above: The more varieties of vegetables and fruits you eat in a day, the greater the health benefits.- Photographs: veggies © kucherav – stock.adobe.com; Layla’s Falafel by Garvin Burke; grains © Irina – stock.adobe.com
BEST LIFE ON A PLANT-BASED DIET
Dino Sakakini, founder of Layla’s Falafel, leans over a counter that displays hummus, babaganoush and tabbouleh and says, “You can throw meat out the window, because you can get all your protein from hummus, bulgar, and veggies.”
Sakakini was raised on the type of savory Middle-Eastern food served up at Layla’s Falafel, the restaurant group named for his wife with locations in Fairfield, Stamford and Westport. Eight years ago, Sakakini followed his wife’s lead and switched to a plant-based diet. After just one year, he lost 40 pounds and discontinued almost all of his diabetes and cholesterol medications. “I feel better, I sleep better and I don’t snore as much,” he says, adding that his healthier lifestyle also includes walking five or six miles every day.
During lunchtime at Layla’s, a steady stream of people arrive for a falafel pita or a custom bowl, which includes rice or salad, a protein such as falafel or chicken shawarma, a plant-based dip such as hummus, toppings such as red cabbage and pickled cucumber and tahini dressing, which is made from sesame seeds. As lunch-goers know, bowls stacked with grains, legumes and crunchy veggies are a quick way to grab a healthy meal.
“When you’ve got rice and beans, you’ve got a complete protein, a golden meal, and every culture has a way to make that work,” says Linda Arpino, RDN, CDN, who advises clients at Life Focus Nutrition Centers in Stamford and is the incoming President of the Connecticut Dietetic Association. “Consider pasta fagioli, Indian dal with rice, lentil soup with potatoes, or tofu, rice and vegetables.”
A leader in her field who lectures worldwide on the role of a plant-based diet in chronic disease prevention, Arpino has been able to help people manage their cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, diabetes and gastrointestinal issues by making simple changes in their diets. It starts with eating less processed foods and more whole foods from plants.
Consider the food groups for the plant-based diet: fruits and vegetables; high-fiber grains, such as quinoa, farro or brown rice; and plant-based proteins such as tofu or legumes. Now aim for variety to obtain different nutrients. Dinner could be mushroom farro risotto, black bean soup, a green salad and seasonal fruit.
A word to people who avoid carbohydrates: Starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes provide nutrients and fuel for muscles. High-fiber grains help control cholesterol and remove toxins from the body. In fact, once you switch to a properly planned plant-based diet, you can lower your cholesterol within a few weeks, says Arpino, who conducted a plant-based food plan to reduce health risks for town employees in Greenwich.
“The high-risk employees who participated in the course achieved positive outcomes. We did cholesterol testing after, and almost everyone in the group brought it down significantly and lost weight,” says Arpino. To start experimenting with plant-based recipes, visit her website lfnla.com.