Nutrition is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, but many Americans fail to make it a priority, as evidenced by the climbing rates of obesity and chronic disease. While some may cling to hopes of better health through fad diets or health supplements, the key to eating healthy can be found in the sage advice of mothers everywhere: “Eat your vegetables!”
Forget the familiar, yet confusing, food pyramid. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) now recommends a diet built around plants. MyPlate, the food guide introduced in 2011, is based on the latest scientific findings and advice from registered dietitians. It encourages a diet full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and a reduced emphasis on meat.
“You need to move to more of a plant-based diet,” advises David Spreadbury, Ph.D., professor emeritus of biochemistry and nutrition. “Eighty percent of chronic diseases are preventable. Placing more emphasis on fruits, vegetables and whole grains in your diet will reduce the risk of these diseases that show up later in life.”
Making the switch to a plant-based diet can be tough. Our bodies require and crave protein, which meat provides. However, Spreadbury maintains that you can easily get one-half to two-thirds of your daily protein intake from plants by following a few simple steps to de-emphasize meat in your meals.
- Use meat substitutes. Legumes, beans, peas, lentils and soy products like tofu are all excellent plant-based sources of protein that can replace meat in your diet.
- Reevaluate your plate. Meat has been the centerpiece of the traditional American meal for years. MyPlate recommends filling half your plate with fruits and veggies, relegating meat to the role of a side dish.
- Think of dishes as grain-based. Build your meals around whole-grain pastas and rice or make stir fry dishes. Mix in lots of vegetables and a little meat to enhance the flavor.
- Make a gradual shift. You don’t have to cut out meat cold turkey. Slowly change the focus of your diet from meat to plants by incorporating a higher quantity of fresh fruits and veggies each week.
A lifetime of bad eating habits can come back to haunt you in the form of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity and cognitive decline. The earlier you take the initiative to alter your diet, the easier it is to maintain.
“We can do so much for our health by making small changes to our diet,” Spreadbury says. “It’s never too late to make a change, no matter how old you are!”