Vegetarian Diets Explained – What Are the Advantages and What You Need to Know to Make It Work for You

The trend for following a plant-based diet has boomed recently. Just look at all the options for plant-based burgers on menus these day. What does this trend mean and why is this significant? No matter the type of vegetarian diet you follow, or even if you are a veterinarian or not, we can all enjoy and benefit from incorporating a variety of fruits and vegetables into our diets. Plants are powerful and they provide many known and as yet to be fully discovered and understood benefits for our health. Some of these known benefits include the high fibre content, which is important for digestive health and function. There are many studies on the effects of vegetarian diets and decreased risk for various types of cancer. Part of this is that Fruits and vegetables are natural sources of antioxidants. Antioxidants are important for many reasons in the maintenance of good health and prevention of many chronic diseases. Fruits and vegetables are also lower in calories and fat than other foods. Part of this is because of their high water content which means they will also help with keeping you hydrated which is so important for health, well-being and feeling your best.

Besides health, there are many other reasons individuals choose a vegetarian diet. Some of these include food preferences, religious beliefs and environmental concerns. Plant-based diets are being promoted for how they can support and reduce the effects of climate change, as the energy requirements for growing and supporting animals is much higher than it is for plants, and eating more plants can help us with sustainability measures.

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Something that is not very well or often known is that there are different types of vegetarian diets. When most people say they are vegetarian they are following a “lacto-ovo” vegetarian diet so they do not eat any animal meat, but they still eat dairy products and eggs. A semi-vegetarian or “flexitarian” will eat dairy, eggs and sometimes eat meat, poultry and fish. A “pescatarian” is a vegetarian who eats eggs, dairy and fish but no other meats. And a “vegan” is a vegetarian who does not eat any kind of animal foods (i.e. no eggs, dairy and honey). There are lots of options and approaches to following a vegetarian lifestyle to make it work.

Regardless of the reason or motivation, fruits and vegetables are an essential part of every diet and learning to incorporate a balanced variety of them into your meals will do much to support your overall health, vitality and longevity.

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There are some important considerations if you follow a vegetarian diet include. Otherwise, there is a potential for nutrient deficiencies. With the proper planning, however, these concerns can be addressed.

Protein is often a concern for people following a vegetarian diet, especially those who are physically active and looking to improve strength and stamina. What you need to know about is called protein complimentation. While meat offers the advantage of having all the essential amino acids in one food, it is not  impossible to achieve this with plants. With plant-based foods, which don’t often have all the essential amino acids in the same food, you just  have to make sure you eat a variety of different foods which combined together make a complete protein. For instance, grains have an amino acid that beans and legumes are lacking. A misconception is that the two foods have to be eaten at the same time in the same meal. Provided we eat them within the same day your body will break down the proteins into their amino acids and properly use them in your body. Some plan-based foods already come with all the essential amino acids. These special foods include quinoa and edamame or soy products.

On a vegetarian diet there are more than enough ways to meet your body’s requirements for protein. Ensuring that there is variety in protein sources with foods that collectively cover all the essential amino acids is the key.

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Some vitamins and minerals that are more easily available to the body from animal products. They are important for the health and functioning of the body, so it is important to know what they are and make sure you are incorporating them into your diet from plant-based sources as much as possible.

Iron is a particularly important mineral. We need iron for production of haemoglobin and the transportation of oxygen in our blood. Heme iron is the iron available from animal products while non-heme iron is the iron available from plant sources. Heme iron is naturally easier for the body to utilize. A quick tip is to combine the food containing iron with a food containing vitamin C because Vitamin C helps with iron absorption. Another tip is not to eat a food containing iron with a food containing calcium or with coffee or tea. Give a few hours between the two as calcium and coffee/tea interfere with iron absorption. Plant-based sources of iron include; fortified breakfast cereals, soy-based foods, dried prunes and apricots, beans and legumes, pumpkin seeds, eggs and fortified whole-grain breads.

Another important nutrient that it’s challenging to get enough of on a vegetarian diet is Vitamin B12, which is naturally found in animal products. A deficiency in Vitamin B12 can lead to anemia and muscle weakness. There are some fortified cereals, soy beverages or some fortified veggie mats or you may require a supplement to ensure adequate Vitamin B12.

Calcium is a mineral found mainly in milk and dairy products. Some vegetarians who consume dairy products may not need to worry about the amount of calcium in their diets. Vegan vegetarians will want to look for plant-based sources of calcium such as edamame, almonds, calcium-fortified non-dairy beverages (i.e. Almond Milk), spinach, collar greens, and more.

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Awareness is key to developing healthy eating habits and eating to empower you. Whether you feel like following a vegetarian diet or maybe having vegetarian meals more often there is tremendous power in plants to nourish and sustain us. Following a vegetarian diet definitely does not have to be blah! Vegetables are versatile and the options and combinations of foods is infinite.

How will you harness the power of plants?

 

Zucchini Bread Recipe

Finding easy to prepare, portable and nutritious snacks is challenging. Healthy food is not always easy to find on the go.  If you are on-the-go and trying to stay healthy, it’s important to pack healthy snacks that will help support your energy levels throughout a long or busy day. It’s when we get tired and are low on energy that we can fall into the temptation of not so healthy food choices and break with the routines and strategies we worked so hard to set in place for ourselves. Look no further than this empowered version of Zucchini Bread to help you stay motivated and on track with your healthy eating habits.

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The combination of fibre, protein and healthy fats in this recipe make this a snack that will give you sustainable energy to power you through any day. This is a great addition to back-to-school lunches to start the school year strong!

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Key featured ingredients that make this an “Empowering Eat” include zucchini, walnuts, and flax seeds.

Zucchini is the feature ingredient here, obviously. Like many fruits and vegetables contains nutrients and antioxidants which support good health. Zucchini is also a source of lutein and zeaxanthin which can protect our eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration.  While it is a bland tasting vegetable (so you won’t taste it in this recipe at all–I promise!) zucchini provides moisture to the recipe and a way to sneak an extra serving of veggies into your day!

Flax Seeds are a fabulous nutritional powerhouse. It always amazes me how there is so much goodness contained in so small a package! Flax seeds provide plenty of fibre and omega-3 fatty acids which may help reduce heart disease risk. The fibre in flax is responsible not only for supporting intestinal functions but may also lower blood-cholesterol. Flax seeds also have lignans which is a phytonutrient which may protect our bodies from certain cancers. Find out more about flax seeds here.

Walnuts are a source of heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fatty acids. Healthy sources of fat are essential in our diets for many reasons such as promoting healthy skin and hair, and supporting the integrity of cell membranes. Like other nuts walnuts also provide a source of plant-based protein and some fibre.

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I’ve used a variety of different flours to give variety and provide texture and contribute unique nutritional advantages to this recipe. All these flours are gluten-free. You could alternatively substitute other types of flours as long as the volume is 1 cup. Amaranth flour may be new to you. It’s available in most bulk food stores. Amaranth is an ancient grain growing in popularity for many reasons. It is higher in protein than other grains and is a source of fibre while not having an overly strong ‘healthy’ aftertaste, so it blends well into this recipe.

 

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Instead of a loaf pan you could also make this in an 8×8 glass baking dish and have zucchini bread squares.

Power Fruit Popsicle Recipe

Popsicles are a fun and refreshing summer treat. I created this recipe to upgrade the traditional versions, which are mostly just a lot of sugar in water, by using wholesome, real food ingredients.

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Berries are a nutritional superstar and one of nature’s richest sources of antioxidants. Like many other fruits and vegetables, berries are a good source of Vitamin C and because of their small size and large surface area they are an excellent source of fibre.

The four berries I used in my recipe were blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries.

Blueberries are probably the most researched berries and are renown for their antioxidants, particularly anthocyanins, which can protect the body from cell damage which may lead to aging and certain diseases. Pectin, a type of fibre found in blueberries, may help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and is good for the functioning of the digestive system.

Raspberries contain pectin and quercetin, the latter may slow cancer growth.

Blackberries may have the highest antioxidant content of any berries!

Strawberries are the berry with the highest Vitamin C content!

Using coconut milk and coconut yogurt (or another type of yogurt) gives these popsicles a little more substance and additional nutritional benefits. If using a dairy-based yogurt, you will add calcium to your diet. Calcium is important for bone health.

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If the natural sweetness is not enough for you, consider adding a natural sweetener like a tablespoon of honey to the recipe.

For a slightly different taste and a more interesting version add a teaspoon of cinnamon.

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Traditional Greek Salad Recipe

Greek Salad has to be one of the most iconic dishes known to the culture both within Greece and around the world. I really looked forward to having this dish when I was in Greece. In all seriousness, almost every meal I had while there featured a version of it! In Greek the word for Greek Salad is “horiatiki” which means “village salad”.

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Cool, crisp and refreshing this dish is super simple to make but there is something so satisfying in it. It is also full of healthy and empowering food combinations that taste good and are good for you too! With only some basic ingredients (no lettuce is not one of them!) you can have a substantial side dish perfect to accompany many main dish options (check out my recipe for Greek Stuffed Eggplant or chicken souvlaki). It’s always best to pick the freshest ingredients for flavour and nutritional benefit.

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Here are some key ingredients that make this salad health and nutritious and tastes amazing.

Cucumbers are one of the lowest calorie vegetables because of their high water content. This also makes them a great hydrating food.

Tomatoes are a popular vegetable for a variety of different cultures and cuisines. One of their greatest claims to fame is that they are a great source of the plan pigment “lycopene” which possibly helps prevent heart disease. Like many other fruits and vegetables, they are a great source of vitamin C and potassium. They are also a good source of fibre.

Red Onions are low in calories and like other types of onions provide a variety of nutrients such as fibre, vitamin C, potassium and some phytochemical which may raise levels of a protective enzyme which in activates and eliminates cancer causing agents.

Green Pepper provide vitamin C and are a good source of fibre.

Olives & Olive Oil are signatures for many Greek dish. These are ingredients embedded not only in the cuisine but in the very history and culture of Greece. Olives and olive oil are a source of mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) which are healthy fats found in our diets that may lower the risk of heart disease and reduce levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. They also contain vitamin E which is an especially powerful antioxidant.

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What I love especially is how easy it is to make this salad. The vegetables are roughly chopped so they can be thrown together quickly.

It’s recommended to serve the salad in a shallow dish and don’t mix the dressing into the salad before you serve it. Put all the vegetables in the bowl, drizzle with the olive oil and vinegar and layer with the feta cheese.

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Cumin Carrots

Here’s an interesting and exotic side-dish. I was inspired to create this recipe from my trip to Morocco.  This dish is bright with the sweet tang of of lemon and earthy from the rich dark tones of cumin. The sweetness of the carrots nicely balances the tartness of the lemon juice. It’s like lying in the grass on a summer day. This definitely makes for a great summer side dish!

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Carrots are a vegetable and the leading source of beta-carotene in the North American diet. Beta-carotene is a carotenoid which is converted after it is eaten into Vitamin A in your body. This adds to your body’s daily Vitamin A requirements. Vitamin A is essential for the function of the retina and therefore effects the health of your vision. Carrots are also a god source of fibre which is important for the functioning of your digestive system as well as lowering unhealthy cholesterol levels. In addition, carrots, like many fruits and vegetables, contain potassium, an electrolyte that helps regulate acid-base balance in the body, is involved in normal muscle contraction and nerve impulses as well as proper functioning of the heart and kidneys. Potassium may also help with lowering blood pressure thus preventing hypertension and the risk for heart attack and stroke.

Cumin is a spice. Spices have been valued for their ability to add flavour to food for centuries. Cumin’s earthy notes give this dish a distinctive and exotic flavour. Not only do spices like cumin add flavour to dishes (without unnecessary calories, fat or salt) but they also may be the source of antioxidants which are important for the maintenance of healthy cells with the reduction of free-radical damage.

Garlic is a member of the allium family with a host of reputed health benefits. It has been used medicinally for many centuries. Alicin is a compound found in garlic which is responsible for its strong taste and aroma. Alicin may function as an antioxidant which could possibly be one of the reasons garlic has been credited with so many medicinal properties.

Onions are also a member of the allium family of vegetables and a rich source of phytochemical which may reduce the risk of some cancers.

Lemons are a spectacular source of Vitamin C, which is a water-soluble vitamin and may reduce the risk of cancer as well as act as a cold-fighter and immunity booster. Vitamin C enhances iron absorption and is crucial to collagen production, which stabilizes connective tissue. Lemons also contain limonene, a phytochemical which could possibly block abnormal cell-growth which suggests anti-cancer benefits.

 

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Braising is a healthy cooking method. It is a moist-heat slow-cooking method. You start with browning the food you are cooking and then adding a small amount of liquid and simmering or steaming the food, covered, until it is coked. You can braise meats, chicken or vegetables. It is a very versatile cooking method. One of the reasons it is such a good way to cook food is that all of the cooking liquid is reabsorbed back into the food while it is braising. This means that any nutrients that were lost into the cooking liquid are reabsorbed back into the food so you still get all of the nutritional benefits of the food!

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This is a great side dish. It goes really well with roast chicken!

Roasted Beet Hummus

This hummus is striking! Both for its flavour and vibrant colour. Hummus is a popular dip found commonly found in Middle Eastern cuisines. Traditionally made from chickpeas, tahini, olive oil lemon juice and garlic, there are many variations made by introducing additional flavouring and ingredients.

Beets are the key feature ingredient that give this hummus it’s rick colour and earthy flavour. Beets are a source of many antioxidants, rich in folacin and other nutrients. You can read more about the benefits of beets in this previous post.

Chickpeas are an important ingredient in hummus. They are a great source of protein and fibre which promotes satiety.

Olive oil is a source of mono-unsaturated fatty acids, which are healthy dietary fats that may have a role in reducing the risk of heart disease.

Tahini is a paste made from sesame seeds. Tahini provides protein and is a source of many minerals like calcium and magnesium, which are important for bone heath, as well as iron.

Garlic not only adds to the flavour of this hummus but also adds antioxidants that provide protection against free radical damage and have antibacterial properties. It may reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer as well as lower cholesterol.

The spices in this recipe are cumin, coriander and allspice which intensify the earthy flavour of the hummus.

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Hummus is a great portable snack to have with chopped up vegetables or crackers. It would make a very appealing appetizer (especially for holiday entertaining!).  You can also use hummus as a spread for sandwiches or in wraps.

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Peas Pack a Powerful Nutritional Punch!

Small and delicate but not to be underestimated, peas are a signature food for springtime. Don’t be deceived by their small size. Peas offer a powerful nutrition punch!

In Ancient Egypt peas were stored in the tombs of pharaohs and mummies because the Egyptians thought them valuable for sustain them on their journey through the afterlife.

There are a few different varieties of fresh peas. These include green peas, snow peas and sugar snap peas

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Peas are low in fat and high in fibre. They offer a good amount of protein and some valuable nutrients including Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, and Vitamin K. Vitamin K is particularly important although often found in green leafy vegetables it is involved in wound healing and maintaining blood vessels as well as contributing to bone health by assisting with bone formation thus strengthening bones which may help prevent fractures and the risks associated with osteoporosis. Different varieties have slightly different nutritional compositions. Green peas provide more riboflavin, niacin and zinc than snow peas but snow peas offer more Vitamin C, Vitamin E, folate, lutein and zinc.

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Fresh peas are available from June to July. Always refrigerate your fresh peas to preserve their freshness. Wash peas well. You may have to shell your peas before using if eating green peas. Snow peas and Sugar snap peas do not need to be shelled but you should remove their tips at both ends before you eat them.

Meal Ideas for Fresh Peas

There are so many ways you can use peas to power-up your diet and make your meals more interesting! They are easy to add into many different recipes like soups, salads, pasta sauces or served on their own as a side dish. You don’t need much – one serving of peas is only 1/2 cup (125 mL).

  • Fresh sugar snap peas or snow peas make great healthy portable snack foods. Serve with hummus for extra flavour.
  • Make snow peas part of the vegetable mix for a stir-fry.
  • Steam fresh peas for 1-2 minutes. They make a simple but satisfying side to meats and fish. Be careful not to overcook your peas or else you will have mushy peas.

 

Note: Fresh is best where peas are concerned. Frozen peas are better than canned peas though because the retain more of their flavour and nutrients than canned peas. You can substitute frozen peas for fresh.

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Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble

Strawberries and rhubarb are one of my favourite combinations! The sweetness of the berries and the tartness of the rhubarb are the perfect match.

Strawberry rhubarb crisp is a timeless recipe. I look forward to making it every Spring when these two foods come into season. It’s a versatile recipe. You can serve it on its own – hot or cold. You can have it as a snack or serve as desert. It also makes a great snack any time of day – easy and quick to eat.

I took my own twist on recreating this classic recipe to empower-it-up, so to speak. Not only does this version taste amazing, it also has some extra nutritional nuggets to make you feel amazing for having some.

You can read up on all the cool things about strawberries and rhubarb in two previous posts.

Oats are a good source of dietary fibre which may improve blood cholesterol and help control blood sugar levels. Oats are also a whole grain and source of B Vitamins and Vitamin E.

Almonds provide extra protein and fibre as well as Vitamin E and heart healthy monounsaturated fatty acids fatty acids.

Hemps seeds are my super special addition. These tiny little seeds are nutrition powerhouses, offering extra protein boost as well as a good dose of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Not to mention a delightful sweet nutty flavour.

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Note: you can certainly use another type of flour for this. I chose coconut because I like that it adds a little extra sweetness and nuttiness. You could also substitute butter for the coconut oil in the recipe or a different sweetener for coconut sugar.

Meet the Superheroes in Your Diet

Super heroes are an important part of our culture. We all love our super-heroes. And for our bodies their superheroes are called antioxidants. The main function of antioxidants is to protect our cells from oxidative damage. Antioxidants may also improve immune function and help prevent chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Oxidation is a natural process of life, it’s one of the contributors to aging. It is a reaction that occurs for various reasons, and results in the production of free-radicals.

The free radicals produced by oxidation are like the villains, they damage the cells of our bodies because they are what we call “unstable” meaning they are missing an important part of themselves – an electron (special sub atomic particle) from their outermost electron orbital. As a result, they are always looking to steal an electron from any innocent cell to complete their orbitol.

It follows that free radicals will produce more free radicals which will do more damage to our bodies. So it’s important we find ways to defend ourselves and stop the destruction before it goes too far. There are many reasons the free radicals get produced in the body, some of them you can avoid like smoking, others not so much like air pollution, sun exposure. EVEN exercise produces free radicals.

Your mission is to counteract the destruction caused by free radical production and save our cells by choosing foods which provide antioxidants to support our systems.

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But where do we find antioxidants? Fruits and vegetables are the number one go to source for antioxidants. Eating the right number of servings of fruits and vegetables everyday is the best way to get your antioxidants. Other sources include: whole grains, nut and seeds, coffee, tea and even chocolate.

Here are some examples of nutrients that may function as antioxidants and where you can find them:

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is considered one of the, if not the greatest antioxidant.This is the primary function of the vitamin. Nuts and seeds (especially sunflower seeds!), vegetable oils and avocado are very high in vitamin E.

Vitamin C

Most fruits and vegetables, but especially citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit, will give you Vitamin C. Where Vitamin C is concerned, fresher is better, and you don’t want to overcook your veggies because excessive heat and oxygen destroys Vitamin C.

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Vitamin A

Vitamin A has many functions and one may be to act as an antioxidant. Vitamin A is particularly important in keeping eyes and skin healthy. Find Vitamin A in meat, specifically liver, as well as dairy products and fish.

Selenium

Selenium is a mineral that functions as an antioxidant. Brazil nuts are very high in selenium. Meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans and grains products also provide selenium.

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Carotenoids

Carotenoids are a group of compounds that act as antioxidants. They include beta-carotene, lycopene (found in tomoatoes), lutein, and zeaxanthin. Carotenoids are pigments which give colour to many fruits and vegetables dark green, orange, yellow and red. Beta-carotene is a carotenoid may have additional benefits because it is converted to Vitamin A, another antioxidant, in the body.

Flavonoids

Flavonoids are another group of compounds, many of which have been shown to have antioxidant properties. Flavonoids are found mainly in berries (especially dark coloured ones like blueberries), onions, apples as well as cocoa (think chocolate!) tea (particularly green tea) and wine.

Antioxidant Supplements

There are many supplemental forms of all of these nutrients available. However, as long as you follow an adequate, balanced and nutritious diet and have all the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, in every colour, you should have no trouble meeting your body’s antioxidant needs and therefore not require supplementation. More research is needed into the validity of antioxidant supplementation. You can have too much of a good thing and some antioxidants, like the fat soluble vitamins A & E can be toxic if you exceed the recommended amount.

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Why are Strawberries Red?

Petite, plump and juicy … that’s the making of a perfect strawberry. Strawberries are one of the most popular fruits in North America, with over 70 varieties being grown. There is nothing quite like local fresh strawberries in season. Strawberries are available from June to July, on the edge between spring and summer. Looking for a fun activity and an excuse to enjoy some beautiful weather? Go strawberry picking!

Rich in nutritional benefits, strawberries offer a good amount of dietary fibre and potassium. What’s more, they actually offer more Vitamin C than any other berry! They are low in calories and make one of the best snack foods not only because of their nutritional value but also because how easy they are to transport and consume.

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Generally, the first thing that draws us to pick one strawberry over another is its deep red ruby colour. Strawberries should also be firm, plump and well-shaped with fresh—looking green leafy caps. Give the strawberries a “sniff-test” to see if they have a nice sweet smell to them, that’s another factor to determine which strawberries to buy. Size is not a key determining factor when choosing strawberries. Always check your strawberries carefully before buying them. Examine the package from all angles, not just picking one up and taking it because the berries on top look good; you want to see if you can that none of the fruit hiding below the surface or at the bottom has gone bad. If you get home and find there are some mashed or bad berries discard them immediately.

Store your strawberries intact (with caps on), unwashed, in the refrigerator until you are ready to eat them. Rinse gently, drain, and remove the stems before you use them.

You can make use of your strawberries in so many simple and different ways: enjoy them as they are, cook with them, bake with them, make jam with them, add them to muffins, make yogurt parfaits and smoothies. They make a great addition to a spring-themed salad, to say nothing of all the strawberry deserts that are out there! One of my favourite uses has to be chocolate covered strawberries. The possibilities are endless!

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So what does make a strawberry red? Strawberries contain a molecule called anthocyanidin which is the anthocyanin precursor. Anthocyanins are an important kind of antioxidant, and they are also responsible for giving red fruits their colour. Anthocyanidin however is colourless. When the anthocyadin reacts with a sugar molecule to become anthocyanin, the antioxidant, it becomes red. This explains why unripe strawberries are unsweet and colourless and the riper the strawberries the redder in colour it will be. The ripening process is key to the colour change. We infer that to find the best berries look for the deepest, darkest red berry to get optimum taste and nutrition.

Enjoy strawberry season!

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