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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @NutritionRD.