plant foods

Omega3’s–Essential Fatty Acids

Power seedsThe human body can make most types of fat that it needs but there are 2 fatty acids that we can’t make called “essential” fatty acids: one is an omega 3 FA called alpha-lenolenic acid (ALA) and the other is an omega 6 FA called linoleic acid (LA). Since we cannot make these ourselves, we must get them from food.

While it’s not so hard to get LA and ALA from foods, such as seeds, nuts, leafy greens and plant oils, it’s really the derivatives of  ALA (Eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA and docosahexaenoic acid DHA) that most benefit the human body.

The problem is ALA does not break down into these derivatives easily and plant foods (with the exception of algae) don’t contain them. EPA and DHA, on their own, are primarily found in fish.

Why do we care about EPA and DHA?

EPA and DHA are critical to your overall health.

EPA and DHA make up your cell membranes, and are especially abundant in your brain and nervous system. They enhance intracellular signaling between cells and regulate your gene expression.

EPA and DHA are the building blocks for a wide variety of hormone-like compounds, including eicosanoids (prostaglandins, prostacyclins, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes), protectins, and resolvins.

These hormone-like substances regulate blood clotting, blood pressure, immune response, cell division, pain control, and inflammation response.

As if that wasn’t enough, they also play a major role in the prevention of several diseases, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, diabetes, and some cancers. Some studies suggest that they may also protect you from dementia.

Best sources of ALA are flax, chia, hemp seeds and walnuts. To maximize conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA,

  • Don’t eat too many foods containing high levels of Omega 6 FA’s like sunflower or safflower oils. A high intake of omega-6 fatty acids can reduce conversion by as much as 40 to 60%. Trans fatty acids can also reduce conversion, as well as excess alcohol and caffeine.
  • Make sure you are not suffering from nutritional deficiencies. Nutritional deficiencies in vitamin and minerals that work as co-factors to convert the ALA – especially zinc, magnesium, niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6) and vitamin C– will slow the conversion.
  • Restrict your calories by eating a low-fat diet. Low-fat or calorie-restricted diets appear to enhance conversion, while fasting slows it down.
  • And finally these oils: echium oil, hempseed oil, and black current oil are the only plant sources of stearidonic acid (SDA), the FA that converts more easily into EPA and DHA.

If you want a direct source, consume microalgaes, like spirulina, that contain EPA and DHA.

 

 

My Top 7 Picks for Plant Protein

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My top favorite picks for plant protein are:

1. Quinoa: 11g protein/cup

A pseudograin that serves as a great high protein breakfast cereal when combined with some almond or other nut milk and berries. It’s also is a great base (instead of standard rice or other grain) that you can easily toss with veggies or beans for a hearty dinner.

RECIPE: Quinoa Black Bean Bowl: just remember to substitute vegan butter for the traditional stuff.

2. Lentils: 18g protein/cup

A yummy, flavorful bean that I use as a base for veggie burgers, soups, and stews. Try this recipe. You will love it!

RECIPE: Lentil Burgers

3. Black Beans: 15g protein/cup

Who doesn’t love rice and beans? Add onions, garlic and peppers and you are all set. Use them in chilis, stews, soups, as a base for veggie burgers. Limitless potential. I even use them for pizza crusts!

RECIPE: Cilantro Lime and Black Bean Rice

4. Tempeh: 41g protein/cup

Tempeh is a great fermented soy product that you can season with any spices you want for a flavorful, meaty texture. Turn it into reuben sandwich, bacon for your BLTs or craft it into delicious meatballs.

RECIPE: Best Vegan Tempeh Reubens

5. Spirulina: [6g protein/tsp]

The highest source of protein of any food on the planet. This blue-green algae is a complete protein that you can easily add to shakes, smoothies and juices for a high quality protein punch.

RECIPE:Rich Roll’s Deep Blue Sea Blend Smoothie

6. Seitan: 31g protein/3 oz serving

Also known as wheat gluten, seitan has the texture of meat and is excellent source of protein. You can make your own seitan (it’s not that hard) or try Gardein’s chick’n cutlets, burgers and meatloaf. Or Field Roast’s chik’n apple sausage links. Love them!

RECIPE: Seitan Gyros

7. Chickpeas: 12g protein/cup

Have you ever had “untuna salad” made from chickpeas? Unbelievable! Chickpeas are so versatile. Make your own hummus, use them in a salad, create an “un”-tuna salad or if you prefer, use chickpea flour to make everything from omelettes to pizza crusts.

RECIPE: Chickpea “Un-Tuna” Salad

 

Benefits of Soy

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There are many health benefits associated with consuming soy. For example, soy has been shown to
  • lower your risk of cardiovascular disease,
  • protect against some types of cancer
  • balance hormones to reduce hot flashes, and
  • protect against osteoporosis.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) – Scientific studies suggest that soy foods reduce your risk of heart attacks. A 2011 study estimated that an average intake of 30 grams of soy protein per day was associated with a reduction in LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) of about 5%. Soy intake also increased HDL cholesterol (the good kind) levels and reduced triglycerides.
Scientific research also suggests that soy consumption reduces the thickness of coronary arteries; when your arteries are thicker, CVD risk is elevated.
Reduced Risk of Breast and Prostate Cancer – Scientific studies further suggest that soy intake reduces risk of prostate and breast cancer.
Prostate Cancer. Asian men who consume about two servings of soy foods per day are about 30 -50% less likely to develop prostate cancer than Asian men who do not consume soy. Further, prostate cancer is significantly lower in Asian populations, compared to North American or European populations. But when Asian men relocate to America and adopt Western diets, they quickly assume the same risk for contracting prostate cancer as others who eat the rich Western diet
Breast Cancer. For years, doctors warned breast cancer patients to avoid soy products due to concerns that soy phytoestrogens would act like human estrogen and increase cancer cell growth. However, recent studies suggests that isoflavones act more as anti-estrogens than human estrogen in reproductive cells (e.g. breast and uterus tissue), improving breast cancer prognosis. Furthermore, many studies have supported the benefits of soy in reducing risk of breast cancer and to highlight just one, a recent study reported those subjects who with the  BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (genes that increase breast cancer risk) who measured in the top 25% of soy intake in the group were associated with a 61% reduced risk of breast cancer; while subjects with the same gene who measured in the top 25% of meat intake had almost double the risk of breast cancer.
Balancing Hormones/Reduction in Hot Flashes – It has long been suspected that soy reduces hot flashes in women and while the evidence is not overwhelming, based on 2012 studies, the study suggests that soy, in the form of isoflavone supplements, reduces hot flash frequency by 21% and their severity by 26%. To date, the evidence is stronger for isoflavone supplements over soy foods for the greatest benefit.
Possible Protection Against Osteoporosis – There is some scientific evidence that consumption of soy foods is protective against bone fractures. In one study scientists reported a 5.8% improvement of bone mineral density in postmenopausal osteopenic women who were given 54 mg genistein per day (about four servings of soy), compared to a 6.3% decrease of bone mineral density in the placebo group.
Soy products can contribute nutritional health at any age.

The Most Healthful Soy Foods

soy stock photoSoy foods fall into two categories: fermented (e.g. tempeh, miso and natto) and non-fermented (e. g. tofu, soymilk, edamame soybeans and soy nuts).  Despite their health benefits, sometimes soy gets a bad wrap. And here’s why:
Soy contains two anti-nutrients that are common among legume family: phytates and lectins.  Phytates can interfere with the absorption of certain minerals and lectins can bind to the lining of your intestines and cause intestinal wall damage, but the negative effects of these anti-nutrients can be largely eliminated through the process of soaking, fermenting or cooking.
These preparation methods for both non-fermented products – such as soy milk and tofu –and fermented soy products such as tempeh, not only reduce anti-nutrients but also improve digestibility and mineral absorption.
But the fermentation process has an additional benefit too; it helps to support beneficial gut flora. That is, it helps populate the gut with beneficial bacteria that assist with everything from your immune system to mental health.
On the other hand, highly processed soy products, like veggie meats, sausages, deli slices and protein powders and bars, are sometimes made from a concentrated form of soy protein called “soy protein isolate” that is not easily digested and many times can be contaminated with hexane, a toxic solvent which is used to extract the protein from the soy.  You can avoid soy protein that has been processed using hexane by purchasing certified organic products, but I would keep these soy products to a minimum.
Some of the soy cheeses contain partially-hydrogenated oils (trans fats) and trans fats should always be avoided.
See my post on Soy and Your Hormones for  more information about how soy can affect your hormones.

Where do you get your Fiber?

 

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Plant-based eaters are often asked: Where do you get your protein but an equally valid question for the high (animal) protein eaters should be: Where do you get your fiber?

Fiber is incredibly important for great health and is only found in plant foods. What is it? It’s an undigestible carbohydrate found in the cell walls of plants.

There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber reacts with water and turns into a gel during digestion. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, absorbs water and adds bulk to your stool. While soluble fiber tends to slow digestion, insoluble fiber tends to speed it up.

Why are they so important? Soluble fiber is food for the healthy bacteria (gut flora) in your gut that supports everything from healthy brain function to healthy immune system, and insoluble fiber helps add bulk to your stool, which keeps you eliminating regularly so don’t have toxic build up in your intestines.

Since fiber is a major component of plant cells, almost all fruits and vegetables are good source, and most of them contain both soluble and insoluble varieties. Whole grains and legumes are also fiber-rich and a great way to get your daily dose of fiber.

Try to get at least 25g fiber/day but when you increase fiber you should also increase your water intake to help move it along through your system.

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The Protein Myth

The first question people ask me when they transition to a vegan or plant-based diet is where do you get your protein?

With Paleo movement leading the way, the protein craze has grown out of control. Everyone wants more protein! High protein power bars, high protein pasta, high protein yogurts, high protein energy drinks! Protein, protein and more protein.

And it’s not enough that we get the maximum amount of protein from just any source, it must come from the highest quality, most revered type of protein: from animals in the form of meat, dairy or eggs.

Plant protein? Seriously?? Do plants even have protein??? And if they do, don’t you have to eat 15 different types of plants simultaneously to achieve the “complete” complement of amino acids that comes naturally from meat, milk or eggs?

Enjoy my upcoming posts that answer these important questions: how much protein do we really need, do plants offer a complete source of protein to meet our daily needs and is it better to obtain our protein from plant sources or animal sources?

When you weigh all the evidence, you’ll see why it makes sense to go vegan!