The Joy of Vegetarianism
Aug 05, 2014 12:44PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Vegetarianism is a trend continuing with skyrocket ascension—fueled by both health and environmental issues. Some of the recent public proponents of a plant-based diet seem unlikely, given their food-centric professions. Fans of The Washington Post food writer Joe Yonan were surprised when he became a cheerleader for vegetarianism, while assuring his readers that eating within certain guidelines can improve your health and at the same time please your palate and help the environment.
Yonan, a bachelor living in Washington, D.C., proves his point by including a wealth of creative ideas in his new book, Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook. Yonan spent a year writing the book at his sister’s farm in New England, where he became convinced of the value of organic food production and (without being evangelical) produced an entertaining introduction to the joys of alternative cooking.
Another noted food writer who has recently “come over” is Mark Bittman, The New York Times food columnist and author of the best-selling How to Cook Everything. His newest title is Eat Vegan Before 6 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health. “I live full-time in the world of omnivores, and I never wanted to leave,” Bittman says. “But the Standard American Diet [SAD] got to me as it gets to almost everyone in this country.” Diabetic and overweight, he was given a choice between medication and going vegetarian. Today, Bittman is a self-described “flexitarian,” consuming no meat, dairy, or processed food by day and modifying his evening intake to accommodate the demands of his food-centric profession.
Celebrity advocates of vegetarianism include Bill Clinton, Woody Harrelson (who travels with a supply of fruits and vegetables), Paul McCartney, Brad Pitt, Kate Winslet, Ellen DeGeneres (whose guests at her wedding to Portia dined on a vegetarian feast), and Ophrah Winfrey. In many cases, the reasons are medical, as research has shown that such a regimen reduces the risk of cancer and cardiac disease, lowers high blood pressure and LDL cholesterol levels, and helps people with weight issues.
Among the most high profile proponents of the diet as a means to longevity and better health is cardiologist Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., who identifies a plant-based diet as a “cure” for cardiac disease. His book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, claims such an eating regimen can prevent or reduce cancer as well as lower high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The notion that diet alone can actually reverse heart disease is revolutionary and Dr. Esselstyn’s diet is so restrictive (“eat noting with eyes or a mother”) that many at-risk people are reluctant to embrace the message—despite the scientifically proven data included in the book.
But Dr. Esselstyn’s book was the “bible” recommended to my spouse by his primary care physician. The patient’s cardiac history included quadruple bypass surgery in 2000, the insertion of three stents to open clogged arteries in 2009, and another such procedure in 2013 after a diagnostic catheterization showed another blockage. With nothing more medical to be done, following Dr. Esselstyn’s advice was a no-brainer. We went to Barnes and Noble to buy his book as well as the bestselling Forks Over Knives, another self-help book for those seeking a healthier diet.
That began my own close encounter with diet change. As a longtime food writer and restaurant reviewer, cooking has long been a form of therapy for me, a creative act that I found as effective as yoga or meditation. At the end of a stressful day, I calmed myself by chopping, marinating, searing, caramelizing, sautéing, and roasting. My shelves were stocked with hundreds of cookbooks and my favorite recreational activities were hosting dinner parties and dining in restaurants.
Fast forward. It’s been nearly six months since we started down the vegetarian trail, a trip that at the beginning involved something I rarely did in my former life as a cook: using a can opener. Yet there I was, wielding the seldom-used device to open tins of black beans, cannellini beans, kidney beans, and garbanzo that are all staples of this eating style. I rediscovered the rainbow colors of fresh vegetables: green, yellow, and butternut squashes, broccoli, mushrooms, cauliflower, peppers, kale, spinach, cucumbers, lettuces, celery, beets, onions, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and nuts of all kinds.
The colors were the equivalent of a paint box. With such a natural medium, it’s easy to create visual works of art. Pretty plates became my reward as I learned to cook “vegetarian,” though the constraints of a strict diet and portion control still chafed. A major breakthrough came when my husband’s cardiologist suggested adding twice-a-week wild-caught salmon to the menu, putting us into the pescetarian camp and adding a welcome change to dinnertime.
Eliminating meat and poultry from one’s diet has become increasingly commonplace in our society, with eight percent of Americans reporting they never eat meat and three percent identifying themselves as strict vegetarians or vegans, who eschew any and all animal products. I can remember being alarmed when my daughter, Juliet, became a vegetarian when she was a high school senior and college-bound athlete. While I respected her conviction that avoiding the consumption of animals was a better way to live ethically and environmentally, I was worried she would not get enough protein.
Although a lack of protein is a common concern about a meat-free diet, it is not necessarily so, according to Anne Arundel Medical Center nutritionist Ann Caldwell. Caldwell says a “well-planned” vegetarian eating plan should include protein-rich sources such as broccoli, kale, spinach, vegetables of all kinds (except avocado), soy products, whole grains, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and eggs. She recommends supplements such as calcium, vitamin D, iron, and zinc and refers to research showing that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of cancer by 20 percent. “Planned vegetarian eating is the way to go,” says Caldwell, who often refers interested clients to the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group’s website (vegetableresoucegroup.com) for recipes and other information.
Finding high quality, preferably organic, ingredients for preparing vegetarian foods is key. Increasingly, executive chefs and owners of many top tier local restaurants are using only locally-sourced products. The very best develop a statewide network of suppliers for organic produce as well as meats, poultry, and dairy. Local CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are one way consumers can tap this market. By providing participants with weekly deliveries of seasonal products, cooking with fresh and ever changing ingredients affords vegetarian devotees the challenge and opportunity to create something new with each delivery. Otherwise, dine out and ask your server to explain vegetarian options. You might be surprised by the kitchen’s creativity that your question inspired.
Jordan Lloyd, chef-owner of The Bartlett Pear Inn in Easton, is a culinary genius whose restaurant is known for using local products. He says he has seen an increase in all sorts of special dining requests. “Vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, no gluten, no tree nuts, no nuts at all, only raw cooked vegetables, no nightshade vegetables, no carbs, etc.—we can handle them all,” Lloyd says. He is more aware than most about special dietary preferences: his wife Alice is a paleo (nicknamed the caveman diet).
“People are usually astonished we can so easily accommodate their wishes, but Jordan and his team create everything to order so it is easy to control the ingredients,” Alice says. “And if anyone is in doubt, I tell them about how I eat and joke that the guys are quite used to it. They love to create something on the fly.”
I have already put my name on the list for the Bartlett Pear Inn’s next vegetarian cooking class. I need some inspiration. And, by the way, I have lost ten pounds on my spouse’s diet. He’s lost seven.