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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

A Plant-Based Diet is a Healthy Choice
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By Huawei Zeng

What is a plant-based diet? Currently, there are two major sources of food in our diets-plants and animals. A primarily plant-based meal should be made up of plant foods, including vegetables, fruits, grain (especially whole grains), tubers and legumes. It should be pointed out, however, that a plant-based diet is not the same as a vegetarian diet, and it can include a wide range of eating styles between the extremes of either traditional American diets, abundant in meat, or strict vegetarianism.

Why eat a plant-based diet? Vegetables, fruits and other plant foods are rich sources of antioxidant nutrients (like vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and other carotenoids) that may protect our cells from damage by cancer-causing agents, halting the earliest processes that lead to cancer. In addition, they contain thousands of phytochemicals (natural substances in plants, like indoles, isoflavones and polyphenols) that appear to protect against cancer in a variety of ways.

But cancer protection is just one of many potential health benefits of a plant-based diet. Eating an abundance of vegetables, fruits and other plant foods may protect against heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension and birth defects. Soluble fiber from grains and legumes may help lower blood cholesterol. Antioxidants in plant foods may help prevent cataracts, and carotenoids specifically appear to prevent deterioration of the retina of the eye. A plant-based diet can also contribute significantly to reducing obesity, a risk factor for cancer and other diseases.

How can a "primarily plant-based diet" become the norm for your everyday kitchen table? Take a closer look at your plate. Fill at least two thirds of your plate with plant-based foods and one-third or less with lean meat, poultry, fish or low fat dairy foods. Don't forget to vary your choices because each vegetable and fruit has its own individual profile of cancer-protective nutrients and phytochemicals. If you typically eat only two or three kinds of fruits and vegetables, make a point of sampling new ones. Here are a few ways that you can easily include fruits throughout the day. At breakfast, top your cereal with bananas or peaches; add blueberries to pancakes; drink 100% orange or grapefruit juice. At lunch, pack a tangerine, banana, or grapes to eat, or choose fruits from a salad bar. At dinner, add crushed pineapple to coleslaw; include mandarin oranges in a tossed salad; have a fruit salad for dessert.

There are also several ways to include vegetables in your diet. (1) Spice it, by topping corn or black beans with salsa, adding garlic to mashed potatoes and adding a dash of nutmeg to spinach dishes. (2) Slice it, by adding cooked, chopped onions to cooked peas, adding sliced or diced vegetables to meatloaf, stews, or scrambled eggs, and making grated carrot salad. (3) Mix it, by cooking zucchini and stewed tomatoes together, mixing green beans, Italian dressing, and almonds together and stir frying broccoli with chicken or beef. (4) Zap it, by micro waving broccoli and sprinkling on Parmesan cheese, micro waving a sweet potato with ground cloves or cinnamon on top, and heating frozen mixed vegetables for a side dish.

We often hear that "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." A plant-based diet may be one of our best and most practical ways to prevent chronic disease. Thus, to boost your health, it is sound strategy to move toward a plant-based diet.

Last Modified: 10/23/2006
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