As a registered dietitian and nutrition journalist, I’ve spent close to 25 years pouring over food and nutrition research. And it’s led me to one conclusion as to how we can all live healthier, more vibrant lives. The answer: Eat more whole plants. In fact, there are now hundreds of studies backing up the notion that the healthiest diet on the planet is a plant-based one.
Contrary to popular belief, a plant-based diet really is more about what you can eat, rather than what you can’t eat. When most people hear the words “plant-based diet,” raw fruits and vegetables are usually the first thoughts that come to mind. But a plant-based diet consists of a variety of whole plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, and legumes.
Legumes are the perfect example of a plant-powered “protein package.” This means that legumes are packed with beneficial nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, and essentially void of the “bad stuff”, like saturated fat and sodium. In fact, legumes are as near to a perfect food as you can find. A half-cup portion, on average, contains at least 20% of our daily needs for fiber, folate, and manganese, 10% of our daily needs for protein, potassium, iron, magnesium, and copper; and 6-8% of our daily needs for selenium and zinc. Research now indicates that eating legumes regularly can offer a variety of health benefits, including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower body weight, and lower rates of heart disease, hypertension, some types of cancer, and diabetes.
Aside from their nutritional perks, legumes are even friends to Mother Earth. Farmers discovered long ago that rotating their crops with legumes would replenish their soil. This is because legumes possess a unique ability to “fix nitrogen,” or transfer nitrogen from the air into the soil, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.
As if these benefits alone aren’t enough motivation to increase your intake of legumes, it helps to know that legumes are easy to cook, shelf stable, and economical. And a whole world of legumes awaits your discovery: lima beans, garbanzo beans, split peas, lentils, pinto beans, and kidney beans, just to name a few. They can easily be incorporated into soups, salads, wraps, or served as simple side dishes. You can also take a spin on legumes by trying them in alternative forms such as flours. These high-protein, nutritious flours are perfect alternatives for those with wheat and gluten allergies. Not only that, they can also pump up the nutrition in many of your recipes for baked goods. Simply replace a small amount of wheat flour in your recipes with legume flour and you’ve boosted your intake of plant-powered benefits.
Whether you’re a plant-powered vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore, I recommend you eat at least one ½ cup serving of legumes every day in order to promote your optimal health.
Red Lentil Stew with Root Vegetables
By Sharon Palmer, RD, The Plant-Powered Dietitian
This thick, colorful stew, which calls upon root vegetables, is easy on your wallet and delicious on your taste buds. Try serving it as a light lunch with a salad and rustic, whole grain bread; or for dinner with whole grains such as barley, farro or quinoa on the side.
Makes 6 servings
1 tsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 medium Parsnips, sliced
2 medium Carrots, sliced
3 stalks Celery, sliced
1 medium Onion, sliced
1 medium Potato, peeled, diced
2 cloves Garlic, minced
½ tsp Low-Sodium Herbal Blend (i.e. Mrs. Dash)
½ tsp Smoked Paprika
1 tsp Thyme
2 cups Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth
4 cups Water
1 ½ cups red lentils, dried
- Heat olive oil in a large pot. Add vegetables, garlic, and seasonings, sautéing for about 10 minutes.
- Add broth, water and lentils. Cover pot and cook for about 20 minutes, until vegetables and lentils are tender.
Nutritional Information per Serving:
Sharon Palmer is a registered dietitian, writer and author of The Plant-Powered Diet. Over 750 of her articles have been published in national publications, including Prevention, Better Homes and Gardens and Today’s Dietitian. She is also the editor of the award-winning publication Environmental Nutrition and writes for her blog, The Plant-Powered Dietitian. Sharon makes her home with her husband and two sons in the chaparral hills overlooking Los Angeles.