By Elise Oberliesen for LONGMONT MAGAZINE

Think back to childhood. Remember the sight of mushy, sorry-not-sorry, overcooked broccoli on the dinner plate? It was a rude awakening to realize the depth of collusion between parents and vegetables. A clever ploy that kept you at the dinner table until those icky green blobs mysteriously disappeared.

Fast forward to adulthood. Maybe the painful flashbacks still keep you from eating veggies. Or maybe you’ve grown an extra set of taste buds and a badge of courage that has you curious about trying a plant-based diet.

Congratulations. These days, plant-based diets are more like the popular kids on the block. Countless studies suggest that nutrients and antioxidants from plant-based foods help the body repair itself more quickly, boost the immune system and correlate with cancer prevention.

People choose plant-based diets for many reasons. If you’re thinking about giving it a go, chances are you fall into one of two categories: you want to try to consume less meat—or possibly remove it altogether. The good news—plant-based diets come in many forms–and you get to decide how to make it fit your lifestyle.

Let’s first define what a plant-based diet looks like so we can start preparing the grocery list.

Melissa Karch is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and licensed dietitian with Nutrition Dynamics, in Longmont. She defines plant-based diets as having a core group of whole foods. The kind that grow out of the soil or can be plucked from a stem or a tree. Simply put, real foods from Mother Nature.

“If you don’t recognize the ingredients, it could be a red flag and they tend to be man-made ingredients,” Karch said.

To build a plant-based diet, she suggests reaching for root veggies, whole grains, beans, legumes, fruits, nuts and seeds as the staples for your food plan. Make it a goal to increase these core whole foods to create a healthy plant-based diet that works for you, she added.

Not ready to remove all the meat? No problem. Plant-based diets are not necessarily vegetarian, though they can be. Flexibility is key.

“If you still include meat, have it be a compliment to the plant-based foods on your plate and not the center piece,” Karch said.

And with meat alternatives, always read the ingredients. Sometimes it’s a long list and might taste processed.

Getting Started

If you’re the type who eats four string beans a week, perhaps a good starting point would be to consistently add one veggie side every night at dinner—or a plant-based grain like brown rice or quinoa. Fruit smoothies loaded with berries make good snacks or meals.

Out with dull, lackluster salads. The secret to transforming lonely green leaves into scrumptious meals that win the hearts of foodies will require the right accoutrements. The yummy extras.

Start by mixing it up with different ensalada leaves. Butter lettuce and arugula are good varieties says Jennifer Hoppert, nutritional health coach with Natural Grocers, in Longmont.

“I’ve come to love shredded fresh beets on salad, just a little, it gives it great color and then throw in nuts and seeds.”

She also tosses in leftover broccoli from last night’s meal. Just cut it into small bite-sized pieces. Another way to wake up the salad bowl, use nutrient-dense fresh herbs like cilantro, basil or flat leaf parsley.

“If I get bored, I make my salads from different regions from the world and use different herbs to work with those flavors. Cilantro can go with Asian or Latin salads,” Hoppert said. “Try sliced jicama, corn and cilantro for a Mexican salad.”

If you enjoy that unmistakable scratch-made salad dressing taste that comes from your kitchen, try the Hoppert’s dairy free ranch dressing recipe below—it’s also vegan friendly.

“Making your you own salad dressing is cheap and 100% healthier than store bought and it’s a lot tastier.”

When making homemade salad dressing, Hoppert suggests using olive or avocado oils instead of canola and soybean oils.

“Most soybean oil is sprayed with pesticide and it’s estrogenic,” she said.

Canola oil can be problematic during processing. The oil is prone to oxidation which is linked to higher levels of free radicals in the body, Hoppert said.

Numerous studies suggest free radicals correlate with cell and tissue damage, premature aging, wrinkles, and disease.

Inflammation in the body happens for a variety of reasons—from injuries and illnesses to autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis that attacks the joints. A poor diet with processed foods can also contribute to inflammation.

Fight Inflammation with Plants

Preparing meals with fresh whole foods is one way to stave off inflammation, say experts. Top picks include leafy greens, think baby spinach and kale; and citrus fruits and berries. Preparing meals with olive oil and including fatty fish, like salmon and tuna are also reported to fight inflammation, according to experts.

Karch suggests upping your antioxidant intake to boost immune function, something she said helps reduce inflammation. By eating foods with a variety of colors, you will naturally take in a wide variety of antioxidants.

“Each color in fruits and vegetables represents different antioxidants.”

Since plants happen to be fiber friendly foods, they naturally help you feel fuller longer—and that helps curb snacking.

“Eating a heavier plant-based diet works with appetite control and high fiber food helps with blood sugar control and cholesterol,” Karch said. “It slows down how quickly the sugar from carbohydrates gets into the bloodstream and it slows digestion.”

Good luck turning a new leaf with your new plant-based diet.