Sarah Ellis, MS, RD

I enjoy working as a Community Dietitian where I focus on preventive and behavioral health. I work with individuals and groups to reduce their risks for chronic disease, using a holistic approach of plant based nutrition and stress management. During my personal time, I delight in cultivating my meditation practice, cooking with friends, and being outdoors. Visit Sarah's website →

More posts by Sarah Ellis, MS, RD


Got Enough Protein?

No matter how prolific the evidence nor how well presented our website, there will always be someone who asks, “Can a vegetarian diet provide enough?” Enough might mean enough protein, enough variety, enough nutrients, enough of whatever the questioner fears might be lacking.

It’s not surprising that this question continues to be asked. The societal belief that a well-balanced diet must include meat, fish, poultry and dairy foods is deeply ingrained and has some roots in the association of these foods with an individual’s ability to procure them, that is, one’s personal affluence. During World Wars I and II, many foodstuffs were rationed including butter, sugar, meat, and coffee. Transportation of food was limited by fuel rationing and so people began to cultivate their own gardens and raise their own chickens. Thus, Victory Gardens appeared where flowers once grew or cars once parked. The ‘Eat locally’ movement had begun but with a slightly different intent than today’s locavores.

Naturally, with the rationing came a sense of deprivation that persisted until the end of the wars and the relative improvement of choices in the market. As people were able to add some of the former luxuries back into their regular diets, it wasn’t long before these luxuries became daily staples.

It’s worth noting here that as countries around the world become increasingly more developed and affluent, their diets also change to include the very luxuries mentioned above; fat, sugar, meat and another, alcohol. Patterns of disease in those countries parallel the dietary changes as both become more like disease and diets seen in Western countries.

So the question remains, “Does a vegetarian diet provide enough?”

Once again my dear photographer friend, who also happens to be a midwife, comes to the rescue with a delightful visual aid.

Take a look at the platter of food she compiled for her pregnant clients; its beauty belies its nutrient value. Not only colorful but also displaying the recommended plate proportions of protein, vegetables and fruits, this meal offers enough for an individual to meet nutrient needs as well as support good health. All the foods are rich in vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals and fiber while being relatively low in calories and fat as well as being free of simple sugars and cholesterol. These characteristics help to maintain appropriate weight and reduce blood pressure as well as risks for heart disease and diabetes.

White lima beans are this meal’s primary source of protein, with one cup providing 16 grams or about 30 percent of an adult woman’s daily requirement. The limas’ 30 grams of fiber meet the daily recommendation for adults and do a great job of modulating blood sugar, providing satiety and maintaining intestinal health. Besides being rich in potassium, white lima beans pack iron to the tune of 60 percent of the adult recommended daily intake. There are 140 calories in one cup.

Sugar snap peas, which are actually a hybrid of English peas and snow peas, are completely edible. One cup has barely 30 calories but more than 60 percent of recommended vitamin C intake. This is a vitamin K rich vegetable, which is why it is so aptly included in the lunch for pregnant women.

The much-maligned watermelon also does its share to support good health by providing vitamins B6, C and K, plus potassium and lycopene, a beneficial phytochemical found only in red-pigmented fruits and vegetables. One cup has about 50 calories, a trace of protein but no fat or cholesterol. What is fascinating about the protein is that it is comprised of amino acids that can metabolize to nitric oxide, a substance that helps to maintain artery function and thus improve blood pressure.

Without examining the familiar nutrient gifts of the mixed greens and herb salad, you can see that a lunch comprised of what we have just discussed can be not only quite filling but also nutrient dense, providing almost a third of a woman’s daily protein needs, wrapped in a wide variety of vitamins and minerals as well as including enough fiber for the day.

These nutrients promote good health; the fruit and vegetable packages they come in are visually and gastronomically pleasing, and the relatively low caloric load helps to maintain a healthful weight.

Is this not enough to make you curious to learn more about a vegetarian diet?


Are you really eating for two?

Congratulations, I am sure you are excited to share your great baby-news!

eating for 2

But wait, will you really be eating for two? That phrase has been around for a long time and has been used to justify just about any eating advice given to a mother-to-be, including, “Be sure to clean your plate. Remember, you’re eating for two!” or “Oh, go ahead and have an extra scoop; after all, you’re eating for two, aren’t you?” The concept of ‘eating for two’, while probably well intentioned, has confused countless pregnant women. Let’s see what’s behind it.

While it is true that your baby is developing at a fantastic rate, initially your own stored energy is helping to support that rapid growth. If your pre-pregnancy weight was about average, your energy or caloric needs will not increase during the first three months; the first trimester.  During the next three months or second trimester, your energy needs increase by about 350 calories a day. You could cover this with an apple, a handful of walnuts and a glass of soymilk, for example. Increasing your intake by another 100 calories during the third trimester, to total 450 calories above preconception intake, will insure that your baby will grow well and that you will have sufficient energy for your own needs. These additional calories will support a total weight gain during pregnancy of 25 – 30 pounds.

If you were underweight prior to conception you will have higher energy needs. As well, if you are a teenager, your own body is still developing, in addition to the baby growing inside of you, and so your need for extra calories will be greater than outlined above. As a pregnant teen, more weight gain is quite normal and expected.

If you were overweight prior to conception, most likely you will be able to meet energy needs with fewer calories.

In all cases, your physician will be your guide as he or she monitors your baby’s growth and development.

So when they say ‘eating for two’ it doesn’t seem that they mean you should double your intake, does it?  What is definitely more likely is that it’s a reminder to consistently choose nutrient dense foods to support two humans; one who is trying to remain strong and healthy and one who is growing rapidly. If you eat a variety of whole, unprocessed vegetables, grains and fruits in smaller meals, more frequently throughout the day, you ought to be able to meet your energy and nutrient needs easily. Below is a short list of foods in 100-calorie portion sizes that you can choose from to build your meals and snacks.

  • One medium – large piece fresh fruit
  • ¼ cup dried apricots or figs
  • 2 TB raisins
  • 1 TB nut butter; almond, peanut, etc.
  • ½ oz. of most nuts; dry roasted, unsalted
  • 1-cup nonfat, plain yogurt
  • 2/3-cup nonfat Greek yogurt
  • ¼ cup Muesli
  • 1 oz. most cereals (avoid pre-sweetened cereals)
  • 2 TB hummus
  • 1 oz. Whole grain crackers

Vegetables can usually be enjoyed raw or cooked without oil or butter, without having to count your servings. Vegetables will be rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals that are essential to your healthy pregnancy.

Be sure to read your labels for more ideas of where the nutrients are and how big the serving sizes are!

Interested in more information on Vegetarian Diets in Pregnancy, Lactation, or raising an infant? Download Resources in Frequently Asked Questions or click below:
Vegetarian Diets in Pregnancy
Vegetarian Diets in Lactation
Vegetarian Infants


Time for Soup

Autumn is here and thoughts turn in earnest to hunkering down for cooler weather and preparing more warming meals. Gone are the fresh garden staples that provided quick and easy summer fare; tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and sweet corn. This is the season for soups and stews that may take a bit of fore thought but easily can be made in bulk, frozen and enjoyed later when moments count.

winter squash soup

Have you noticed how efficiently seasonal produce nourishes us? While we are seeking to warm and cheer ourselves, nature provides winter squashes and root vegetables that have vibrantly colored flesh, are nutrient dense and marry well with warming herbs and spices such as hot chilies, curry, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon.

Chef Rebecca Katz in One Bite at a Time inspired one of my favorite soups, Kabocha and Butternut Squash Soup with Asian Pear, Apple and Ginger. Since I believe that recipes are more ‘suggestion’ than blueprint, I’ve created many variations of this soup by using what I had on hand. You too should take the same liberties, depending upon your taste preferences, and what’s in your garden and cupboard.

Winter Squash Soup with Fall Fruits

Ingredients

  • 3 medium sized winter squash; about 7 pounds altogether; halved and seeded
  • (Butternut, buttercup, acorn, kabocha, sweet pumpkin, Hubbard or what was in your garden.)
  • 1 – 2 yellow onions; coarsely chopped
  • 2 pears; peeled, cored and chopped (Asian, Bosc, Anjou or your favorite)
  • 1 apple; peeled, cored and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh garlic or shallot; minced
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger root; grated
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon chili powder or red pepper flakes
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • A few tablespoons of orange marmalade, honey, maple syrup or raw sugar to taste
  • Olive oil as needed
  • 8 – 10 cups vegetable broth

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 425oF
  2. Place the seeded squash, cut side up, on a sheet pan. Sprinkle the herbs and spices into the seed cavities.  Add a spoonful of marmalade, or other sweetner to each.
  3. Roast for 30 minutes or until the squash is very soft. When fully cooked, remove from the oven and allow to cool.
  4. Meanwhile, sauté the garlic and ginger in a few teaspoons of olive oil. Add the chopped onion and continue sautéing until the onion begins to caramelize. Add the peeled, cored pears and apple. Sauté until everything is quite soft. At this point, add half the broth and allow the soup to simmer on low.
  5. When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh into the simmering soup. Add the rest of the broth. Allow everything to simmer together for fifteen minutes.
  6. Using a hand held blender, carefully puree the soup. Alternatively, you could ladle the soup into a food processor and puree in batches.
  7. Taste and adjust the final flavor. You might consider a dash of hot sauce, some maple syrup, lemon juice or simply a pinch of salt.  Perhaps the soup is perfect just as it is!

Early Summer; Garlic Scapes

garlic scapesOne of the delights of visiting your local farmers market is to observe the march of produce across the months, throughout the year. Each season provides an opportunity to discover extraordinary varieties of ordinary fare. Garlic scapes, with their wildly twisted shapes are a perfect, early summer example of this. As a member of the allium family, they are not only delicious but also have healthful properties, similar to garlic itself.

Throughout history, Allium sativum has enjoyed a reputation rich in folklore for its magical and medicinal properties. A member of the lily family, which includes onions, chives, shallots and leeks, garlic is one of the oldest cultivated plants, appearing as a staple in the Sumerian diet according to Sanskrit documents written over 5000 years ago. Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman literature is rich with reference to garlic acting as an aphrodisiac as well as promoting health, courage and bravery.

Current research supports a role for garlic in enhancing immune function and improving health. Allium sativum is being studied extensively for its potentially protective role in the initiation, development and progression of cancer and heart disease. The beneficial compounds thought to be functioning in these processes are referred to as phytochemicals or plant chemicals and may be acting as antioxidants, tumor suppressants, or detoxifying agents. The compounds have been studied in several forms, as isolated supplements or as a whole plant. Not surprisingly, it has been the whole plant, delivered as part of a healthful diet, which has proven to be most effective in the process being studied. A vegetarian diet is rich in phytochemicals including indoles, phenols, isothiocyanates, flavones, coumarins, plant sterols and stanols, ascorbic acid, carotenes, retinols and tocophereols, which continue to be studied for their evident roles in supporting immune function and reducing the risk and effects of chronic disease.

The firm yet pliable slender green stems of garlic scapes, complete with unopened flower buds, have a fresh, mildly garlicky flavor and crisp texture. Scapes can be enjoyed both raw and cooked. Sliced or chopped into a salad, their flavor is subtle and their crunchy texture holds up well with dressings.  Added to sliced sweet peppers and mushrooms for a quick stir-fry, they can top any cooked whole grain for a satisfying meal.

When cooked a bit longer, scapes become soft and quite mild, losing some of their initial twisted charm but imparting deliciousness quite unlike garlic, leeks or onions. Soup made from a few potatoes, vegetable broth, three or four hands-full of scapes and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper can be pureed into an elegant offering, served either warm or chilled, and topped with the garlic buds.

I’ve included a photo of gorgeous scapes, freshly picked from my good friend’s garden. Garlic scapes arrive and disappear quite quickly from early summer markets, so don’t miss out next spring!


Finding Fiber in Whole Foods

When describing human characteristics I think we would all agree that intense curiosity about ‘the best’ of things is one most Americans could claim. Think about our obsession with discovering the ‘best’ new phone app or the ‘best’ current movie or even the ‘best’ sports drink. We, as Americans, love to feel as though we are on the cutting edge of new knowledge, especially when it comes to food and health.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the current focus on fiber in foods; occurring naturally or being added. It seems we should all agree that fiber is a good thing, right? However, I would suggest that focusing on a single food component like fiber is as short sighted as most of the other exclusionary food trends we have seen, such as the quest for sugar-free foods, low-fat foods, calorie free foods and vitamin enhanced (calorie-free, sugar-free) beverages.

By focusing on a single food component to enhance health, one misses the point. More to the point, one misses the opportunity to optimize food choices to truly enhance health in a reliable, scientifically supported way.

In nature, nothing happens in a vacuum. The same goes for establishing a healthful diet; no single nutrient is going to achieve that; nutrients work together within whole foods to deliver their best benefits. When you take something out of its environment, such as isolating fiber, it cannot convey the full benefit it would have otherwise. Fiber has a role in good health specifically because of its role among other nutrients, phytochemicals, antioxidants, etc. occurring together in food.

Good sources of fiber also happen to be good sources of vitamins and minerals, and when combined with a variety of other fiber rich foods, are also good sources of plant protein.  Dried beans, whole grains and seeds offer a symphony of important nutrients as well as flavor, texture and satiety. My favorite winter ‘fast food’ is a bean and grain salad that I make with whatever vegetables are fresh and reasonably priced in the grocery store, combined with whatever bean and grain I feel like eating, from the staples in my pantry. Often I’ll add toasted sesame or pumpkin seeds if I have them. Mustard-laced homemade vinaigrette or simply a drizzle of olive oil and fresh lemon juice dress the salad very well. This is my ‘fast food’ because a large bowl of bean and grain salad will last several days and be hearty enough for lunch or dinner at a moment’s notice.

The salad pictured was made with small black beans, wheat berries, sesame seeds, blanched broccoli, celery, fresh green and red bell peppers, and red onions. However, you can use any beans you like; pinto, small white northern, Jacob’s cattle or red kidney are some that work well and taste great. Instead of wheat berries you might like to use quinoa, bulgur, wild rice or couscous. Almost any vegetables you and your family like will be good in this salad; use your favorites. You can add dressing to the salad as you are making it or just before you serve it. Additional flavor could come from fresh herbs, salt, or pepper.

To keep this process simple, soak the beans and grains in separate bowls the night before you need them. They can sit in the soaking water until you’re ready to cook. Alternatively, use canned beans and a quick cooking grain like quinoa. This is a one-dish meal you cannot go wrong with. Give your taste buds and imagination free rein and your whole body will respond with a smile!


Taking Stock of the Season

making vegetable stockThis morning dawned cold and wet; the first of the autumn rains had arrived. ‘Perfect day for soup; in fact, perfect season for soup! With all of the summer harvest to cook, can, preserve and enjoy there are always abundant peelings, discarded herbs and vegetables bits. These are the garden’s gift to us; an extra bonus for using fresh produce. If you were to use canned or frozen produce, you would miss out on this ‘second round’ of benefit.

I usually freeze any parings created in the preparation of a meal. Nothing is too insignificant to save. Papery onion skins, bell pepper ribs, carrot tips and tops; they all have flavor, color and nutrients to eventually create a delicious broth which can be used for almost any soup base. When I have accumulated enough to fill my stockpot, I cover the vegetables and herbs with cold water and add a few grinds of fresh black pepper. Starting with cold water leaches the flavor and nutrients into the stock. If you were to put the vegetables into boiling water, more of the flavor would remain in the vegetables. Then I check the refrigerator for any lone sweet potato or a few carrots or leftover cooked vegetables that I can add to the pot. If the garden has fresh herbs available, a generous handful also goes into the stock. Next, I bring the contents of the stockpot to a gentle boil and let the stock simmer on low heat for as long as possible. Several hours are essential to extract all the flavor from the vegetables.

When the stock has finished cooking, allow it to cool until the pot is easily handled. Then you can strain the stock through a colander into a bowl large enough to facilitate further cooling. The cooled stock can be frozen in small containers to use later. I often freeze the liquid in an ice cube tray and then pop the cubes into freezer bags for longer storage.

There are an infinite number of recipes for soup stock. One of my favorites is Rebecca Katz’s Magic Miracle Broth from One Bite at a Time, a cookbook that has earned dog-eared status on my kitchen shelf. Rebecca adds allspice or juniper berries to her stock, which give it that ‘power of yum’, she is so adept at achieving.

Despite the recipes, there are no real hard and fast rules for making a good stock. If you remember a few common sense principles, you’ll be successful. Always use fresh products. That’s the reason behind freezing your parings until you’ve accumulated enough to work with. While it’s fine to use unpeeled vegetables, be sure they are washed. Strong flavored foods like cabbage may overwhelm the more subtle flavors of other vegetables. Red beets will certainly color your stock. Making your own soup stock will not only give your soups more nutrients but also far less sodium than those on the store shelves. If you simply pause before you begin, and ‘take stock’ (sorry; intentional!) you will soon be able to predict what flavors you can achieve and how you can affect them with herbs and spices.


Nightshade’s Sweet Treat

As daylight changes, subtly signaling the approach of fall, we can comfort ourselves against the loss of summer with anticipation of autumn harvest.

physalisThis is the time of year when a magical little golden fruit within a paper lantern package begins to appear in farmers’ markets. Once widely cultivated, ground cherries are enjoying new recognition as we rediscover their clean, sweet, citrusy flavor and explore the many ways to incorporate them into our late summer fare.

Ground cherries grow globally in warm to temperate climates; some being perennial, and others, annual fruits and are used for both culinary and ornamental purposes. North American ground cherries, physalis pruinosa, are one of more than a hundred different species, a quarter of which are native to the United States. Similar in appearance to orange/yellow cherry tomatoes, this fruit grows on a more stiff stemmed small shrub and has a papery covering, husk or cape. Physalis peruviana is a larger variety native to South America while Central America produces p. philadelphia. The latter’s fruit can be green, yellow, red or purple; the green fruit more commonly known as tomatillo or tomate verde. This last species is probably one of the oldest cultivated ground cherries in the Americas. P. alkekengi is the striking, large orange ‘Chinese lantern’ that appears in so many ornamental arrangements in the autumn.

The ground cherry is a member of the nightshade family, solanacea, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant. The immature plants contain solanine, a toxic substance that should not be eaten.

The flavor of ground cherries has been compared to strawberry but with distinctly unique tartness and subtle hints of pineapple and mango. They may be enjoyed raw, straight off the vine, dried, frozen or cooked into pies, jams, chutneys and sauces. The many uses for this versatile fruit are limited only by the cook’s imagination. If left in their husk, they will keep for up to 6 months in a well ventilated spot, although they also freeze well.

This fruit has the same healthful properties as tomatoes; low in calories but high in nutrients including vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, especially those associated with the color orange. Its vitamin A, C and niacin content rank it among the most nutrient dense for fruit with these nutrients. One ounce has approximately 16 calories and 0.5 grams of protein. Based on a 2000-calorie diet, the RDA for vitamin A provided is 4%, vitamin C, 5% and niacin, 4%.

Native Americans as well as the American pioneers included ground cherries in their diets. The Chinese used them as a remedy for sore throats, coughs, fevers and abscesses.

The simplest way to use the cherry is to gently hold it between your index finger and thumb, near the stem-end. Applying pressure will help the fruit to pop out of its protective papery husk, straight into your mouth! If you really want to share this treat, slice it into a summer salad along with all the other vegetables and fruits ripening now; tomatoes, peaches, berries and herbs. Season with good quality olive oil, a squeeze of lemon or lime, and enjoy. Adding cooked grains and dried beans will take the salad to the level of entree.