I chanced upon a good friend and a brilliant nutritionist, who I last saw in New York ages ago. Since it’s Nutrition Month and she has practiced both here and abroad, I asked her the most vital problem that needs to be addressed in the Philippine kitchen.
“It would certainly be the lack of nutrient- and fiber-rich, phytochemical-laden plant foods (vegetables, beans / legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains and fruits) that are purchased and used in the preparation of daily meals. And when I say lack of, I mean lack not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of variety and diversity,” says Dinah Remigio-Barr Campanaro, a US and Philippine-registered dietitian nutritionist and a US-certified dietary manager and food protection professional.
“It’s a known nutrition fact that these three meal components -- quantity, variety, and diversity in food intake --affect the overall quality of one’s diet. You have to eat from across the spectrum of available plant foods to cast a wider net to procure the essential nutrients and fiber that regulate body processes and the phytochemicals (that can come only from plant foods) that have been scientifically demonstrated to provide not only immune-promoting and health-supportive properties (either as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic substances) but also impart a lot of eye-appealing colors and appetite-inducing flavors, which make one eat the food. After all, foods can only nourish our bodies when it’s actually eaten,” she adds.
Does this mean we go meatless all the time?
“We don’t have to be all-out vegans. What we should aim for is to eat more plant foods and fish, eat less animal foods, and to move our bodies daily while managing our stress levels through leisure activities that bring us enjoyment, having satisfying and peaceful connections and relationships, and allowing for adequate rest and sleep,” she clarifies.
“When our meals become increasingly more plant-food centric, protein-rich main entrees give way to one dish meals that use the protein-rich food (like meat, chicken and fish or seafood) as one of its various ‘ingredients’ rather than as the star or the primary ingredient. Or protein-rich entrees that are accompanied by more liberal, judicious servings of vegetable and whole grain side dishes with or without a reduction in the portion size. Either way, the equation tips in favor of increased plant food servings in each meal,” Dinah expounds.
We don’t have to be all-out vegans. What we should aim for is to eat more plant foods and fish, eat less animal foods, and to move our bodies daily while managing our stress levels through leisure activities.
Can you share some practical guidelines to meet the target goals in the consumption of plant foods?
“Eat a minimum of two to three daily servings each of vegetables (including beans and legumes), whole grains and fruits, and a minimum of one to two daily servings of nuts and seeds. Use different market forms for the plant foods you’ll use in your meals, including fresh, dry, canned and frozen items (frozen vegetables and fruits often cost less than their fresh equivalent) to balance off food costs, to fuel variety in meals or to simplify food preparation,” she says.
“Shift to plant-based milks and healthier versions of foods you often buy for the family like soy, oat, almond, cashew or rice milk; whole wheat or multi-grain breads and crackers; whole wheat, bean or nut-based flour; brown or red rice in lieu of white rice, etc. Consume vegetables and fruits that are in season not only for their easier accessibility but also because they are of better quality in terms of flavor and nutrient density.
Eat a palette of distinctly or vividly colored vegetables (including beans and legumes), whole grains and fruits per meal since the different plant pigments each exert beneficial biologically active roles in the body.
“Eat a palette of distinctly or vividly colored vegetables (including beans and legumes), whole grains and fruits per meal (at least three colors per meal) since the different plant pigments each exert beneficial biologically active roles in the body. By going local (as in the examples given below), you also take advantage of the diversity of interesting indigenous local plant foods (which I fondly refer to as ‘Filipiniana’ plant foods) that are jampacked with phytochemicals that lend color, flavor and nutrition to your daily meals,” she adds.
Dinah names her favorite veggies by color and their health benefits.
“Green and chlorophyll-rich local / indigenous local plant foods -- sweet potato tops, ampalaya tops, malunggay leaves, kangkong, petchay, mustasa, saluyot, green onions, green papaya, ampalaya fruit, patola, sayote, okra, bataw, sitaw, abitswelas, sitcharo, green bell peppers, green mongo, patani, green mangoes, honeydew, etc. -- are known for their cell-protecting antioxidant functions and can bestow protection against cancer. Non-indigenous plant foods in this category include: broccoli, Brussel sprouts, kale, collard greens, green leafed lettuce, endives, leeks, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, green apple, kiwis, green grapes, etc.”
The list goes on: “Red, orange and yellow carotenoid-rich local plant foods like red rice, turmeric, bell peppers in this color range, ripe tomatoes, carrots, kalabasa, squash flowers, sweet potatoes, yellow corn, watermelon, cantaloupe, ripe papaya, ripe mangoes, ripe pineapple, jackfruit or langka, dalandan, calamansi, lacatan bananas, etc. impart not only vision health benefits, but also upregulate our immune system functions and decrease the risk of infections. Non-indigenous plant foods in this pigment family include strawberries, raspberries, cherries, red grapes, red apples, lemon, etc.”
How about the other colors?
“Flavonoid-rich plant foods, ranging from those containing proanthocyanidins (the pigment responsible for the white, beige, tan and brown colors in plant foods) to anthocyanins (the pigments which give the pink, blue, purple and black colors in plant foods) can help decrease inflammatory states in the body, which lead to asthma, diabetes, arthritis, allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, and even cardiovascular diseases.
“Proanthocyanidins are found in local / indigenous plant foods, such as garlic, onion, ginger, white radish, white-fleshed bananas, saba bananas, singkamas, white and brown rice, tofu / tokwa, cashew nuts, pili nuts, sesame seeds, butong pakwan, etc. Proanthocyanidins are also found in these non-indigenous plant foods: cauliflower, parsnips, mushrooms, oatmeal, whole wheat, white quinoa, navy beans, chickpeas, almonds, hazel nuts, macadamia nuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, white chia seeds, etc.
“Anthocyanidins are found in local / indigenous plant foods like sugar beets, eggplants, purple and black rice. They are also found in these non-indigenous plant foods: pink radishes, purple cabbage, purple leafed lettuce, black beans, black quinoa, black chia seeds, magenta colored dragon fruit, blueberries, purple and black grapes, etc.”
She concludes, “To translate this guideline onto a healthy plate of food, fill up your standard dinner plate with high-quality whole foods consisting of the following (the quantities stated are in a range, not set in stone and will depend on individual needs: Half of your plate should be filled up with non-starchy, nutrient-fiber-phytonutrient-rich vegetables (about one to two servings); one quarter of your plate should consist of whole grains which contain complex carbohydrates (from 0 to two servings) and the remaining quarter of the plate should feature a high-quality, protein-rich food with minimal to moderate fat content (eat more fish and plant-based protein like tofu, beans and legumes followed by poultry; red meats can be enjoyed but less frequently, around 0 to several times a week).”