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The benefits of a plant-based diet - which one might be right for you?

(ARA) - Could we be turning the corner to becoming a healthier nation? As obesity rates continue to rise across the country and health-related issues take center stage, everyone from health experts and government officials to the American public are becoming more conscious of the role diet plays - healthy or otherwise - in a person's overall well-being and how the effects of poor nutrition impact our nation's burgeoning health care costs.

Vegetarian versus vegan versus raw As some Americans are making strides in eating healthier, a growing number of individuals are becoming increasingly aware of the health benefits of a plant-based diet and are changing the way they think about food and how they eat. In another era, they may have been called vegetarians, but today's plant-based diets come with a number of options. There's the vegetarian diet - which can be broken down into a variation of sub-categories depending upon the specific foods consumed - the vegan diet and the raw food diet. They all offer different food options, but all are rooted in plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes.

The vegetarian diet omits the consumption of meat and sometimes dairy products, eggs, fish and seafood, depending upon the individual's own preference and personal beliefs. The vegan diet takes the vegetarian diet a few steps further, cutting out all forms of meat, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy.

Becoming increasingly popular in recent years, especially with the endorsement of Hollywood celebrities, is the raw foods diet, which concentrates on the consumption of uncooked, unprocessed and often organic foods. Foods are either unheated or cooked to a temperature below 104 degrees, with the belief that foods cooked at higher temperature lose much of their nutritional value. Although some raw foodies include raw meat products in their diets, the raw vegan diet is most common.

Health benefits of plant-based diets All plant-based diets are believed to share a number of health benefits, including a healthier heart, reduced risk of certain cancers and chronic disease, glowing skin, a leaner body mass and increased energy.

Since individuals consuming plant-based diets generally eat more nuts, heart health is often increased. The "good" fats found in nuts - monosaturated and polyunsaturated - help lower LDL or "bad" cholesterol levels, keeping arteries clear. Nuts also are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and vitamin E, all found to be beneficial to a healthy heart.

Fruits and vegetables are high in fiber, which is not only good for your heart but also helps to flush toxins from the body, contributing to healthy skin. Plus, fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins A and E, also considered to be good for glowing skin.

Antioxidants - which destroy free radicals and help prevent certain diseases - are another health benefit to the plant-based diet. Consuming fruits and vegetables provides added vitamin C and vitamin E, two strong antioxidants.

"There are so many health benefits achieved by incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet," says Anne Thacker, a registered dietician and recipe development manager at Vita-Mix Corporation, the nutritionally focused manufacturer of high-performance blenders. "Whether you plan to focus on a plant-based diet or simply aim to make a few healthy changes, adding more fruits and vegetables to your list will reap many healthy rewards in the long term."

Preparing healthy meals Many vegetarian, vegan and raw foods can be easy to prepare - such as salads and smoothies - while others take considerable preparation. But quality kitchen tools, like the Vitamix TurboBlend VS, can help lessen the chore of preparing delicious and healthy meals. The high performance blender quickly whips up nutritious recipes, including vitamin-rich smoothies, zesty soups and fresh sauces. All the rage today is the green smoothie - a nutritionally rich blended beverage made with leafy greens, fruit, water (sometimes soy, rice or almond milk) and ice - which is easily made in the Vitamix. The following recipe for the Going Green Smoothie is a great way to start a healthy day.

Going Green Smoothie 1 cup green grapes 1/2 cup pineapple 2 cups fresh spinach 1/2 ripe banana, peeled 1/2 cup water 1/2 cup ice cubes

Place all ingredients into a Vitamix blender container in the order listed and secure lid. Blend, beginning at low speed and increasing to high, for 60 seconds or until desired consistency is reached.

Yields 3 1/2 cups.

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