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Plant-Based Power Players

My New Year’s resolution is to stop juicing. My juicer extracts the juice of fresh fruits and vegetables, leaving behind a woolly mess of skin, seeds and rinds that I carelessly toss out. As a chef and nutrition expert I should know better, but I do it anyway. However, this year I am committed to keeping foods as whole as possible and eating as many parts of a vegetable as I can.

It seems I’m in good company, since health advocates are urging us to include more whole foods in our diets. It’s no longer enough to simply eat fruits and vegetables—the new standard is stem-to-root eating, where the plant is eaten as whole and intact as possible. While consuming whole grains has been popular for years, eating whole plants is finding its way onto many nutrition wish lists, giving the term whole food a lot more heft. Power into the new year by resolving to include more whole-plant-based foods in your diet. Add foods to your diet from the plant power-player categories listed below.

From The Ground Up: Roots, Tubers & Bulbs

Beets, Garlic, Sweet Potatoes

Why? Roots, tubers and bulbs grow underground and function as a plant’s nutrient-storage system, so it’s no surprise they are packed with vitamins and minerals. Many root vegetables, such as beets and carrots, come in a range of colors, and their pigments are suggestive of their phytochemical content. These pigments provide antioxidant benefits, such as protection against many chronic diseases and conditions associated with aging. Keep in mind that pigments provide an assortment of colors, including white and yellow; the anthoxanthin pigment responsible for a yellow or white hue may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol and decrease the risk of stomach cancer and heart disease (Harris et al. 2001).

Whenever possible, as is the case with beets, use the entire plant from root to leafy greens. Different parts of the plant may require different cooking methods, but the nutrient density is worth it.

Try this at home. Roasted beets with sautéed garlicky beet greens are delicious and easy. Remove the beet tops where stems meet the root, and roughly chop. Quarter the beets and lightly toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in the oven at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes, or until beets are fork tender. >> Meanwhile, finely chop 1–2 cloves of garlic and place in a pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place over medium-high heat and add beet greens when the garlic begins to sizzle. Sauté until all greens are wilted. Serve with roasted beets.

*Alternative: Roast sweet potatoes and substitute watercress for the beet greens.

Top Of The Plant: Dark, Leafy-Green Vegetables

Kale, Brussels Sprouts, Watercress

Why? These cruciferous vegetables, which are rich in carotenoids, may have a role in reducing the risk of prostate, colorectal and lung cancers (Jain et al. 1999; Voorrips et al. 2000; Feskanich et al. 2000). These and all vegetables from the cabbage family contain components called glucosinolates, which are broken down into anticancer substances during food preparation and digestion (Murrillo & Mehta 2001).

Try this at home. Kale chips are great snacks and side dishes. Toss kale with a small amount of olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper before roasting in a 400 F oven for 18 minutes or until the kale leaves turn dark and crispy. Try this with shredded Brussels sprouts as well.

The Sea Has Vegetables, Too

Dulse, Wakame, Hijiki

Why? Sea vegetables, or types of seaweed, are primitive sea plants belonging to the algae family (Herbst & Herbst 2009). The plants are high in both iron and vitamin C, which make sea vegetables high-value iron sources because vitamin C is necessary for the absorption of plant-based iron. Sea vegetables are thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect, and regular ingestion has been linked to low blood pressure (Wada et al. 2011).

Try this at home. Sea vegetables are good for more than just wrapping sushi. The leaves come dried. Dulse leaves are tangy, while wakame has a milder flavor. Crumble and sprinkle over salads, soups, noodles or rice dishes.

Fruit With Edible Skins & Seeds: Berries

Raspberries, Blackberries, Strawberries, Blueberries

Why? These high-fiber fruits satisfy a sweet tooth but have a low glycemic response, which means your blood sugar will not react erratically after you consume them (Willet 2001). But the benefits don’t end there. The anthocyanin pigments in some berries provide anti-inflammatory benefits and can help open blood vessels, decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease (Gonzalez-Gallego et al. 2010). The anti-inflammatory effect extends to brain cells—antioxidants found in some berries can improve motor skills and may help prevent age-related memory loss (Miller & Shukitt-Hale 2012).

Try this at home. Satisfy your sweet tooth by preparing mixed-berry granita. Simply purée a bag of partially defrosted frozen berries in a blender and serve. Since there is no added sugar, the granita will solidify if placed in the freezer, but the mixture will soften after a few seconds in a microwave.

Seeds & Nuts

Chia Seeds, Walnuts, Ground Flaxseeds

Why? All nuts and seeds are rich in healthy monounsaturated fats and help stabilize blood sugar levels. But the ones listed above are especially high in essential omega-3 fatty acids, which lower inflammation throughout the body (Calder 2006). This is especially good for people with arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.

Flaxseeds must be ground to enable your body to absorb all their beneficial nutrients, because the whole seeds pass through the intestines undigested. Chia seeds, on the other hand, do not have to be ground and have a longer shelf life because they can be left whole.

Try this at home. Soaking a tablespoon of chia seeds (or ground flaxseeds) in water will form a gel.

Add this gel to your berry purée for a thick smoothie.

More Seeds: Legumes

Lentils, Chickpeas, Fresh Snap Peas

Why? Legumes are seeds that grow in pods. The seeds can be fresh or dried, the pods edible or inedible. Legumes are rich in protein, fiber and iron, but they get an extra punch from folate. High folate intake can decrease cardiovascular risk by lowering blood levels of homocysteine, which can damage artery walls (Willet 2001).

Try this at home. Dried lentils are quick-cooking and versatile. Simmer them in water until tender and then drain and cool. Toss with tomatoes, arugula, corn and carrots, and drizzle with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Eat this salad alone or augmented with sliced chicken breast. It also makes great leftovers.

A Different Type Of Seed:Pseudograins

Quinoa, Buckwheat

Why? Pseudograins are not grains in the technical sense, as they are not seeds of the grass family. However, these gluten-free seeds can easily be substituted for traditional grains, providing a generous supply of fiber because the seeds are eaten in their entirety. Quinoa combines high-value protein with a concentration of the same flavonoids found in berries.

Try this at home. Simmer a cup of buckwheat groats (whole buckwheat) in water for about 20 minutes or until tender. Combine with berries and honey for an oatmeal-style breakfast, or toss with fresh parsley, tomatoes and lemon juice for a gluten- and wheat-free tabouli.

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