When I decided to become a vegetarian some 30 years ago, many people worried about how I was going to get enough protein. There was a copy of France Moore Lappé’s Diet For A Small Planet (1971) in my parents’ house and, after reading it, I was sure it was possible to get enough protein even without meat. Besides eggs and cheese and such, there was of course tofu; my family is Chinese-American and frequently ate tofu already. Plus, as I came to learn, generations of my ancestors in peasant villages in southern China had subsisted on little meat, slicing it thin to make a little go a long way with their vegetables and rice.
As Seattle-based dietician Andy Bellatti writes on Grist, there is protein in almost every food, vegetables included. Indeed, while eating less animal protein is “by and large, the most environmentally friendly dietary decision one can make,” Bellatti argues that we really ought to be focusing on making sure we eat enough plant-based foods. Proper nutrition isn’t just about getting all your vitamins and minerals; we should rather be focusing on chemical compounds called phytonutrients that occur naturally in plant-based foods.
Not only do phytonutrients give vegetables, fruits, beans and grains their colors and aromas. Bellatti describes some of their numerous health benefits:
Quercetin – a phytonutrient found in apple peels, onions, and tea — is believed to improve blood cholesterol levels and help lower the risk of some cancers. Research on isothiocyanates, abundant in dark leafy greens, has also demonstrated their capacity to help protect against chronic disease. Other popular phytonutrients include lignans (in flax and sesame seeds) and phenolic acids (peanuts, walnuts). Mind you, there are over 170 phytochemicals in a single orange.
Bellatti emphasizes that phytonutrients are “sensitive to processing” — that is, eating an actual apple or orange gives you their benefits, rather than drinking apple or orange juice.
Rather than putting so much of a focus on getting enough meat and protein in our diet, Bellatti argues that we need to eat more whole, plant-based foods. Indeed, Americans, he says, are actually ”in the grips of a nutritional deficit disorder that would be drastically minimized if we all started eating less meat and more plants.”
Many efforts are currently being made to develop synthetic meat; to make “fake chicken” from vegetables that “finally” tastes like chicken. But, according to Bellatti, these efforts to manufacture “shmeat” that resembles the real thing are, however well-intended, misplaced. It is not meat, human-made or nature’s own, that we should focus on in the interest of the best nutrition and health, but on eating vegetables, grains and plant-based foods.
How many of us are making sure to eat that apple-a-day to keep the doctor away?
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Photo by Claude Fabry