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Eat Fruits, Veggies and the Occasional Burger

By Charlyn Fargo

We all know fruits and vegetables are healthy, and most of us should eat more of them than we do. But how much is enough?

As a dietitian, I teach clients to fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables, one-fourth with lean protein and one-fourth with whole grains, along with that cup of dairy. But “half” your plate can vary by plate size; the idea behind this guideline is to provide an easy way to get healthy nutrients from fruits and vegetables. At the same time, MyPlate encourages consumers to move toward a more plant-based diet – and fewer starches and animal proteins.

If that’s too broad for you, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers detailed daily recommendations, including a breakdown by type of vegetable and their serving sizes based on total daily caloric intake. According to Dietary Guidelines, an adult consuming 2,000 calories per day should be eating 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day. This is quite a leap from the typical American diet, which includes a mere cup and a half of veggies and one cup of fruit per day, according to the USDA.

For the week, try for 1 1/2 cups of dark green vegetables, 5 1/2 cups of red and orange veggies, 1 1/2 cups of legumes, five cups of starchy vegetables and four cups of other veggies.

Why the emphasis on fruits and vegetables? They are full of important nutrients we need daily – folate, magnesium, potassium, fiber and vitamins A, C and K, to name a few. Every vegetable or fruit, depending on its color and makeup, has its own unique nutritional profile. That’s why eating a variety of food is just as important as balance and moderation when it comes to a healthy diet.

Make it a goal to add a few more veggies to your routine. For instance, add spinach or green and red peppers to your scrambled eggs; have two vegetables for a side dish instead of one; make a smoothie with fruits and vegetables; or eat your hummus with carrot and celery sticks instead of crackers.

Meat Burgers vs. Plant-Based Burgers

Should you make the switch to plant-based burgers rather than meat?

At the grocery store where I’m a dietitian, our shelves are bulging with plant-based alternatives, including burgers. Fast-food and restaurant chains, including Red Robin, TGI Friday’s, Carl’s Jr. and Burger King, have also begun offering plant-based burgers.

Are they healthier than meat? Depends. Some are made from highly processed foods with a long list of ingredients. The more healthful options come from whole foods rather than processed plant-based ingredients. A pea protein isolate, for example, isn’t a whole food. A beef burger, on the other hand, has one ingredient: beef.

Then there’s the fat and sodium content. While many try to avoid the saturated fat in beef, many plant-based burgers contain coconut oil as a main ingredient, also a saturated fat. We went through a phase where anything coconut was perceived as good for you. However, the American Heart Association issued an advisory against consuming coconut oil, saying it’s 82% saturated fat and can raise LDL (bad cholesterol), similar to the way butter and beef fat do. In reality, coconut oil gives several plant-based burgers similar levels of fat.

Check how much sodium your plant-based burger contains. A chart in a recent issue of Today’s Dietitian had a range of 540 milligrams (Amy’s California Burger) to 130 milligrams (Engine 2 Poblano Black Bean Burger) for one patty. As always, it pays to read the labels to be healthy. Most have around 350 milligrams of sodium.

The calories for plant-based burgers range from 270 (Beyond Burger) to 100 (Boca All American Veggie Burger). By comparison, a ground beef burger has about 250 calories. You’re also likely to pay more for that plant-based burger – on average, three to four times more than meat. Confusing? Like any food, you need to read the label to determine if it’s a good choice.

The bottom line? Plant-based foods are better for the environment because they use fewer natural resources. However, a healthy diet should limit processed foods of any kind, including plant-based burgers. So, enjoy that beef burger – on occasion – or enjoy a plant-based burger if you prefer the taste – on occasion. Both can fit into a healthy diet.

Just enjoy the one you choose.

Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian at Hy-Vee in Springfield, Illinois, and the media representative for the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For comments or questions, contact her at charfarg@aol.com or follow her on Twitter @NutritionRD.

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