How can we enjoy a balanced diet and avoid the common pitfalls of plant-based eating?

Plant-based diets have been a popular topic in the news lately, whether the subject is on the best new vegetarian “meat” brands, climate change, or land use. A recent study published on August 7, 2019 now adds to the discussion by revealing that a mostly plant-based diet can benefit cardiovascular health – if done correctly.

Plant-Based Diets For Prevention

In this recent study, researchers used data on 12,168 adults who signed up for the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. Compared to adults who scored in the bottom fifth for plant-based food consumption, participants in the top fifth had a 32 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular causes. They also had a 25 percent lower all-cause mortality rate and a 16 percent lower cardiovascular disease rate. But was it just correlation? The study authors adjusted results for factors such as smoking, alcohol, and exercise to reduce the interference of healthy lifestyles.

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you must go completely vegan. As one of the researchers, Casey M. Rebholz, states: “There might be some variability in terms of individual foods, but to reduce cardiovascular disease risk, people should eat more vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fruits, legumes, and fewer animal based foods.”

Are The New And Trendy Fake Meats Healthy?

Fake meats, such as the Beyond Meat Burger and the Impossible Burger, are rapidly gaining popularity for their flavor; lower usage of land, water and other resources; and their “disruptive” image. However, you may be wasting your time if you eat them for health reasons. For example, while it no longer contains gluten, the Impossible Burger’s main ingredient is now GMO soy. The CEO claims that this is “the safest and most environmentally responsible option” – but is this really true?

First, soy protein concentrates and isolates have the lowest beneficial isoflavone levels of all soy products. Second, GMO soy is harmful to humans and the environment. Studies have shown that planting Roundup Ready (glyphosate-tolerant) soy quickly leads to resistant “superweeds”, so farmers must spray more herbicides to combat them. GMO soy therefore contains high levels of glyphosate residues and AMPA, its toxic breakdown product. Glyphosate alters gene function and contributes to a range of conditions from ADHD to coeliac disease. On the other hand, organic soy is richer in protein and zinc but lower in omega-6 fatty acids. Additionally, its similarity to meat partly comes from yeast genetically modified to produce a heme-like molecule from soy. This compound, soy leghemoglobin, naturally occurs in the root, but long-term safety of consuming significant amounts is still unknown.

The Flexitarian Fix

How can we reduce our consumption of animal foods for health (or other) reasons, without risking pitfalls such as vitamin B12 deficiency? The best solution for some is a flexitarian diet.

A flexitarian diet is achieved when three-quarters of animal foods that you would otherwise eat are replaced with plant protein sources, and red meat is consumed roughly once per week. This gives you a level of flexibility to avoid deficiencies in iron, calcium, iodine, zinc, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids. When you do eat meat, grass-fed beef and SMASH fish (Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines and Herring) are some of the best options. Sardines, for example, are rich in essential fatty acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and selenium. Grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3 fatty acids than conventional grain-fed beef.

When going flexitarian, look out for minimally processed, organic foods. Non-organic grains and legumes are typically sprayed with glyphosate before harvest to speed up the drying process. As grains and legumes contain high levels of lectins too, it is best to employ soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and other long-term cooking techniques that reduce them to a safe level. This also improves iron absorption from plant foods, alongside vitamin C-rich produce. Finally, remember not to focus too much on grains, beans, and legumes. Fruits and vegetables should make up over half of our diets, and some experts even say roughly two-thirds. Stuck with how to get started eating more fruit and vegetables? Check out these recipes for some healthy starters or side dishes.

A flexitarian diet is a great option for many people seeking optimal health. As we metabolize foods differently, however, gene or blood testing can be indicated when determining your individual needs.

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