Today, science has a better understanding of why fruits and vegetables should be part of a healthy eating plan. You probably enjoy them for their wonderful flavors and bright colors. But, fruits and vegetables are good for you too.

An eating pattern low in fat and rich in fiber and other important nutrients can help prevent a number of chronic diseases, including cancer and heart disease. Eating the recommended 2-3 servings of fruits and 3-5 servings of vegetables each day is a good place to start.

Fruits and vegetables provide important nutrients including antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, beta carotene and lycopene. Antioxidants have disease-fighting properties that protect cells from damage by substances called free radicals. Antioxidants work by neutralizing free radicals.

Veggie Facts

  • Over 30 million Americans have explored a vegetarian eating pattern.
  • Aging baby boomers are taking a proactive approach to their health by eating more meatless meals.
  • About one-third of U.S. teenagers think that being a vegetarian is "in."
  • Health and taste are the top two reasons consumers are eating more meat-free meals.

Today, it is easy to order a vegetarian dish at your favorite restaurant or buy meat-free products at the grocery store. Many of these meat-free products are soy-, vegetable-, grain-, or bean-based.

Here's to Your Health

Several research studies point to the health benefits of adding meatless meals to U.S. eating patterns. One of the largest studies to date showed that if participants' diets were high in animal protein and contained fewer foods of vegetable origin, there was a higher risk for heart disease and some cancers. In another study, researchers concluded that substituting some soy protein for animal protein can significantly lower both the total serum cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol levels.

Additional research found that if soy fiber is added to the diet, a more consistent blood glucose (blood sugar) level may be achieved. Also, studies indicate that if women eat 1-1/2 ounces of soy foods (such as tofu) daily, they may experience fewer hot flashes during menopause. Similarly, women lowered their risk of breast cancer when they consumed 3-4 ounces of tofu or 8 ounces of soy milk each day.

A Closer Look at Nutrition

A well-planned vegetarian eating style can be healthful, nutritionally sound, and beneficial for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. A common myth about vegetarian eating is that the diet makes it hard to get certain nutrients, such as protein. Soy products can provide the high quality protein needed for growth and tissue maintenance. Although other bean- or grain-based products are sources of protein, they don't contain the high quality protein found in soy products.

Since many meat-free products are low in fat and cholesterol, they can fit easily into a cholesterol-lowering eating plan.

Meat-free products vary in their nutrient content. Check the Nutrition Facts label for fiber, iron, and calcium. Thiamin, vitamin B-6, folacin, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and others may also be listed.

Versatility is the Key

When you think of meatless food products, you may only think of "veggie burgers." However, consumer demand for more variety has expanded the range of vegetarian choices in the supermarket.

Planning nutritious family meals with meat-free products is quick, easy, and economical. For example, ground meat substitutes are easily incorporated into your favorite family recipes for chili, spaghetti sauces, or casseroles.

Food manufacturers offer familiar, pre-cooked and convenient meat-free products such as burgers, hot dogs, "chicken" nuggets, corn dogs, and prepared breakfast foods that easily fit into American eating patterns.

Getting a Jump Start

  • Explore new foods at your grocery store. Pick out a different meat-free product from the variety located in the freezer section, to try at home each week.
  • Load up on fresh fruits and vegetables. Reach for a piece of fruit or cut up fresh veggies when the urge to munch calls you.
  • Buy a new cookbook or look for meatless recipes in the newspaper or food magazines. Try one new recipe each week. In just a few months, you will have tried at least a dozen new recipes.
  • Be adventurous and try a vegetarian entrée at a restaurant. You may be pleasantly surprised at the number of meat-free dishes there are and at their delicious tastes, too.
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Article reprinted with permission from American Dietetic Association © ADAF 2000.