By Dilip Barman
It is said that food is medicine. But food also brings with it powerful connotations and memories that may be unrelated to health.
How many of us have parents who were experts at plant-based nutrition and always served us food that was healthy? I suspect that the percentage is low. Many of us associate happy periods of our lives with dishes like macaroni and cheese, pizza, desserts, and other foods that may taste great but may not be the best choices for our health.
Tips to Avoid “Junk Food”
Many of us are drawn to salt, oil (and other fats) and sugar. It sometimes seems that bags of potato chips/crisps, cakes, pies, fried foods, chocolate and candy can beckon us from grocery aisles, restaurant menus or parties, even though we may know that these foods are, at best, hollow calories offering energy with little nutrition and, more likely, increase our likelihood of developing unhealthy conditions such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and more.
I like to think of the body as a receptacle – for healthy but also unhealthy food. Regardless of what you may intellectually know, when we’re hungry we’re more likely to pick readily available prepared foods. Here are a few suggestions to avoid food that may not benefit us as much as other food choices.
• Eat high-fiber, nutrient-dense foods that help give you a feeling of satiety. Choose from fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Eat these foods before you are hungry and develop cravings for snacks; it’s great to have on hand foods like bananas, apples, carrots, celery, whole grain crackers, peas in the pod, roasted chickpeas or other whole food plant-based choices.
• Slow down. If you eat too fast you will inevitably eat more. Take your time, chew, be mindful – all of these will help your body to notice it is filling and to feel satisfied.
• Don’t buy bags of snack foods. Years ago, before I was a Food for Life instructor, I was vegan, but I didn’t pay as much attention to choosing healthy foods. In fact, I would routinely pick up perhaps a bag of potato chips or tortilla chips when shopping. When I got married, my wife pointed out that these foods were totally unnecessary. Do I like potato chips? Yes, but thanks to my wife’s astute comment, I no longer buy such snack foods. A few times per year, if I’m at a party and there are chips, I may help myself to some. But not having them at home has been a healthy change.
• Think of your body as needing to be fueled. If we respect our bodies, do we want to put “junk” into it? Foods that may taste good but otherwise do not offer benefits and may even be harmful are not good choices. Making every bite count by ingesting healthy, limited fat, whole food, plant-based foods that are beneficial is a good goal.
• Avoid eating at times when you may make less healthy choices, such as when you are tired. Also avoid snacking just for the sake of putting something in your mouth. If there are times when you feel tempted to eat unhealthy food for a “quick fix,” consider eating or doing something else to break yourself of the habit. You like buttery popcorn while watching a movie? Try air popped popcorn with nutritional yeast and maybe a small dab of a vegan “butter” – or forego the butter altogether. Do you crave chocolate after a meal? Right after eating, do something else that you enjoy, like going for a walk or talking to a friend.
• Reinvent foods that you like but which could be healthier. If you’re not used to whole grain or legume-based pastas or brown rice, try them out and consider transitioning away from white flour and rice. Back in college, I was accustomed to white rice, and when I tried brown rice I didn’t initially like it. But it quickly grew on me, and now I much prefer it, even just from the point of view of taste.
Nachos are a great comfort food but they often can be improved in terms of healthiness. The key to the way I make nachos is to use a good helping of beans, make my own tortilla chips and make my own cashew-based “cheese” sauce – and to make that sauce optional. A good favorite salsa adds a lot of flavor, and you can top the nachos with vegetables and even grilled fruit such as pineapple. Guacamole is a perennial favorite; I enjoy guacamole but do try to be careful; avocado is one of the few higher fat plant foods. A single avocado is about 44% fat and may have around 30 grams of fat.
Here is how I make nachos. There are countless variations, and I invite you to make plant-based nachos to suit your own tastes.
The basic idea is to make nacho chips and then top them with a variety of ingredients. I favor starting with ample beans such as black beans – for something unusual you can try fresh shelled edamame or maybe black-eyed peas. Chopped red onion Is great, as are sprigs of cilantro, fresh corn-off-the-cob or defrosted frozen corn, chopped bell pepper, roasted cauliflower florets and maybe some olives. For a more decadent dish, you can try a vegan “cheese” sauce and/or a good salsa.
I generally make my chips starting with thicker tortillas to hold more ingredients. Then I put the hot chips in a serving platter and load them with ingredients – or let my family load up their own plates. Below are tips for making chips and sauce.
Sure, you can readily buy nacho chips in the store, but they tend to be fried and rather high in fat. I used to be able to find a brand of baked chips but nowadays I really like making my own chips. It’s so easy!
I start with quality tortillas. You can make tortillas from scratch, but I usually buy corn, whole wheat or other types such as spinach tortillas. They generally do have a little bit of oil, but the fat content of the types I buy is modest.
I put the tortillas in a pile and slice through them with a knife to achieve the shape and size that I like. Generally, I make approximately equilateral triangles (did I mention that, in addition to food and nutrition, I also teach math?) maybe 3 inches per side. I have an air fryer and simply put the tortilla triangles single-layered into the air fryer set to 350°F. Nothing seems to happen for a few minutes and then, suddenly, they start quickly browning. I start watching after about three minutes and stop the process when I see the browning advance just a bit; if left much longer, the chips burn. That’s all there is to making tortilla chips!
As I mentioned above, avocado is one of the few high-fat vegetables/fruits (culinarily, I call these vegetables, but biologically they are fruits). Guacamole is tasty, but I eat it only on occasion and then in moderation. I remember a period, maybe 15 to 20 years ago, when I would find at Whole Foods Market a reduced-fat guacamole made primarily with peas; I like peas, but such a creation just didn’t excite me.
The thing to remember with guacamole is that once the avocado is cut, it begins to oxidize and turn brown. There’s no harm in a brown avocado, but it doesn’t look appetizing. To stop the oxidation, one should immediately mix in a little acid like lime or lemon juice (or tangerine or orange juice). Any unused avocado should be kept with the seed, wrapped tightly and refrigerated.
Mix the avocado with a fork to the consistency desired, add a little lemon, lime or other citrus juice, at least two or three kinds of onion, chopped fine (e.g., red onion, sweet onion and even shallot), garlic and salt. My secret ingredient is rosemary needles. Oregano goes well, and I’ve enjoyed having papaya mixed into guacamole, as well.
I usually don’t include a vegan cheese sauce, but it’s nice to know how to make one. The basis of the cheesy flavor is nutritional yeast, available at many grocery stores in the bulk or perhaps baking aisle. Garlic or onion powder, salt and maybe a bit of white (or black) pepper adds nice seasoning. For a more convincing orange color, roasted red bell pepper is handy. The sauce can be thickened with a starch like potato, potato flakes or arrowroot powder, or by cooking down with tapioca. Instead, I usually opt for cashew (or even almond). It is faster, more convenient (cooking with tapioca results in a sticky pan), and I find it consistently reliable. If I make a sauce that I want to be thicker, I can mix in more cashew. Cashews do have some nutritional benefits, such as having significant protein, copper, magnesium and other minerals, but they have 12 grams of fat per 1 ounce serving, so I try to stretch out my sauce over a number of servings.
Here is a good basic vegan “cheese” sauce recipe.
• ½ cup “raw” cashews (they aren’t really edible if truly raw but must be roasted within the shell; when we buy “roasted” cashews, they are roasted a second time); I’ve seen suggestions to soak the cashews for a half hour or so, but I generally get great results without soaking at all;
• 1 clove garlic;
• 1/8 – 1/4 cup water, depending on how thin you want the sauce to be;
• 4 tablespoons (or more!) nutritional yeast;
• 1 teaspoon garlic powder;
• (optional) red bell pepper, roasted or not;
• (optional) 1 teaspoon lime or lemon juice – or, even better, tangerine juice; adding it complements the beans;
• (optional) dash of salt.
Blend all ingredients for a few seconds on high until homogenized and creamy; makes about one cup (more if you use the pepper) of sauce, enough for a party platter of nachos that will serve 6 to 8 people.
Dilip Barman has been involved with plant-based eating for decades. In addition to being a Food for Life instructor, he hosts, through the Triangle Vegetarian Society, the United States’ largest vegetarian (all vegan) Thanksgiving. He is Nutrition Education Director of a local charter school and blogs about his plant-based creations at dilipdinner.blogspot.com.