Sharon Palmer would like more people to fall in love with vegetables. With the release of her new book, Plant-Powered For Life, Palmer continues the conversation she started with The Plant-Powered Diet and brings her whole food, plant-based philosophy into the kitchen. A registered dietitian, editor of the award-winning newsletter Environmental Nutrition and a nationally-recognized nutrition expert, Sharon thinks everyone can benefit from setting weekly goals, eating more food that’s ‘close to the earth,’ and, simply enough, by planting a small kitchen garden.
Meatless Monday: Your new book, Plant Powered For Life, is organized into 52 simple habits that people can incorporate into their lifestyle week after week. Let’s say… every Monday.
Sharon Palmer: Exactly. The idea behind Plant Powered For Life is: what if you could condense everything you needed to know into 52 easy rules. Some people will want to read the entire book at once, but some may want to take smaller steps. The way it’s set up, you can achieve 52 healthy habits slowly, over a long period of time. And by the end, you would really be enjoying a whole-foods, plant-based lifestyle.
MM: And each of the habits is very simple to act on. From “Be Picky About Carbs” to “Foster Friendly Bacteria” to “Put Real Foods First,” these are small changes that anyone can incorporate into their lifestyle right away. And then, each tip is followed by a few recipes so we can put it into action.
SP: Yes, the recipes really help illustrate each of the 52 habits. For instance, one the habits is “Take Meat Off The Center of Your Plate.” The tip discusses some of the issues of our increased consumption of meat. And then we include a few recipes, like Tofu Mushroom Tacos and an Arugula Salad Pizza, to help the reader act on the tip.
MM: I like your opening line. You ask people to “fall in love with plants.”
SP: Yes. And this is a generalization, but people have lost their appreciation for how beautiful plant foods are. Throughout human history, we have enjoyed plants, either by foraging or by having a kitchen garden at home. People have relied on plants to add color and flavor, but as the majority of us now live in cities, we have lost our connection with the earth. I think chefs are doing a lot in this area to bring us back. Many chefs are completely focused on vegetables, on shopping at farmers’ markets, on using the freshest ingredients. So it’s happening in the culinary world. I hope more people start getting back to this connection we have with the earth.
MM: Let’s discuss the importance of making goals. For anyone trying to make positive dietary changes, the first tip you offer is: “Create Your Own Plant-Powered Goal.”
SP: I think people do really well with setting goals. My idea behind this was based on a survey done by the Vegetarian Resource Group. They found that 47% of Americans are eating vegetarian meals at least once a week. So if someone wants to eat a more whole foods, plant-based diet, you want to create your own goal. For some people, the goal might be to simply eat more vegetarian meals in a week. If you’re a vegetarian already, you might want to try vegan meals for a short time. If you’re an omnivore and you never considered giving up meat, you could do something like Meatless Monday. These are the goals I’m talking about. In my experience, one’s diet is a very personal choice.
MM: And ultimately, one’s diet, and the goals they set, can have a positive affect on their health.
SP: Whether someone is vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, pescatarian–wherever you fall in that spectrum–I think it is good to have some kind of health goal. My philosophy is that regardless of what dietary lifestyle you follow, everyone can benefit from eating more plant-based foods. For example, there are some vegans and vegetarians who aren’t necessarily eating a nutritious diet. So my focus is on eating whole, minimally processed plant foods, and I believe in appealing to everybody. Meatless Monday agrees with this, too. Not everyone wants to say ‘no’ to meat everyday, but there is rising interest in people who, once a week, will try to eat vegetarian. You don’t have to be a total vegetarian, but it’s fun to try a vegetarian meal. That’s where I come from.
MM: You’ve been an advocate for Meatless Monday for years. How did that begin?
SP: I’ve been recommending Meatless Monday since it began. I work as a journalist, and from the beginning, I would write food and nutrition articles and refer to Meatless Monday’s recipes on the website. Around 2011, I wrote two in-depth articles about the program, and included information about it in my talks and in my books. And as a dietitian, I often work with other dietitians. I’m always recommending Meatless Monday as a great tool to use for their patients. It’s accessible, there are recipes, and it’s fun.
MM: When you put Plant Powered For Life next to your first book, The Plant Powered Diet, it’s a one-two punch of information and recipes. They are companion pieces.
SP: My first book, The Plant Powered Diet, is what I call the bible of plant-based eating. It contains everything someone would need to know about a whole-foods plant-based diet. There is a chapter on whole grains, another on plant fats, another on plant protein, and so on. When people start planning a plant-based meal, they sometimes get a little hung up and ask, ‘so what’s my protein?’ This book answers those questions by going through all that information. It’s all scientifically based; I have hundreds of references that back up the health benefits. It’s very comprehensive.
MM: Since you mentioned the “p” word, as an Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, do you find people are still confused about plant-based meals and protein?
SP: The number one thing is: all whole plant foods have protein. It’s just a matter of varying degrees. For instance, fruits don’t have a lot of protein but vegetables have a surprising amount; on average, they have about 3 grams per serving, which is about half as much protein as an ounce of meat. On top of that, I recommend people include “plant proteins” at every plant-based meal. These are the foods that are particularly high in protein: beans, lentils, soy foods. Then you add grains; some grains have up to 9 grams of protein per 1-cup serving. People have to realize that once you start eating all these foods, the proteins really start adding up.
MM: Obviously, being an RDN has influenced your cooking style. A lot of cookbooks are focused on big flavors, or a certain ethnic cuisine. But the advantage of Plant Powered For Life is that you’ve combined great flavors and nutrition.
SP: I just believe nutritious food can be delicious. As an RDN, I see a lot of cookbooks that are beautiful, but I wouldn’t consider them healthy at all. I have criteria that I use for my recipes; in my book, even desserts are healthy! Overall, I have a Mediterranean philosophy. I use extra virgin olive oil, but in moderation. You want that beautiful flavor, but you don’t need to use a half cup. I’m also moderate about sodium. I’ve picked up the chefs’ habit of adding salt at the very end of the cooking process, not during. At the end, just taste your food and if it needs a little salt, you add a pinch. One pinch is like 150 mg of sodium. And when you wait until the end, what happens a lot of times you find you don’t need salt at all, the natural flavors of plant food really shine through. These are the kinds of things you’ll find in a cookbook written by a dietitian.
MM: In your first book, The Plant Powered Diet, you encourage people to “avoid diets altogether because they make you feel guilty.” Instead of saying “don’t eat this” or “don’t eat that,” your approach is very positive and inclusive.
SP: My philosophy is: we shouldn’t be on a “diet.” We should have a lifestyle where we choose to eat in a way that makes us feel good about our own health and about the environment. There are studies that show you can lose weight on just about any kind of diet plan, because it’s just a matter of restricting calories. But most diet plans ultimately don’t work because people will go off them, and then they gain the weight back. But by adapting a healthy lifestyle that you feel good about, that doesn’t leave you deprived, that leaves you satisfied, that’s what we need to be doing. My hope is that everyone could adapt a healthy lifestyle and never go on a “diet” again.
MM: July is a great time to release a veggie-focused book because across the country, farmers’ markets are in full swing. Any advice on navigating local markets?
SP: There are no hard rules, but in general, I recommend eating as much local produce as possible. Almost all regions in summer can produce local berries, tomatoes, lettuces, stone fruits. So my first choice is to shop local because it will be fresher. But then during the off-season, local means you’ll have to take it back to root vegetables and those items that are available in colder months. But if you want a salad in the winter, it’s okay to buy greens that aren’t local. I’m an advocate of olive oil, but the only place that grows olives in the U.S. is California. So if you want olive oil, it’s going to have to be shipped from California, and that’s fine. Same thing with items like nuts and citrus fruits. These are very nutritious items. So you do your best to eat locally, and then you supplement your local produce with these items. Like my approach to dieting, I just encourage people to do the best they can.
MM: Last question: what is one thing everyone can do today to start reconnecting with the earth?
SP: I think everyone should grow some kind of kitchen garden. Generations ago, most people had a kitchen garden. This was the whole culture in America where everyone had a garden. In
the summer, you would grow your produce and preserve it. Today, you see homes with huge ornamental gardens with lawns and shrubs, but we don’t have kitchen gardens anymore. The good news is, home kitchen gardens are making a bit of a comeback. And this is something almost everyone can do. Even if you start out small with one tomato plant. Or indoors, if you have one small herb plant, or one pot with a few different herbs. It doesn’t get any more sustainable than growing food at home.