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posted: 3/7/2012 6:00 AM

Plant-based meals get your plate, and you, in shape

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  • Bob Chwedyk/ Black Bean burger with low fat cheese for nutrition column.

    Bob Chwedyk/ Black Bean burger with low fat cheese for nutrition column.


For some of you March may find you thinking about your children's upcoming spring break, but for dietitians March means National Nutrition Month. During nutrition month we focus on getting healthy messages out to the public, and this year our theme is Get Your Plate in Shape.

The plate refers to the MyPlate icon unveiled last year along with new dietary guidelines that demonstrate how to eat a healthy diet. The plate icon is simple and memorable since most everyone eats from a plate at meal time, and it resonates better than the pyramid it replaced.

So how do we get our plate, and consequently ourselves, in shape? Focusing on a plant-based diet is one of the best ways, according to studies about preventing chronic disease.

Yet don't confuse plant-based with vegetarian. By plant-based we mean putting more emphasis on consuming foods from plants (vegetables, fruits, whole grains) than food of animal origin.

There are several types of plant-based diets. A vegan diet excludes meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy, in other words, any foods that come from an animal. Lacto vegetarian excludes meat, fish and eggs, but includes dairy products. A Lacto ovo vegetarian diet plan excludes animal-origin foods but includes dairy and eggs. A flexitarian meal plan is a semi-vegetarian diet that includes meat, dairy, eggs, poultry and fish on occasion, or in small quantities.

Plant-based diets not only help prevent chronic disease but also help manage chronic diseases. On the other extreme, eating foods packed with saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in your blood, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke, and increasing your risk of Type 2 diabetes.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of saturated fats you eat to less than 7 percent of your total daily calories. So, if you consume about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 140 calories, or 16 grams, should be saturated fats. Eat a cheeseburger and french fries and you've hit the recommended limit.

Plant-based foods, on the other hand, are cholesterol free and often lower in saturated fat than animal proteins.

Filling half of your plate with produce and one quarter of the plate with a whole grain puts you at a great starting point to meet the definition of a plant-based diet (three quarters of our plate is already filled with plant sources). As for the rest of the plate, choose lean meats or modify the section with plant-based proteins such as nuts, nut butters, seeds, beans, quinoa, seitan (wheat meat) or soy.

Many of your favorite recipes can be transformed creatively into a plant-based meal by swapping out the animal protein for a plant-based protein. Soy that is cut into cubes or slices of tempeh work well in a stir fry. Quinoa can be served cooked with diced vegetables and fruit. Beans can replace beef or chicken in chili, stew, or soups.

There are so many options for meals using plant-based proteins plus the health benefits a plant- based diet has to offer, why not give it a try? If you are skeptical, opt for serving a plant-based meal once or twice a week.

Try this recipe: These black bean burgers make a tasty alternative to beef burgers.

• Toby Smithson, a registered dietitian, works for the Lake County Health Department/Community Health Center and is a national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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