Apr 4, 2022 The Health Benefits of Plant-Based Cooking

How produce in your diet reduces risks and improves health.

Cold-weather cravings for warm, hearty foods are often satisfied with ingredients that sabotage health, such as refined flours and sugars or cheeses and meats high in saturated fats. Solution: Shift to plant-based cooking.

Working more fruits, vegetables, beans, grains and animal-free foods, like tofu, into daily meals and snacks does more than avoid unhealthy nutrients, says Alyssa Luning, RD, CSOWM, registered dietitian nutritionist and board-certified specialist in obesity and weight management, and part of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Hamilton’s Community Education team.

“Plants are the only foods that contain fiber, a nutrient many Americans are deficient in,” Luning says. Getting fiber from produce staves off potential deficiency-related problems including high cholesterol, digestive problems and inflammation, which is linked to higher incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and colorectal cancer.

“Plants also contain phytonutrients, including antioxidants such as beta-carotene, lycopene and anthocyanins,” Luning says. Phytonutrients combat inflammation and perform molecular cleanup that reduces toxins capable of triggering illness-related DNA mutations.

Power Plants

Don’t assume winter is a poor season for plant-based eating. “Foods may be out of season here, but in season in places like South America, where we get a lot of our fresh fruits and vegetables,” Luning says.

That’s especially true of brassica, or cruciferous, vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens and kale. “These are some of the most nutritious vegetables,” Luning says. “They have more antioxidant potential than a lot of other fresh plant foods.”

Try to eat different fruits and vegetables to maximize your nutrition, Luning advises. “Variety is huge,” she says. “When you transition to a plant-based diet, it can be harder to get enough protein, but you can do it if you eat a range of different beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds—including foods you may not have eaten before.”

If you still want protein-rich meat in your diet, Luning recommends choosing lean beef, turkey, chicken or seafood in easily digested portions about the size of your hand. “Even a small shift away from animal-based foods can improve health,” Luning says.

Top Tools For a Plant-Packed Pantry

Of course, you’ll want a good can opener for all those beans, lentils and sealed succulents. But registered dietitian nutritionist Alyssa Luning, RD, CSOWM, also recommends these plant-cooking staples for a well-stocked kitchen.

  • A colander to rinse beans. “It’s also worth having a fine-mesh strainer to rinse dusty grains before cooking,” Luning says.
  • A small to medium pot for cooking beans.
  • A rice cooker with a steamer basket inside. “Put vegetables in the basket while rice or grains cook,” Luning says. “You don’t have to sauté if you don’t have time or energy.”
  • A big cutting board. “You want a lot of space to cut large greens safely,” Luning says.
  • Neutral flavored oil. “Choose something monounsaturated like olive oil,” Luning says. “Avocado oil is another good option.”
  • Low-sodium taco mix. “If you don’t know how to season something, this is a great start,” Luning says. “It already has spices like cumin.” Steak seasoning containing garlic is another good bet for cooked vegetables. “I’ve used it on cauliflower,” Luning says. “Delicious.”
  • Canned tomatoes. “They sometimes have Italian seasonings already in them,” Luning says. “I buy canned tomatoes by the case.”
  • Soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar. “They’re versatile and used in a lot of recipes,” Luning says.

To join the complimentary Better Health Program at RWJUH Hamilton, call 609-584-5900.