The most commom New's Year's Resolution is weight loss. I've had many people tell me that they're adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet for just that purpose. I've also had vegetarians and vegans tell me that can't understand why they have a few extra pounds, since they consume a plant based diet.
It's a misconception that a plant based diet automatically equals a healthier diet. Certain rules apply whether you are an omnivore, vegetarian, vegan, or something in between. Good nutrition is good nutrition.
Six basic nutrients are neded for life: protein, carbohydrates, fat, water, vitamins and minerals. Each of the nutrients have a purpose. Protein repairs cells. Carbohydrates are fuel. Fat pads the organs. Water acts as a catalyst for all those chemical experiments that are constantly being performed inside your body, and hydrates as well. Vitamins and minerals host the phytochemicals and antioxidants that fight the free radicals that cause disease. This is an oversimplified explanation, but it presents a valid argument for eating mindfully.
Putting the emphasis on what we need in our meal plans instead of what we shouldn't have can eliminate feelings of deprivation. Vegetarians, ironically, are often just as light in the vegetable department as their meat eating counterparts. Research suggests that we need 7 servings per day, and 2 fruits. Vegetables are a complex carbohydrate. Vitamins and mnerals are found in complex carbohydrates. Fat can't be burned without carbohydrates. Carbohydrates can't be stored without water. Life is a circle in more ways than one! Our bodies are truly amazing and complex machines.
It's easy to take the mystery out of the biology; just keep it simple. Eat foods closest to their source of origin. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and ample protein supply the nutrients that keep us whole and healthy. Try old fashioned oatmeal for breakfast with a small handful of raisins and hemp seeds sprinkled on top, or an Ezekiel English Muffin with almond butter and a banana. A big salad for lunch with a chickpea salad on top, or a tempeh stirfry with brown rice, is much more nutritious than something out of the freezer section in the grocery store. Chili and a Mexican vegetable medley for dinner, or baked tofu, quinoa and steamed green vegetables, are not only tasty choices, but usually choices that provide leftovers for lunch the next day. Between meals I often reach for a small handful of unsalted nuts, or hummus and raw veggies. Do you notice anything missing? Prepackaged foods, vegan or not, are not usually on your "A" list. In fact, if you don't understand every ingredient on the package, put it back. If you need a degree in chemistry to understand what's in your food, do you really want to eat it?
Ideally our bodies like a little nutrition coming in about every 2 1/2 to 3 hours, 5-6 times per day. It helps to keep your metabolism humming along and your blood sugar stable. What I choose to eat, and when, depends on what I've been doing. If I've been working out hard in the gym i know I need a carb and a protein within an hour of my workout. First thing in the morning I eat oatmeal because my glycogen storage is low from fasting all night. A little education goes a long way in helping to make smart choices.
Many diet plans tout the evils of carbohydrates. Actually, it's simple carbohydrates (sugars), not complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes), that gave them the bad rap. There is a gray area, refined carbohydrates, where a perfectly good grain is stripped and ground and mixed with any number of things, to produce something like a cracker. The status of the end result takes lots of sleuthing by the consumer. Do you recognize every ingredient on the label? How much sodium is in it? How big is a serving? Keeping it simple by choosing mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains eliminates the guessing game. Carbohydrates are the only source of fuel for your brain. If that isn't an important job, I don't know what is. Choose them wisely.
In our fast paced world it's almost impossible to eat perfect all of the time. If you do what you need to do for health most of the time, your body will absorb those moments when your choices fall short. I call it the 80/20 approach. It's pragmatic and allows for moments of indulgence as well as well times when life intrudes on the best made plans.
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.