Celebrate National Vegetarian Month by Showing Some Extra Tomato Love

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Sharon Palmer, RD

October marks National Vegetarian Awareness Month—an entire 31 days in recognition of a dietary trend that is definitely gaining ground. Earlier this year, even Justin Timberlake danced the “vegan shake” while dressed as a giant block of tofu during his visit to the set of Saturday Night Live. While only four percent of the American population (about nine million people) are considered vegetarian, a whopping 47 percent of the population in the U.S. reports eating vegetarian meals a significant amount of time. This means that many people (almost half the population!) who are not committed to being vegetarians are enjoying the benefits of this lifestyle on a regular basis.  This increased interest in plant-based eating is getting the nutrition community talking. According to the Dietary Guidelines in 2010, “vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes, including lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, and lower total mortality.”

As the Plant-Powered Dietitian, it’s no secret that I’m an advocate of plant-based eating. But, the wonderful thing about plant-based eating is that it simply emphasizes plant foods—such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nus, seeds, and whole grains—and also leaves room for a spectrum of dietary preferences and observances, ranging from strict vegan to a plant-based omnivore. Even the USDA MyPlate suggests that you fill at least three-fourths of your plate with plants.

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While I am profoundly “pro-vegetable,” there are a few veggies that deserve a little extra clout. Tomatoes are one of the vegetables that I show a little extra love, due to their symphony of nutrients: vitamins A, C, and K, iron, potassium, and of course, lycopene, a potent antioxidant behind the growing list of health benefits scientists have linked to eating tomatoes, including heart health, lower inflammation and oxidation levels, improved cholesterol and blood pressure levels, bone health, skin protection from UV damage, and prostate cancer prevention.

Something particularly fascinating about tomatoes is that cooking them makes lycopene even more bioavailable to your body. Now, that’s a good reason to eat tomato products.  It’s no wonder that health experts including registered dietitians, food scientists, and health-minded chefs love using tomato products such as salsa, tomato sauce  and canned tomatoes in many of their home cooked dishes.

This month, in honor of plants—and tomatoes—try this recipe featuring Pomodoro Sauce, a simple, classic Italian tomato sauce perfect for a quick, economical Mediterranean meal any night of the week!

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Whole Grain Rotini with Pomodoro Sauce

This delicious dish is wholesome and satisfying, thanks to a generous helping of protein, low-glycemic carbs and fiber.

1 package (13.25 oz) whole grain rotini, uncooked

1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

¼ onion, diced finely

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 – 28 oz can diced tomatoes

¼ tsp smoked paprika

½ c fresh basil leaves, chopped (or 1 tsp dried)

3 oz plant-based Parmesan cheese, grated

Optional: freshly ground black pepper or sea salt

  1. Bring a large pot of water to boil.  Add rotini and cook for about 10 minutes, until al dente. Drain.
  2. While pasta is cooking, heat 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan.
  3. Add onion and garlic and sauté for about 8 minutes, until soft.
  4. While onions are cooking, place canned tomatoes (with liquid) in a blender and pulse for 2-3 seconds only, to provide for a smooth, yet lumpy mixture.
  5. Add tomatoes and smoked paprika to the onion mixture, and heat until bubbly.  Adjust seasonings as desired.
  6. To serve: place drained, hot pasta on a large serving platter (or individual dinner plates); top with pomodoro sauce, fresh basil leaves, and slivered Parmesan or Asiago cheese.

Makes 6 servings

Nutritional Information per Serving: 370 calories, 57 g carbohydrates, 16 g protein, 9 g fat, 617 mg sodium, 7 g fiber

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