Want to control your weight, have more energy and even live longer? Vegies can help you do all these things — and more — if you eat them every day, says dietitian Helen Bond.
The healthiest diets in the world have one important thing in common: They’re all based on plant foods.
Take the Japanese, for instance. Renowned as one of the world’s healthiest peoples, they eat small meals full of grains, soya, fish, seaweed, shellfish and green tea — but relatively little meat and dairy produce.
Similarly, people living in Mediterranean countries enjoy long life expectancies and low rates of heart disease thanks to their traditional diets. They too eat plenty of vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, fish, nuts, olive oil and legumes (such as beans and lentils), and eat only modest amounts of meat.
Tellingly, as these cultures have become more Westernised, the percentage of plant foods in their diets has significantly shrunk. As a result, their people are now suffering from obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, among other health problems that we in the West know only too well.
Nature knows best
Overwhelming evidence from numerous studies proves that plant foods are powerful allies in our quest for good health. In fact, many leading international health bodies, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), emphasise the link between eating plant-based diets and enjoying good health.
Still, animal foods contain a wide range of essential nutrients, too. Red meat is rich in iron and zinc, dairy products are loaded with calcium, seafood is high in iodine and selenium, and oily fish is full of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. These animal foods also provide energising protein and B vitamins, such as B12, which plants lack. (Besides, many of us find these foods pretty tasty, too!)
Happily, nutrition experts say there’s no need to cross meat, fish and dairy off the menu for good (unless you want to, of course), but in general, we do need to put the brakes on our consumption of animal foods. Australians are currently among the most enthusiastic meat eaters in the world, according to the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries, which confirms that we’re chewing our way through approximately 110kg of meat per person every year.
The 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines, which are based on the latest scientific evidence, advise us to eat no more than 455g of cooked lean red meat a week. That’s roughly 100 to 120g of raw meat, a serve no larger than the palm of your hand, three to four times a week. Meanwhile, these same guidelines tell us that we should be eating five serves of vegetables every day, but only 7 per cent of us actually do. The good news is that 54 per cent of us are managing to eat our two daily serves of fruit.
The health message is simple: Put plants first. Make plant foods the stars of all your meals and snacks, and let animal foods take more of a supporting role.
Want to eat more vegies? It’s easy!
When you’re deciding what to have for dinner, you probably start by saying something like “I feel like chicken” or “I think we’ve got some chops in the fridge”. Many of us are in the habit of automatically planning our meals around meat.
The key to eating a healthier diet? Stop thinking of vegetables as sides and start exploring their incredibly versatile flavours and textures. Consider the many ways you can spice up a capsicum, for example, or which flavours work well with sweet potato, or whether your stir-fry needs extra veg.Grow these changes gradually. If your family eats meat every day, why not introduce them to meat-free Mondays?
Once you’re all used to having a vegetarian dinner once a week and are enjoying tasty new recipes, build on this by including more vegie-based meals and snacks on the other six days of the week.
Now green your eating plan
Kick-start your plant-powered diet with these fabulous quick and easy meat-free meals:
When you do eat meat, be mindful of portion sizes. You can make a really satisfying meal with just a palm-size portion of steak, fish or chicken if you prepare your vegetables in creative and flavoursome ways. Have fun!
Five serves a day
That’s the amount of veg we should aim for. One serve is:
1/2 cup cooked green or orange vegies (such as spinach, broccoli or carrots)
1/2 cup cooked dried or canned peas, beans or lentils
1 cup leafy greens or raw salad vegies
1/2 cup sweet corn
1/2 medium potato or other starchy veg (such as potato, sweet potato and parsnip)
Five rewards you’ll reap from eating less meat
1. You’ll lose weight
Meat-free meals aid weight loss in two ways. First, vegetables are packed with fibre, which keeps you feeling full for longer. Second, vegies are lower in kilojoules than meat is, so they can help you maintain a healthy weight or kick kilos.
2. You’ll save money
Red meat remains one of the most expensive foods in our shopping trolleys, so eating less of it can make an attractive dent in your weekly grocery bill.
3. You’ll lower your cancer risk
Large studies link a high intake of red meat and processed deli meats (such as ham, salami and bacon) to a heightened risk of bowel cancer. In contrast, plant foods provide fibre and key nutrients as well as antioxidants, which help protect the body’s cells from damage that can cause cancer.
4. You’ll help the environment
Many of us think that carbon-spouting cars and planes are the main culprits in accelerating global warming, so you may be surprised to hear that livestock farming is a serious offender.
Flatulent, belching cattle expel a massive amount of methane, and CSIRO experts estimate that this discharge makes up about 10 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
5. You’ll keep cholesterol in check
Red and processed meats are major sources of saturated fat. Consuming too much of this fat can raise cholesterol and lead to heart disease. Plant foods, however, are typically low in sat fat, and some (such as nuts, seeds, avocado and vegetable oils) are high in unsaturated fats, which actually help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Grains are also rich in beta-glucan, a soluble fibre that binds with cholesterol in the digestive tract, preventing its absorption. Plant sterols and stanols help lower cholesterol, too, again by inhibiting its absorption in the gut.
The roots of Meat-Free Monday
During WWI, US authorities launch ‘Meatless Mondays’ and ‘Wheatless Wednesdays’ to reduce the amount of staple foods Americans are eating to help the war effort.
During WWII, the US revives these meat-free campaigns, which continue as the States send food aid to war-torn Europe.
In 2003, a US businessman again relaunches Meatless Monday in response to rising rates of preventable health problems (which experts link to the overconsumption of meat).
In 2009, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and two of his daughters launch Meat-Free Monday in the UK.
Today, Meat-Free Monday is a global initiative with traction in Europe, the Middle East and here in Australia, where FoodWise backs the movement to help improve food sustainability.