Putting more plants on plates

By Sara Baer-Sinnott,

President, Oldways

Plant-based eating is picking up steam, whether people pack their plates with vegetables once a day, once a week, or all their lives. This provides restaurant operators with fresh opportunities to satisfy their customers.

According to Technomic, total menu incidence of vegetables has increased over 11 percent in the past three years. This is not surprising as the new vegetarianism is not all or nothing. Nearly half of Americans (47 percent) eat vegetarian meals, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group's 2012 National Harris Poll.

Often, however, there is confusion about the differences between vegan and vegetarian eating or the best way to move vegetables to the center of the takeout container. To help, Oldways created a newly updated Vegetarian & Vegan Diet Pyramid to provide a resource for restaurants and consumers wanting to put more plants on diners' plates.

So whether omnivore or vegan, diners can now enjoy a growing number of satisfying plant-based meals from a variety of restaurant brands.

The pyramid

The original Vegetarian Diet Pyramid, the fourth traditional diet pyramid released by Oldways, was presented at the 1997 International Conference on Vegetarian Diets held in Austin, Texas. In October 2013, Oldways unveiled a new version of the pyramid, which for the first time included vegan guidelines (astonishingly similar to the vegetarian guidelines).

To create this enhanced Vegetarian & Vegan Diet Pyramid, Oldways brought together a world-renowned scientific committee to review extensive scientific data on plant-based diets and provide recommendations for updates. This committee included Dr. Joan Sabaté of Loma Linda University, Drs. Walter Willett and Frank Sacks of the Harvard School of Public Health, and Registered Dietitians Sharon Palmer, Kathy McManus of Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Ginny Messina of Loma Linda University, among others.

As Oldways' decades-long exploration of the health benefits of traditional diets reinforces, many variations of vegetarian diets have existed in different cultures throughout history. The Traditional Vegetarian Diet illustrated in this new pyramid reflects the vast variety of delicious, healthy foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, herbs and spices, that fit into this healthy eating pattern. Best of all, this way of eating allows enjoyment of an abundance of delicious foods while consuming fewer calories, leading to better health and wellbeing.

In fact, hundreds of studies show scientifically proven benefits of a plant-based diet, including improved health, lower disease risk, weight loss and, according to a significant study of 70,000 Seventh-day Adventists, published online by JAMA in June 2013, longevity. It's a fact: Eating plants is very, very good for us and a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet as outlined in the pyramid provides everything a body needs to thrive.

Health care professionals agree. According to Oldways Vegetarian Network's 2013 online survey of 1,139 registered dietitians and others, 96 percent believe that plant-based diets, including vegetarian and vegan, can be healthful although less than 15 percent were vegetarian or vegan themselves.

Restaurant opportunities

Here are four ways restaurateurs can take advantage of the Vegetarian & Vegan Diet and updated pyramid:

  • Find inspiration for menu items. Review the Vegetarian & Vegan Diet Pyramid for ideas on which foods can be incorporated into healthy, well-planned meatless meals. For instance, serve up a whole grain pizza with roasted vegetables. Or, create a new salad: add chopped fresh vegetables, whole grains like barley or farro, nuts, or fresh herbs to existing greens.
  • Clear up confusion about the preferences of different plant-loving enthusiasts. The Vegetarian and Vegan Diet Pyramid will show at a glance which foods vegans eat (no animal foods) as well as lacto-ovo vegetarians (dairy, and/or eggs, but no meat, poultry, fish or seafood). Semi-Vegetarian or Flexitarian diets, reflected in Oldways other traditional diet pyramids, include dairy foods, eggs, and small amounts of meat, poultry, fish, and seafood, and Pescatarians eat dairy foods, eggs, fish and seafood, but no meat or poultry.
  • Consider new ethnic flavors. Many different cultures around the world, especially in Latin America, the Mediterranean, Africa, India, Japan, and China rely on vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, herbs, and spices to bring great flavors, colors, and sound nutrition to their daily meals. Use the pyramid as your base; build new dishes from there.
  • Provide a value-added service to customers. Refer them to Oldways free online resources including a Vegetarian/Vegan Diet 101 Brochure, daily serving suggestions, practical cooking and lifestyle tips, recipes and other tools. Or, share Oldways Vegetarian & Vegan Diet Pyramid via social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest) to show customers you are aware of the latest science supporting the health benefits of plant-based eating.

There is more to a plant-based eating than just giving up meat; success means sticking with delicious well-planned and well-balanced meals that diners can find right in your restaurant.

Sara Baer-Sinnott is president of Oldways (www.oldwayspt.org), a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, with a mission of "guiding people to good health through heritage." Oldways is best known for its family of healthy, traditional food pyramids, including the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, as well as its Whole Grains Council and Whole Grain Stamp, now on more than 9,000 products in 41 countries.

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