Point/Counterpoint: Meat vs. Plants

Editor’s Note: Longtime ES reader Thresher was moved to write a response to Amcstang’s recent thoughts on the Paleo Diet. We love us a good controversy.

Paleo Diets are one of my pet peeves. It’s such a brilliant idea at the core, but none of the popular versions of it hit at the nugget of scientific truth that should be emphasized: caloric restriction works pretty well (we evolved being very, very hungry for most of the average year) and probably is one of the few approaches to eating that will demonstrably make the average person live longer. But it’s hard to enjoy, and there aren’t many food blogs that can be built around like 1,000 calories per day.

Let me frame that rant. I had a reaction to a previous Endless Simmer post. It was on the topic of a particular type of the Paleo Diet ethos, and I couldn’t help but grit my teeth while reading it. I thought I’d offer a response, for good measure, from the perspective of the epidemiologists and biologists (etc…) who’ve been seriously studying diet and quality of life for decades.

‘Diet’ strikes many of us as a four-letter word because there are so many of them out there, each hawking a particular (amazing) benefit. “Eat only magic cookies!” “Lose 80 pounds through cheese!” “Live forever young!” As much as we tend to desire these very gratifying claims, we also roll our eyes at the commercials that brag about them because, deep down, they seem at least a little bullshitty.

So, yes, there are a lot of opinions out there on how to eat well, and it’s hard to call any of them flat-out wrong. That’s because faddish diet plans tend to focus on achieving a particular goal, in the short term, and sometimes they can achieve that goal really well. There are fad diets that will make you skinnier, bulkier, leaner, even sexier and more tan. But they’re called fads for a reason: after an initial quick success, they don’t end up doing anything good for your body in the long run (and sometimes they can do some serious damage, or at the very least make you fatter than when you started).

Forget all that. I can summarize in a couple sentences the big picture on diet and health that we pretty much know is true—from science! I swear I’ll be quick with a few facts and then we’ll get to some yummy stuff.

First, know this: three of the top five things that are most likely to do us in are related to how we eat: heart disease, cancer and stroke. Boom. That sucks.

Ok, but there’s good news, too. Some monumental research projects are very worth mentioning here, and you may have heard of them: the China study, the Harvard nurses study and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s heart disease studies. They’re the central studies that public health practitioners look to for advice because they’re literally “high powered” in the statistical sense—massively large groups of people under study for a very long time are what give us the kinds of numbers we need to draw really strong conclusions. These investigations have followed more than 120,000 people for almost five decades, and they draw clear and consistent recommendations: no matter what your background, all three of those diet-related awful things are much less likely to show up if you eat mostly plant-based foods (cereals, fruits, vegetables, nuts) and reduce as much oil and animal protein as possible. That’s longhand for a balanced vegan diet.

Now I know that ‘vegan’ can be as much of a dirty word as ‘diet,’ but it shouldn’t be. It’s not a short-term effect fad, says science, and it isn’t an all-or-nothing connection—that same body of research tells us that even just moving a little bit in the vegan direction improves health by a little bit, too. You can start experimenting to find plant-based meals you like, even just once a week, and work from there.

For instance, you’d be surprised at how many dishes can be prepared in a way that incorporates a frightening number of your recommended daily servings of good stuff while still being worthy of late-night cravings (sans butter, olive oil or other refined fats). A staple in my kitchen is the New York Times veggie burger. Foof it up with extra cilantro and garam masala, dressed with spring greens and cashew cheese, and you’ve got our weekly curry burger dinner that I manage to feed to three tweenage boys (pictured above). Since oats are a principal ingredient, the meal also makes us feel fuller for longer.

Don’t forget that the food processor is your friend. Where you’d use oil and cheese in a fresh pesto (one of my absolute favorite things to slather on a sandwich), whip up a batch in a blender using just a big bunch of basil leaves, a cup of stove-top toasted walnuts, a clove of garlic and a quarter cup of almond milk. Salt (or tamari) to taste, and toss in some avocado when it’s around!

A well-appointed spice rack will help you brighten up any vegetable plate, so look around for tastes that really pique your palette—I was introduced to sumac and za’atar and now they’re my go-to seasonings for cooked greens.

Otherwise, get creative! My kitchen motto is “make shit up,” and, come on, we all know that’s how we find (or tweak) our favorite recipes. Look for inspiration in any of the cookbooks you already have and experiment with substitutions like using vegetable broth instead of oil for sautéing.

If you’re already following a diet plan, you can integrate this approach into what you’re already doing. Bill Clinton famously adopted a mostly vegan diet this year in consultation with Dr. Esselstyn, and the Engine 2 diet (championed by Dr. Esselstyn’s incredibly hot son) has emerged as a plainclothes way to get people eating this way even if they aren’t former presidents. As a testament to how versatile this approach can be, there are even Paleo vegans.

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  • erica January 13, 2012  

    i’m always on the lookout for a great bean burger recipe, i pinned that one, thank you!

    going vegan (and high raw!) is how i lost 30 lbs in 2006. i generally eat vegetarian with small amounts of fish now and then, but when my pants get tight like they did over the holidays i go back to a vegan (plus eggs), low oil diet to get back to my goal weight. works like a charm and is not hard at all to do here in vegan-mecca portland.

  • Thresher January 13, 2012  

    I have serious Portland envy. And congrats on the success story!

  • Libbie January 14, 2012  

    I grew up with my dad expecting meat with every meal, but then I married a vegetarian and I almost never eat meat anymore. I think chicken and beef are fine in moderation though if you get them from good sources, and if I want a burger I get a burger.

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