Flexitarian. Lessitarian. Semi-vegan. There are a lot of titles that pertain to the way Mark Bittman, cookbook author and New York Times writer, chooses to eat. But they all pretty much boil down to the same thing: healthy, simply, and with a little less meat and dairy than the rest of the United States is regularly consuming. In a blog post on his site today, Bittman, who has had several forays into vegetarianism, but still chooses to eat a little meat here and there, explains what meat-avoiders have been saying for years: that it’s really not difficult to limit your intake of animal products, and that you don’t have to “go vegan” just to eat better (one of the most popular New Year’s resolutions in America). And you know what? He’s spot-on.
Which is not to say that veganism, vegetarianism, or even the limiting of meat, dairy, and eggs is some kind of silver bullet toward a nutritious diet–plenty of vegan foods, like Twinkies and french fries, offer just as many empty calories and fat as fast food or anything containing meat–but cutting back on red meat and dairy has been linked to a reduction in the risk of certain kinds of cancer. And, when done correctly, preparing the occasional meal without meat or dairy can lead to more well-rounded meals that incorporation more vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins from sources like beans and nuts. And, as Bittman points out, it’s not nearly as hard as most people think.
I can’t count the number of times that someone, most often over a meal where they are eating meat and I am not, has told me that they “couldn’t live without meat/dairy/some other food product that it is entirely humanly possible to live without.” Whenever someone says something like this, I can only think “Oh, I didn’t realize that your body is composed so divergently from my own, because here I stand, alive and well, not eating those things.” Sure, it can be inconvenient at a restaurant, where a Garden Burger is the only non-meat item, but that’s why being flexible, and only occasionally limiting intake of these foods is important. It’s not that any single person can’t exist on a diet without meat, or dairy, or other items that Americans have been conditioned to believe are “essential”–it’s that they haven’t found the right way to quietly, healthfully omit them in their own homes.
A vegan meal, contrary to what die-hard meat lovers may think, doesn’t require enrollment into PETA, and it doesn’t have to consist of an unpronounceable grain, a pile of sprouts, raw spinach, and a some kind of gelatinous, genetically-modified protein product. Think of all the dishes that are easily made vegetarian or vegan: thai noodles in peanut sauce, pasta with red sauce, salad, sorbet, pizza without cheese (or even pizza WITH cheese, if you want), mashed potatoes made with olive oil instead of butter, stuffed bell peppers, rice and beans, burritos…the list goes on, and I promise you won’t spontaneously sprout dreadlocks if you eat one of them.
Bittman makes some excellent suggestions about how to limit the intake of meat and dairy in ways that won’t feel like something’s missing. Simply leaving the meat out of pasta sauce (or substituting it with TVP), or making lentils or another kind of high-protein legume the star of a meal, or seitan instead of beef in stir fry can all help cut back on meats which may be high in fat and cholesterol. And when you find that your usual go-to dishes are meat based, you may be more likely to sub in something hearty and healthy, like brussels sprouts, squash, nuts, or grains, in place of the old standard.
Becoming a vegan in the New Year is a pretty lofty goal. But “eating better” is attainable–as long as you allow yourself to live with less of those foods you “can’t live without.”
Images: Thinkstock and Andrew Brusso