“On my recent book tour, I spoke with a number of people about my take on a positive direction for the American diet. I’ve been semi-vegan for six years and in the book (called “VB6,” for Vegan Before 6 p.m. ), I argue that this strategy, or one like it, can move us toward better health.
In the last 30 years, researchers have graduated from the notion that Americans should “eat less fat, especially saturated fat” — the catchphrase of ’80s nutritionists — to widespread agreement that we eat too few unprocessed plants and too much hyperprocessed food, especially food containing sugar and those carbohydrates that our bodies convert rapidly to sugar. There is also compelling evidence that we eat too many animal products (something like 600 pounds per person per year) and too much salt.
None of this is simple. For one thing, we still have much to learn about the composition of plants and the aspects of them that are good for us , although it’s becoming clear that they’re beneficial not so much as a combination of nutrients but as the right package of nourishment, which we might as well call real food. In other words,you’re better off eating a carrot than the beta-carotene that was once thought to be its most beneficial “ingredient.”
And for another, salt and sugar are necessary parts of a sound diet, but so much of each is added to processed food that we’re getting way too much of both. It’s likely that neither would be a concern if we were doing all of our cooking from scratch, but of course we are not.
Animal products have a special place in this discussion, because unlike hyperprocessed foods they have been a part of the diet of most humans since humans existed, and because their concentration of nutrients makes consuming at least some of them convenient and perhaps even smart.
There is, however, a limit to their benefit. Until recently, even “successful” agriculture failed to guarantee unlimited animal products to the masses, but industrial agriculture changed that, and, since (say) 1950, almost anyone in a developed country who could afford (say) a car could also afford to eat meat, dairy and/or eggs as often as he liked.
Although the most convincing research indicates that red meat is the least healthy, it also appears that those who turn to what’s called a “paleo” diet — one comprising primarily meat, fruits and vegetables but not so much in the way of legumes or grains — may avoid some of the pitfalls of the standard American diet but still fall prey to others.
Besides, there are non-dietary reasons to eat fewer animal products. Even if their nutritional profile were unambivalently beneficial, they use too many resources: land, water, energy and — not the least important — food that could nourish people. (To the often-asked question, “How will we feed the 9 billion?” — used to defend a host of objectionable agricultural practices — many of us say, “Focus more on feeding people plants and less on feeding them animals. ”)
And there are two other factors to consider: the industrial production of livestock is a major (if not the leading) contributor to greenhouse gases, and the rampant and nearly unregulated use of antibiotics in that production is making those drugs less effective while encouraging the development of hardier disease-causing germs.
From every perspective, then, it seems we should be eating more plants and less of everything else. “So,” a certain percentage of the people I spoke to this month asked, “why not go whole hog” (forgive me) “and advocate a strictly vegan diet?” Isn’t being a part-time vegan, the more strident demand, like being a little bit pregnant?
To that last question, the answer is, “Obviously not.” A vegan meal has no implications about what your next meal may be; you can be vegan for the better part of a day, or for a number of days of your life. Part-time veganism (which you might also call flexitarianism) is a strategy for integrating the reigning wisdom — eat more plants, less hyperprocessed stuff, fewer animal products — into lives that have, until now, been composed of too few of the first and too many of the second and third.
VB6 is just one such strategy; in my travels, I met people who were “vegan until the weekend” or vegan all but five days a month, or any number of other approaches to achieving the same goal. You might think of patterns of eating as falling on one point or another along a spectrum, and moving toward the plant-based end of that spectrum — as opposed to the end represented by Morgan Spurlock’s “super-sized” diet — is almost always beneficial. It is about eating better, or well, not perfectly, and it must be said that “perfectly” has not yet been defined.
I can see three scenarios that might lead to universal, full-time veganism: An indisputable series of research results proving that consuming animal products is unquestionably “bad” for us; the emerging dominance of a morality that asserts that we have no right to “exploit” our fellow animals for our own benefit; or an environmental catastrophe that makes agriculture as we know it untenable. All seem unlikely.
This much is known, now: We produce most animal products in deplorable conditions, and some of our health and environmental problems can be traced both to dominant production methods and our overconsumption. But we like to eat them, and they’re a pleasurable and even healthy part of many traditional diets and even sound agricultural practices.
So: reduce the rate at which we consume animal products, produce them better and substitute plants for a large portion of them. We’ll improve our health, animal welfare and the state of the environment. Not a bad bargain.
3. Just this week, for example, a new study was published showing that plants may be protective against cancer. I include this not because it’s conclusive but just to show that the work is ongoing.
5. Jared Diamond, in his 1987 article “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” questions whether agriculture was actually an advance for humans, but there is obviously no going back.
7. This is also spelled out in Dean Ornish’s book “The Spectrum.” I’m a long-time admirer of Ornish, and for that reason I asked him to write the foreword to my book.