By Allison Hurwitz – February 6, 2007 – As often as Kirstie Alley needs to purchase new pants to fit her ever expanding and shrinking waistline, Americans embrace the diet-of-the-moment, searching for the next quick fix. From low-fat to Atkins and grapefruit or cabbage soup, we are willing and ready to dig ourselves out of the grave of ill-health by any means possible.
But as Michael Pollan pointed out in "Nutritionism," a lengthy feature in the Jan. 28 New York Times Magazine, these diets are ineffective at best, harmful at worst. We eat to correct not to prevent. Instead of treating our bodies well, we beat them bloody (i.e. diseased and fat) and then slap on band-aid (i.e. consume nothing but read meat or powdered slim shakes) and call it a day.
Aside from the problem of obesity, Diabetes is another weighty consequence we are suffering in numbers thanks in no small part to our pals Ronald, Wendy and Col. Sanders. Popular treatment methods for the reversal of this disease include medication and low-sugar and low-fat diets that rely on rigorous calorie-counting and portion control.
In contrast, Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, prescribes the vegan diet—one he says not only reverses diabetes three times more effectively than traditional remedies, but is also a wise choice for preventing the disease and living a healthy life.
Dr. Barnard’s plan is simple: eat no animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, fish) but enjoy all other foods in abundance. With a strict vegetarian diet, there is no need to monitor portions or weigh ingredients or track calories and fat grams. In his latest book, the doctor cites research that proves this dietary decision (not crash-diet or fad-diet) lowers blood pressure and results in a natural weight loss.
The premise in not hard to understand. Vegan foods tend to be whole foods (after all, Big Macs don’t grow on trees) and Mother Nature tends to be a pretty healthy provider (have you seen any fat squirrels lately?). Yet for some reason this way of intuitive eating has not caught on in a radical way.
Instead, there has been a recent proliferation of grocery store amendments and additions in the packaged food isles. Cookies with 5,000 unpronounceable ingredients scream "NO TRANS-FATS!" from their boxes and everything from Oreos to Cheez-Its come in "100 CALORIE!" aluminum pouches. Weight Watchers makes boxed chocolate-ish snack cakes and Lean Cuisine’s green cartons contain sodium-infused "chicken" pieces slopped on limp, watery noodles ready for microwave radioaction.
Something is seriously wrong with this picture.
In an attempt to be healthy, we have stopped eating real foods and embraced fake, processed-to-hell imposters. Dr. Barnard’s (regular old vegan) diet comprises hearty whole grains like brown rice and quinoa; fresh, luscious fruits like ripe red berries and crisp, juicy apples; scrumptious vegetables—broccoli rabe, eggplant, heirloom tomatoes; and the all-too-under consumed in the U.S. staples of lentils, beans and tofu. Scan back over that list: you won’t find any hydrogenated oils, sodium caseinate or emulsifiers.
Maybe it’s because vegans are sometimes stigmatized as earth-crunchy hippies or we’ve grown too accustomed to the convenience of eating things handed to us through the driver’s side window. Maybe the thought of giving up a hunk of filet mingon or cinnabon is just too hard.
No, I am not a health professional, but I do have eyes and they tell me that–in regards to what we put in our mouths–we are screwing up big time.
Dr. Barnard can understand the hesitation to stray from the "normal" dietary patterns. Over the phone, he told me how he grew up in a family of cattle farmers, eating meat, potatoes and corn every single night. He now embraces vegan eating habits and writes the monthly health column for Vegetarian Times magazine.
He says that this is the easiest diet to stick to—considering its lack of reliance on numbers and size (for that handful of miniscule Cheese Nips in a 100-calorie pack you could eat two whole apples or four cups of broccoli). Dr. Barnard suggests committing to the change for three weeks: "Most of the time people who think it will be too hard say, ‘I want to stay with this for life.’"
While the thought and education necessary when first adopting a vegan lifestyle can be a little daunting, in reality, it is much easier to maintain than it might seem. Many restaurants are willing to prepare meatless meals (not to mention all of the delicious ethnic cuisine that happens to be veg) and most mainstream supermarkets now carry a wide selection of veggie burgers, soy milks and non-dairy ice creams.
I’d say I hate to sound snarky, but that would be somewhat of a lie. In all honesty, I can’t help but smirk every time I open the office freezer and am accosted by endless Lean Cuisines, Healthy Choices and Weight Watchers boxes stacked like a fortress of bricks. Ah, the smell of melting plastic and meatballs; quick fixes; the American way.
In support of the book, Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes, the doctor himself will be in town this weekend. On Friday, he’ll present a free lecture and vegan cooking demonstration at Norfolk’s Radisson hotel and on Saturday, he is speaking and signing books at the Virginia Beach Barnes and Nobel. (From Go Dairy Free: For a schedule of Dr. Barnard's 2007 U.S. tour, go to Dr. Barnard's website.)
Go hear him out. All we are saying, is give meat-free a chance.
Allison Hurwitz, assistant editor at Port Folio Weekly, has been a vegan for five years and a vegetarian for 13.