Why You Should Eat a Plant-based Diet & How to Get Started

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Watercress salsa with bean chipsThis post is sponsored by B&W Quality Growers, the world’s largest grower and marketer of watercress.

Eating a plant-based diet will improve your health. Plant-based diets are associated with lower rates of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and better cognition (1,2,3,4).  Data from vegetarians suggests plant-based diets might also be associated with a longer lifespan (5).  If you love dairy or meat, you don’t have to give up either to benefit from a plant-based diet. But you will benefit from adding more plant-foods, particularly leafy greens like watercress for a healthy body and mind.

Fortified with more than 18 essential vitamins and minerals, watercress is the healthiest leafy vegetable on the planet as it is high in water content, a naturally low calorie and low-fat food. It’s also one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables in the world, earning perfect score on the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) nutrient density scale.

What is Plant-Based?

Plant-based means the bulk of your diet comes from plants. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes (beans, peas, lentils and more) are the staples of a plant-based diet.

Eating plant-based does not mean you never eat dairy, eggs, meat, fish, or poultry. However, these foods do not make up the bulk of your diet when you are eating plant-based.

How does a Plant-Based Diet Lower Disease Risk?

Plant foods are all not only full of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates protein and healthy fats but they are also full of fiber and phytonutrients. Most Americans get half the fiber they need each day for good health. In addition to helping support digestion and preventing constipation, fiber feeds the good bacteria in our gut. The health of our gut depends on the diversity and type of bacteria that live there. Also, most of our immune system is in our gut making gut health important for immune health and, because of the gut brain axis (the gut and brain talk to each other), brain health. Gut health is quickly becoming a hot topic as scientists learn more about the importance of gut health every day.

How to Make Your Diet Plant-Based:

1. Eat More Leafy Greens

As part of the MIND diet, leafy greens are linked to a lower rate of cognitive decline. Watercress is a cruciferous vegetable, which are generally known as cancer-fighters due to their high levels of phytochemicals known as isothiocyanates. A growing body of evidence suggests watercress earns its “superleaf” title because it may help prevent the spread of cancer cells (6,7). Plus, it is a good source of vitamin A, an essential vitamin necessary for normal vision, skin health, and maintaining immune function (2). Watercress is also high in the antioxidant vitamin C, which protects the body against free radicals. Vitamin C also supports the normal function of blood vessels, healing of wounds, iron absorption, and neurological function (3).

– Try my favorite snack: watercress salsa along with lentil or bean chips (post recipe below).

– Spread avocado mash on a piece of higher fiber toast (my favorite one is made from almond and sweet potato flour) and top it with watercress, feta and a drizzle of balsamic glaze.

– Make broad bean or garbanzo bean chips.

– Dip celery or carrots in peanut, almond or another nut butter.

– Make my favorite salad: Watercress, pear, fig and goat cheese salad.

2. Try different forms of plant-based foods.

There are many forms and ways to cook each plant-food!
– Lentil or bean pastas are a fantastic substitute for regular pasta.
– Split pea soup vs. peas.

– Brussels sprouts cooked with turkey neck vs. roasted and crispy.

– Top cauliflower with avocado oil and parmesan cheese and roast it.

– Boil red potatoes and add olive oil and dill after cooking.

3. Make your dessert fruit and nut-based.

Fruit is available all year long. From watermelon in the summer to pumpkin in the Fall, there are many ways to enjoy fruits for dessert. I like pairing plain Greek yogurt with berries or grapes and a sprinkle of granola.

4. Add greens to your smoothie.

Use greens like watercress to enhance your favorite fruit smoothie. This is the perfect way to get more greens in your diet. My favorite smoothie includes 8 oz. 100% orange juice, a handful of frozen watercress (any time I can’t use a fruit or vegetable in a timely manner I freeze it), frozen mango, ginger and vanilla or unflavored whey protein powder (an amount that contains 30 grams of protein).

5. Add vegetables to your main dishes.

– Chopped mushrooms and onions work well in beef or turkey patties.

– Add veggies to your kabobs. Try grilled veggie and meat (or tofu, which is made from soybeans!) kabobs.

– Top your pizza with sliced tomatoes, broccoli, onions, peppers and mushrooms.

– Chili is a great staple for the winter and naturally loaded with beans and diced tomatoes.

 

References

1 McMacken M, Shah S. A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes. J Geriatr Cardiol 2017;14(5): 342-354.

2 Kahleova H et al. Cardio-Metabolic Benefits of Plant-Based Diets. Nutrients 2017;9(8): 848.

3 Lanou AJ, Svenson B. Reduced cancer risk in vegetarians: an analysis of recent reports. Cancer Mang Res 2011;3: 1- 8.

4 Hardman RJ. Adherence to a Mediterranean-Style Diet and Effects on Cognition in Adults: A Qualitative Evaluation and Systematic Review of Longitudinal and Prospective Trials. Front Nutr 2016;3: 22.

5 Orlich MJ. Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Mortality in Adventist Health Study 2. JAMA Intern Med 2013; 173(13): 1230-1238.

6 Gill IR et al. Watercress supplementation in diet reduces lymphocyte DNA damage and alters blood antioxidant status in healthy adults. Am J Clin Nutr 2007;85(2): 504-510.

7 Boyd LA et al. Assessment of the anti-genotoxic, anti-proliferative, and anti-metastatic potential of crude watercress extract in human colon cancer cells. Nutr Cancer 2006;55(2): 232-41.

 

Watercress, Pear, Fig and Goat Cheese Salad

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Watercress Salad tempts your Taste buds and Sharpens your Mind

Salads have come a long way since the days of iceberg lettuce with tomatoes and carrots sprinkled on top. Today’s salad combines a unique blend of tastes and textures along with ingredients to support your brain and body. I’m teaming up this year with B&W Quality Growers to share nutrition information and recipes on watercress.

As a dietitian I grew up with limited exposure to a wide variety of foods and a love for potato chips and baking anything sweet (from fudge to cinnamon swirl bread from scratch). My interest in nutrition led me to read many books on nutrition and athletic performance as well as overall health. When I opened my mind to trying a wide array of foods and learning about quality ingredients I realized healthy eating could give me the energy I needed and help me feel really good. This was an ah-ha moment: I didn’t have to compromise good taste to fuel my body well.

With a healthy dose of skepticism I tried different dark green leafy vegetables. Watercress quickly became one of my favorites. It has a sweet yet slightly bitter taste and works well with a wide array of vegetables and fruits. Plus, it packs a serious nutrition punch. Watercress is a good source of vitamins A and C. Vitamin A is essential for normal vision, skin health and maintaining immune functioning. Vitamin C is another powerhouse. It protects the body from harm due to free radicals. Free radicals are essential for health but they can run around and cause damage too. Vitamin C also supports blood vessel functioning, wound healing, iron absorption and nerve functioning.

Watercress is also an excellent source of vitamin K. Vitamin K forms and strengthens bones and limits nerve damage in the brain. As a green leafy vegetable it also protects against cognitive decline. A study published in the journal neurology found higher intake of green leafy vegetables, 1.3 servings each day, helped slow brain decline associated with aging compared to those who ate little green leafy vegetables getting only about 0.1 servings, on average, per day. Leafy greens, like watercress, are part of the MIND diet, a diet that is associated with a 53% lower risk in cognitive decline!

One of my new favorites combines the tantalizing tastes of watercress, pear, fig and goat cheese with balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.

Choosing Quality Ingredients

Ingredients matter. I choose soft dried Turkish figs since they are tender and moist. I opted for good aged balsamic vinegar, from Modena, Italy (with an IGP stamp). Balsamic vinegar has a strong sweet taste that intensifies the flavor foods you drizzle it over.

Olive oil comes in a wide variety of flavors and quality. I used one from Masseria Brancati in Ostuni, Italy. In a region known for olive farming, this is arguably the oldest olive farm in the world with trees dating back over 3,000 years. Though I recommend going to this region at some point, you don’t have to travel to Italy to get a good quality olive oil. Your local grocery store should have a few good options for you to choose from. Click here for a guide to oils, including olive oil. I used Bartlett pears because they are super sweet and blend well with the sweet taste of balsamic vinegar and figs and complex flavors in watercress.

You don’t need to sacrifice health, taste and convenience. Watercress is the next hot green leafy veggie. Try it in this mouthwatering salad today!

References:

Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Bennett DA, Aggarwal NT. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimers Dement 2015;11(9):1007-14.

watercress, pear, fig and goat cheese salad

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Watercress Pear, Fig & Goat Cheese Salad
Instructions
  1. In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Set aside.
  2. In a large bowl combine rest of the ingredients. Drizzle with dressing and serve immediately.
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