unhealthy plant foods and heart ills was a bit stronger, the researchers noted.
The bottom line? The more healthy plant foods you eat, the better. However, the findings suggest that people don't have to go to extremes with their diet to reap heart benefits. Start with moderate decreases in animal products, maybe fewer servings of red and processed meats, and replace them with healthy plant-based foods such as legumes, vegetables and nuts. Try a meatless Monday or use kidney beans on a salad for your protein instead of meat. Small steps can reap big health benefits.
Q and A
Q: How can I be sure the flour I buy is really whole wheat?
A: Whole wheat flours are readily available in our grocery stores and in most cases, can be easily identified by text on the front of the package or ingredient list. Flours with text such as "traditional whole wheat flour", or "100 percent whole wheat flour," or "white whole wheat flour" indicates that it is, indeed a whole wheat flour. On the other hand, the lack of the word, "whole wheat" or descriptions such as "enriched white flour" or "all- purpose flour" point towards a refined white flour (i.e. whole wheat flour that has been milled to remove the nutrient-rich outer bran and inner germ layers). Perhaps what's a little confusing for shoppers is determining whether "white whole wheat flour" is, in fact, a whole wheat flour. Its white appearance makes it look like a refined flour, and this is because this flour is made from a wheat variety whose outer bran is lighter in color. Taking a look at the first ingredient on the package will help dispel any doubts - it should clearly state "white whole wheat flour". Substituting whole wheat for white flour into your baking and cooking practices offers some variation to the taste and texture of your dishes, and at the same time, increases the dietary fiber in your diet. Try it, and see if you can tell the difference. — Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter.
Summer is a great time to leave the oven off and turn on the grill. Here's a recipe for Grilled Summer Vegetables, infused with an Asian marinade, that's sure to be a hit. It's from Jane Fonda's Cooking for Healthy Living.
Grilled Summer Vegetables
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon reduced sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1 red bell pepper, seeded and quartered
1 green bell pepper, seeded and quartered
1 green zucchini, halved lengthwise and crosswise
1 yellow zucchini, halved lengthwise and crosswise
10 large fresh mushrooms
To make the marinade, in a large bowl, combine the vinegar, oil, soy sauce, mustard and honey and whisk until blended. Add the peppers, zucchini and mushrooms and toss to coat well. Cover, refrigerate and marinate for 15 minutes to 8 hours. Prepare a fire in an outdoor charcoal grill or preheat a broiler. Place the vegetables on the grill or in the broiler and discard the marinade. Grill or broil for 5 minutes. Turn and grill or broil just until char marks appear, about 5 minutes more. To serve, divided among 4 individual plates. Serves 4.
Per serving: 94 calories, 3 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 247 mg sodium.
Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian at Hy-Vee in Springfield, Ill., and the media representative for the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For comments or questions, contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @Nutrition Rd. To find out more about Charlyn Fargo and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.