Avocado toast, quinoa buddha bowls and spirulina green smoothies are things the millennial dream is made of. The plant-based lifestyle is nothing new; for centuries, many cultures have traditionally followed vegan and vegetarian diets. But with rates of diet-related disease at an all-time high, consumers are becoming more conscious of how their food choices impact their health. More and more, they are seeking plant-based alternatives in hopes of living a healthier lifestyle.
Plant-based diets are not the same as vegan diets, where no animal products are consumed whatsoever. They consist mostly of plant-based foods, with the occasional meat, dairy, eggs and seafood.
Live Healthier and Longer
If there’s one thing nutrition researchers can agree on, it’s that eating more plants can prevent—even reverse—chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer. Fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains are chock-full of essential vitamins, minerals and health-supporting fibers—and are the only food sources of cancer-fighting antioxidants. Research clearly demonstrates that people who eat more of these foods have the lowest risk for disease, require fewer hospital visits, take fewer medications, have fewer sick days and experience greater longevity. It’s no wonder these superfoods are increasingly sought-after! Consumers are also choosing plant-based alternatives as a way to exercise their environmental and animal welfare concerns, and the industry has responded by making these products more readily available.
In July, the Plant Based Foods Association released data showing that U.S. sales of plant-based foods have grown 11 percent in the past year, far surpassing the two-percent growth rate of the total retail food market. Think meat alternatives like Tofurky, faux bacon and the latest, the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, as well as alternatives for dairy products made from soy, coconut, nuts, oats, rice and peas. And let’s not forget tofu and tempeh—the original plant-based proteins—whose sales are up five percent.
While these plant-based alternatives allow consumers to reduce their saturated fat intake, depend less on animal products, and increase the variety of their plant-based diet, it’s important to consider how healthy these alternatives actually are. What does it take to make a cheese alternative, for example, and how does it compare to real cheese? Let’s compare the ingredients:
- Vegan cheddar cheese: filtered water, coconut oil, food starch-modified (potato & corn), corn starch, salt (sea salt), cheddar flavor (vegan sources), olive extract, paprika extract & beta carotene (color), vitamin B12
- Dairy-based cheddar cheese: pasteurized milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes
Making vegan cheese requires binders to hold it together, flavorings to mimic the cheese taste, and additives to modify the color. It’s quite the processed product, and it may well be healthier to just eat real cheese—especially if cheese is a staple in your diet. However, these foods can also be a vehicle into a larger world of plant-based eating. Maybe eating the Impossible Burger is a stepping stone for you to make your own veggie burgers at home!
Joe Zich, owner of 309 Cultures, has some great advice for dipping your toes into a more plant-based way of living. “Find three to five plant-based recipes that you really like and use them as staples while eating your normal diet,” he explains. “Over time, you can experiment with new foods and incorporate more variety. You’ll have a better chance of experiencing a quality transition if you allow yourself the time you need to make these changes—don’t rush the process.”
Owned and operated locally, 309 Cultures produces and sells a line of fermented vegetables like kimchi, sauerkraut and Purple Kurry Kraut, a signature flavor made of beets and cabbage. In 2018, fermented foods were up 149 percent on U.S. restaurant menus, according to Upserve, a tech-based restaurant management platform. Fermented foods contain live, active cultures—healthy bacteria—that improve digestion and enhance the health of your intestines. While everyone can benefit from these foods, they can be especially healing for people with chronic gut issues like irritable bowel syndrome.
So what do you do with fermented vegetables? Stir them into finished rice or grain dishes for an extra pop of flavor, add a forkful to your salad or sandwich, pair it with scrambled eggs in the morning, or have it Zich’s favorite way: on half of an avocado for a snack. To preserve the healthy bacteria, add ferments into your meal prep at the very end, as heat will kill the live bacteria.
If you’re not quite ready to dive into preparing your own plant-based meals at home, there are a few local, ready-made options for you. Marcus Miggins of GentlemanMiggs PlantBased Cuisine prepares ready-to-eat meals that can be purchased at Sous Chef in Peoria’s Warehouse District. Some of the items on his menu include a vegan “bacon” veggie wrap with sriracha ranch, butternut squash mac and cheese, and the classic spaghetti and vegan meatballs. Most of his vegan proteins are made using whole foods like vegetables, beans and jackfruit, as opposed to other highly-processed soy products that are commonly used as protein replacers.
While all of his meals are vegan, Miggins knows the vegan lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and he doesn’t push it on people. “The goal of my brand is to unite meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike and simply encourage the consumption of more plant foods because they are good for everyone,” he explains. Miggins embarked on his plant-based journey because several of his relatives passed away from cancer and he wants a healthier life for him and his family.
Whether you are getting your feet wet with the Impossible Burger at The Publik House or One World, picking up a veggie wrap from GentlemanMiggs, or adding a little 309 Culture into tonight’s dinner, you’re well on your way to eating more plant-based foods. And that, my friends, is a sustainable way to improve your health! PM
Ashley Thomas is a registered dietitian and owner of Ashley Thomas Nutrition, a private practice that accepts insurance. She is also the host of Cook With Me TV on Facebook. Visit facebook.com/cookwithmeTV for live cooking classes every week. Additional links: