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What is the optimal plant-based diet?

Plant-based diets were once reserved for “hippies” and “granola crunchers”; however, they are becoming mainstream- even celebrities and elite athletes are jumping on the bandwagon! And for good reason; plant-based diets have been shown to be extremely beneficial for your health!

Definition

There are a variety of plant-based diets. These include semi-vegetarianism (also known as flexitarianism), vegetarianism, veganism, raw veganism, and fruitarianism. With the variety of plant-based diets that abound, you might wonder “What is the optimal plant-based diet?” The answer is simpler than you might think. The optimal plant-based diet is one that only includes plant foods. It is a diet that includes unrefined fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains with a limited amount of refined and processed foods such as oils. This is in contrast to second hand foods (discussed later on in this article).

First Hand Foods

First hand foods provide the ideal fuel for your body as they provide you with all the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (otherwise known as macro nutrients) that you need from Mother Nature’s precious packages – plants. Our bodies, from our teeth to our guts, are designed to handle a wide variety of plant foods. What’s more, a carefully planned and supplemented plant-based diet can also provide you with all the phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals you need to help you live longer and lower your risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. And don’t just take my word for it: research shows that this is the diet most associated with longevity and decreased risk of chronic diseases!

Second Hand Foods

Now, what are second hand foods? Second hand foods are those that get processed by an animal before you get to eat them. Think about it, if you were thinking about anything else in life, what would you consider the better product- a second hand product or the first hand (original product)? The original of course! So, when it comes to feeding our bodies, this is true as well.

Animal products such as red meat, poultry, and fish are all sources of second (or third or even fourth) hand sources of fat and protein.The cow gets all its nutrition from plant products while poultry gets all its nutrition from grain, grass, bugs (by the way, bugs get all their nutrition from plants or microorganisms as well). Likewise, a fish gets its nutrition from algae and plankton or from smaller fish that ate the plankton, somewhere down the food chain. What about animal derivatives such as milk, eggs, and cheese? These are just further down the line. Not only are animal products sources of second hand macro nutrients, they also come along with their own baggage such as antibiotics, concentrated pollutants and pesticides, and toxic heavy metals.

How to Design an Optimal Plant-Based Diet

When designing an optimal plant-based diet you have to think about the various proportions of different food groups as well as the quality and method of preparation. Stay tuned for other articles that will deal with those last two aspects.

In terms of proportions of different food groups, I recommend that you look at the Power Plate Food Groups if you are wondering what  food groups to put on your plate. This eating plan was designed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit group of physicians looking at the evidence for the healthiest lifestyles. When you are looking at how much to include of each of these food groups, here are some guidelines to consider:

Vegetables – Consume large amounts (3-4 cups) of leafy greens every day. These are excellent sources of minerals, vitamins and phytonutrients (healthy promoting substances) essential for preventing disease. Use smaller amounts of starchy and root vegetables such as beets, carrots, potatoes, peas and corn on a weekly basis. Make sure you are getting a good amount of raw vegetables, but some cooked as well. This is because many vegetables retain most of their vitamins and minerals in the raw state, while some vegetables, notably tomatoes, actually increase their phytonutrient availability  in the cooked state.

Fruit – Eat a variety of fruits and tailor your consumption based on your personal needs. If you have problems with your blood sugar, you may need to limit your fruit intake particularly your intake of tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango, bananas etc. as they are high in sugar.

Legumes – Eat at least 1 – 2 cups of legumes every day. You can spread this out over several meals. Also, ensure that you eat a variety of legumes each week to maximize your health benefits. Legumes are so versatile that they can be consumed plain, lightly seasoned, or even integrated into salads, patties, roasts, soups, and burritos.

Whole grains – Many people seem to fare better if they stick to organic versions of grains (especially wheat) and/or pick those that are low in gluten or gluten-free. Whole grains should occupy no more than 1/4 of your plate. Focus on whole grains such as brown rice, millet, amaranth, quinoa, and oats. Many people also fare better if they avoid grain-flourbased foods or use them sparingly.

Raw Nuts and Seeds – These are concentrated fat and protein sources so should not be used liberally, but you should have some every day as they contain healthy fats that may lower your risk of heart disease. If you wish to toast them, you should do so slightly with little added salt or oil.

A word of caution: Make sure you are getting enough Vitamins B12 and D. Vitamin B12 is available in fortified foods as well as in supplement form. An adult needs about 5 mcg … yes that’s right, only 5 micrograms on a daily basis. Work with your physician to determine whether you need supplemental Vitamin D to keep your level above 45 ng/ml or so.

These are the building blocks for the optimal plant-based diet.

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