What’s good to eat? (Dedicated)
Nutrients of concern on a plant-based diet and the nutrition component of the Chef’s Training Program at Natural Gourmet Institute.
by Celine Beitchman, Director of Nutrition Education and Chef Instructor
Finding the best diet?
Finding a diet pattern that fits your needs and is sustainable requires a goal-oriented mind set. If your goal is to eat delicious food, uncovering what’s delicious to you makes a lot of sense. This may include finding sources of foods and flavors you love, and maybe even learning how to cook them. If your aim is preventing or managing a disease, controlling your weight, or living a long and vital life, your approach will likely be different. But what if you’re looking to combine all these features into a universal meal plan? At Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts (NGIHCA), we believe that while no single diet fits everyone, nutritious, delicious, and planet-friendly can be one and the same.
For the majority of us, what to eat is a confusing concept. Experts agree that plant foods should make up the large part of meals. But just how much of any one food group or nutrient and in what form – cooked, raw, fermented – is hotly debated. It’s not that these questions don’t have well-researched answers; but, the human body is complex and eating means consuming thousands of substances daily which makes drilling down to things like cause-and-effect an ongoing challenge. Despite its many flaws, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) provides a good toolkit that can be tailored to lifecycles, health concerns, or any dietary need of a diverse population. The problem is these are general concepts meant to prevent illness in the general population. They are baseline recommendations to keep us alive, but not necessarily in vibrant health. If optimal health is your goal, procuring healthy food isn’t enough; you’ll have to do the real work: living and eating that meal plan for days, months, or years, noticing benefits or limitations.
The heuristic approach: trial and error
If you’re one of a growing number of vegetarians or vegans in the U.S. today, you’ve probably been asked, or wondered yourself, if a plant-based diet or one totally absent of animal foods is meeting your needs? Adopting a scientific approach, using trial and error, and noting changes can be fun and enlightening. NGIHCA’s founder, Annemarie Colbin, PhD. liked to say, “your body is a laboratory, use it”. If the food or eating-style you’re trying isn’t overtly harmful, doesn’t contain allergens that can make you sick, and meets your basic energy needs, try it for a while. But keep track. Notice changes, good or bad.
Health and wellness: from Ayurveda to Zinc
Personalizing a meal plan is like putting together a puzzle with just the right pieces. This comes with practice and attention. At NGI we strongly believe that everyone has the right to choose what they eat, and our curriculum reflects that vision. In the Chef’s Training Program, students explore traditional and modern foodways, cook, menu-plan, and explore health and wellness from A-to-Z. Our aim is to encourage critical thinking for a lifetime of study. Combined with the knowledge of centenarian populations, ancient food systems, and modern science, NGI students receive an unparalleled introduction to everything from Ayurveda to Zinc.
Nutrients of concern for plant-based eaters
Most vegetarians and vegans get plenty of complex carbohydrates, fiber, and vitamins C, K, and magnesium, in contrast to diets based on animal-sourced foods. But plant-based eaters have their own set of concerns ranging from getting enough calories (energy), to regularly meeting basic recommendations for fats (e.g., omega 3s), vitamins (e.g., D and B-12), and minerals (e.g., calcium and iron). Fortified foods are certainly an option, as is selectively supplementing. At NGI, we prefer to source nutrients where they are naturally found. Try filing your plate with the foods you likely need based on your goals, but remember the heuristic approach: try it, check-in, notice, tweak.
Here’s a short list of nutrients of concern in plant-based diets. All the substances below are essential, which means we must get them every day.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3s play an important role in brain health, cellular integrity, and the inflammatory pathway, in throughout the body. Recommendations suggest we need about 1 gram/day – an amount that can be consumed in one tablespoon of flax oil or ¼-cup of black walnuts.
Plant sources include:
· Flax, hemp and chia seeds
· Black walnuts
· Dark leafy greens
· Marine algae
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body. Although it is primarily stored in our bones, a small amount is used to support nerve and muscle function, and blood clotting. Recommendations suggest we need about 1000-1200mg daily. Eight-ounces of tofu and three-cups of cooked Bok-choy will net you about 500mg.
Plant sources include:
· Bok-choy and turnip greens
· White and pinto beans
· Black-eyed peas
· Sesame seeds
· Tofu (made with calcium salt)
Iron is also involved in growth and development and plays a role in immune system function. It’s best consumed alongside vitamin-C containing foods which increase non-heme absorption considerably. Suggested intakes vary based on gender and lifecycle from 8-27mg.
Plant sources include:
· Lentils, green peas and white beans
· Swiss chard and spinach
· Prunes and raisins
· Tomatoes and white potatoes
· Cashews and hazelnuts
B-12 plays a role in energy production, immunity, and brain health. This is a nutrient found only in animal sourced foods or those colonized by B-12 forming bacteria. It is recommended that adults consume 2.4 mcg daily.
Plant sources include:
· Nutritional yeast labeled T6635+
· Tempeh (contains trace amounts)
Along with helping to regulate calcium in the body, vitamin D supports general health and immunity. Vitamin D is mostly found in fish and pastured eggs, dairy, and organ meats. The 600 IUs we need daily are hard to come by in plants.
Veg-friendly sources include:
· Fresh and dried mushrooms exposed to natural or synthetic UV light - especially shiitakes, chanterelles, and morels
Founded in 1977 by Annemarie Colbin Ph.D., Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts is the leader in professional health-focused culinary education. NGIHCA’s comprehensive Chef’s Training Program trains students to meet the demand for culinary professionals who make the connection between food and health. Offered both as full- and part-time programs, it is where you will learn essential cooking techniques, principles of nutrition, methods for sourcing sustainable ingredients, and culinary business practices. Licensed by the New York State Department of Education, it is the first culinary program dedicated to healthful cooking to be accredited nationally. To learn more, visit ngihca.edu. For a complete overview of Natural Gourmet Institute’s recreational programming, visit naturalgourmetinstitute.com.