Plant foods are hot. The message to eat more plant foods is everywhere, as a welcome and healthier alternative to meat-heavy low carb diets. But what exactly does it mean to eat more plants? Just have salad everyday? An apple with lunch? In fact, the More Plant Foods message is about creating entire meals with mostly, or only, plant foods, such as beans, grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit. The problem for most people is how to do that. In most developed countries, meals are structured around large pieces of meat, with plant-based foods as side dishes. Creating plant-based meals means rethinking food: learning about new foods, learning how to prepare them and learning about new flavors.
A new book — The Plant Powered Diet — can help. Author and registered dietitian Sharon Palmer, RD has written a book that presents convincing arguments about why eating more plant foods is a great idea, along with plenty of tips, advice and recipes to help people transition away from meat-centered meals. A self-described flexible vegan — she’s open to eating vegetarian when the situation demands — Palmer writes from her own personal experience with plant-centered meals.
I recently spoke with Palmer, and my first question to her was about the intended audience for The Plant Powered Diet. A book like this is not likely to appeal to entrenched meat eaters. She agrees, and emphasizes that eating plant-focused meals does not necessarily mean completely giving up meat, just eating less of it. She cites the Mediterranean Diet as a model for some of her recipes.
In our protein-obsessed society, plant-based meals strike fear in the hearts of meat eaters. Where will they get all the protein they think they need? In fact, actual daily protein requirement is not that high, while many plant foods are surprisingly high in protein. I asked Palmer about how to get enough protein from a plant based diet. She emphasizes that eating a diversity of plant foods can guarantee adequate protein intake. She notes that the concept of always eating complementary protein foods, like grains and beans, together at a meal is rather outdated. Again, a diversity of plant foods is key, with an emphasis on those that are particularly high in protein, like legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Speaking of diversity in food choices, our discussion turned to soy burgers and alternative meat-like products. Lots of people think switching to a plant based diet is just a matter of eating soy burgers instead of meat burgers. Not true. Palmer wants people to focus on whole, relatively unprocessed plant foods, not fake meat.
When I asked Palmer what the main barrier to a plant-based diet, she said “cooking”. People are cooking less and young people grow up knowing nothing about cooking at all. She wants to assure readers that this is all do-able. Plant-powered recipes don’t have to be complicated. The Plant Powered Diet gives readers plenty of advice on food shopping and cooking. Her advice: find some simple recipes you will enjoy on a regular basis. In the podcast she talks about three of her favorite recipes: apple pie oatmeal for breakfast, black bean quinoa salad and sautéed greens. Another of her favorites is the vegetable lasagna which uses a soy-based cheese, but use real cheese if you prefer. You can find a video of Palmer making the Southwest black bean salad on her website.
Cooking isn’t the only barrier to switching to a plant-based diet. Our image of what a meal looks like certainly influences our choices and expectations. Meals are traditionally centered around a piece of meat, but a plant based diet has no such center. Palmer discussed how people can re-envision the image of what a meal looks like, from a meat-centered plate to a plant food centered plate. What’s for dinner? Kale. Now what will go with that?
While The Plant Powered Diet offers plenty of health reasons for moving to a plant-based diet, another argument is the environmental impact of livestock agriculture. It’s far less efficient to grow grains and legumes and feed them to animals than to just eat those grains and legumes ourselves. But certainly the health arguments are significant, from reduced incidence of major diseases like heart disease and diabetes, to less obesity.
So if those arguments sound convincing, but you need some guidance on switching to plant centered meals, check out The Plant-Powered Diet.