From the Kitchen

Millennials flock to plant-based diets for healthier living

Kelly O'Neill | Contributing Illustrator

Vegan and vegetarian cooking doesn't have to be flavorless, boring salads -- with the right amount of spices, any dish can be transformed.

The budding adults of the millennial generation have become very aware of the foods they put into their bodies. Whether it is kale’s meteoric rise in popularity, the gluten-free mantra or the strict organic non-GMO regimen, young adults are becoming more conscientious of their diets.

Specifically, many young adults have begun exploring the world of plant-based diets. Plant-based foods include vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and whole grains. The most recognizable of these plant-based diets are veganism — the exclusion of any animal meat, fish or byproducts such as eggs, dairy and honey — and lacto-ovo vegetarianism, which is the exclusion of meat and fish, but with the allowance of some byproducts such as eggs and dairy.

Restaurants are picking up on this trend too, as many have various vegetarian and vegan options available to suit the growing demand for alternatives to animal products. This is seen through the popularity of certain restaurant chains — shout-out to Chipotle — and grocery stores such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, which both offer extensive vegan and vegetarian options.

For those of us that enjoy the satisfaction of cooking our own meals — or are too broke to afford an $8 burrito bowl — plant-based diets allow for a much more affordable grocery list. Products like beans, rice, vegetables, fruits, nuts and whole grains are all widely available and much cheaper than a pound of ground beef. But it is important, like with any new diet, to pay attention to nutrient intake.

Registered dietician and David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics professor Jane Burrell Uzcategui said the most important thing about keeping a plant-based diet is to supplement your diet sufficiently. This means researching and paying attention to the vitamins and nutrients that are sacrificed when you cut animal products from your diet. These “shortfall nutrients” include vitamin D, calcium, iron and vitamin B-12. Fortunately, a lot of products are fortified with these nutrients, such as soymilk and cereal.

Popular meat substitute soy has come under speculation as of late when it was revealed to contain certain levels of estrogen. This information is widely misunderstood, Uzcategui said. This estrogen is naturally-occurring and in such a small amount that it won’t cause men to grow breasts. Soy is an incredible meat substitute not only in its versatility, but also in its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, iron and dietary fiber.

I decided the best way to show the versatility of plant-based diets would be to cook a vegan meal. I made a Black Bean and Quinoa Enchilada Bake because it includes a lot of the components of a balanced meal, including beans for protein, quinoa for fiber, magnesium and B-vitamins and peppers for vitamin C — and it also sounded incredible. The recipe calls for cheese, but to keep it vegan you can use vegan cheese, such as Daiya or Go Veggie.

I have dabbled in vegetarian and vegan cooking myself, but it takes a lot of practice and attention to make something that would please a meat eater. One of the problems I would constantly run into when cooking with plant-based ingredients was being unable to feel full. Uzcategui said this is because I wasn’t substituting the adequate amount of protein and fats that I would be getting from meat.

But this recipe blew me away. The complexity of flavors was astounding, attributed mostly to the mix of garlic, onion, cumin, chili powder and cilantro. Cooking with the right amount of herbs and spices will bring any boring vegetable or grain to life. I didn’t feel like there was anything missing, like I sometimes feel with a salad or grain dish. This meal not only filled me up, but kept me full longer than a typical dinner usually does.

For those who tend to be on the lazy side or are strapped for time between classes, many brands offer vegetarian and vegan foods that can be heated up as easily as a plate of bagel bites. Amy’s Kitchen offers both vegetarian and vegan frozen meals, Gardein has an extensive — and convincing — line of meatless foods, and even brands like Ben & Jerry’s are making certified vegan ice cream for nights in watching Netflix.

Restrictive diets due to allergies can still adopt plant-based meals, says Uzcategui. Grains such as quinoa and rice are naturally gluten-free, and the majority of components of a vegan or vegetarian diet are natural and unprocessed, so the consumer knows exactly what is going into his or her body.

There are so many degrees to plant-based diets, said Uzcategui, who is an advocate of the “flexitarian” approach: a plant-based diet that allows for the occasional consumption of animal products. Also in this vein is pescetarianism, a popular diet that is vegetarian but includes fish and other seafood.

Even if only a few times a week, cutting out animal products, especially red meat and dairy, can help with daily struggles such as digestion and energy levels as well as prevent more serious conditions like blood disease and cancer. As long as vitamin and nutrient levels are being fulfilled, there is no reason to feel unsatisfied after a delicious home-cooked, plant-based meal.

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