Monday, March 24, 2008

The Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet

Q: Is there a risk to going vegetarian after 28 years of not? What about going vegan?

A: No doubt about it, going vegetarian is a smart move, as vegetarians have a reduced risk of chronic disease and are at much less risk for obesity. It’s never too late to switch over to a plant-based diet and begin to reap the phenomenal health benefits associated with this pattern of eating. According to the American Dietetic Association, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The key here is to note the words “appropriately planned,” for eating the vegetarian way does take some homework.

Let’s begin by defining what a vegetarian is. There are actually many different types of vegetarians. The general definition of a vegetarian is a person who does not include meat, fish or fowl in their diet. A lactovegetarian includes dairy, a lactoovovegetarian includes dairy and eggs, and a vegan abstains from eating or using all animal products and is the strictest kind of vegetarian. Newer versions of vegetarianism have evolved including flexitarians, loosely defined as individuals who eat a mostly plant-based diet but may occasionally eat small amounts of meat, fish or chicken. Then there are pesco-vegetarians (such as myself) who eat a mostly plant-based diet and choose to include a small amount of fish in their diet.

Keep in mind that since vegan diets are the most restrictive, if you choose to follow that diet, you must plan your diet carefully to include adequate amounts of protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. As with all types of diets, eating a large variety of whole foods, grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds is the best strategy for obtaining all the nutrients required for good health. For more sound nutrition information on eating the vegetarian way, go to the Vegetarian Resource Group (a nutrition practice group of the American Dietetic Association).

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Power of Antioxidants

Q: What exactly do antioxidants do and what are some great food sources?

A: Antioxidants counter the excessive production of small, highly reactive molecules in the body called reactive oxygen species (ROS). These ROS are byproducts of normal human metabolism and include both free radicals and nonradicals. ROS are capable of damaging delicate cells, especially DNA, our cells’ genetic blueprint. When the production of ROS exceeds the body’s antioxidant capacity, premature aging and the development of chronic diseases is accelerated. Thus, a large intake of antioxidants (consumed in food) theoretically would help the body fight DNA damage and oxidative stress, factors involved in disease development.

The total antioxidant power of foods is measured by the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC). According to a study by the USDA, some of the foods highest on the ORAC scale include black and red beans, blueberries, strawberries, Granny Smith apples, pecans and cranberries.

A plant-based diet filled with colorful fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, beans, whole-grains and olive oil will virtually guarantee you a huge array of health-promoting antioxidants. Plant foods are not only rich in antioxidants but also vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and polyphenols, additional factors that confer numerous health benefits, most notably protection from disease. So when it comes to antioxidants, color generally indicates concentration. Make an effort every day to harness the power of plant antioxidants by coloring your plate with dark, deep hues of green, purple, orange and blue. And remember, when it comes to antioxidants, more color = more health!