Healthy food, meet delicious food: the flexitarian

Published: Friday, Apr. 26, 2013 - 6:31 pm

There was a time when few of us thought about what we ate, but that's been turned upside down since the reigning wisdom first decried salt, then cholesterol, then saturated fat, then almost all fat, then red meat, then carbohydrates and so on. Recent culprits include so many foods and foodlike substances that at least twice a week someone asks me: "What's left to eat? I feel like nothing is safe."

Before the end of innocence, when hyperprocessed food dominated the diet, we might eat a breakfast of Pop-Tarts or another sugary pastry, followed by a lunch of burgers, fries and a shake, and a dinner of meat-laden pizza, and feel not even a twinge of guilt. Now, almost nothing can be eaten without thinking twice.

And so a spectrum informs the contemporary diet: On one end is thoughtlessness; on the other, neurosis. One extreme is Morgan Spurlock's orgy of fast food; the other is something like an ascetic diet of raw vegetables.

The first of these is not recommended; the second is almost equally extreme, almost impossible to achieve and of questionable value.

All of us live along this spectrum. The moderate, conscious eater - the flexitarian - knows where the goal lies: a diet that's higher in plants and lower in both animal products and hyperprocessed foods, the stuff that makes up something like three-quarters of what's sold in supermarkets. That's the kind of cooking and eating I'll be exploring in this column. (It's also the topic of my new book, "VB6" - for vegan before 6 p.m.)

This is not a diet column, unless you accept that "diet" means something closer to "way of life" than "weird quick fix." Rather, it's an eating column, one that will remain - in the tradition of The New York Times Dining section - more about great food than anything else.

One might reasonably wonder whether we truly need the label "flexitarian" or whether, indeed, it is so different from "omnivore."

Both, after all, describe someone who eats more or less everything.

But the word flexitarian contains a couple of helpful implications. It was originally applied to those who ate mostly vegetables but also incorporated meat or fish: people who were moving their meat-heavy diets in a more vegetarian direction, as well as vegetarians who were adding meat or fish back into their meals. The word also suggests a regimen that includes more whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables than the Standard American Diet, or SAD, as some have taken to calling it.

At least the word flexitarian hasn't been perverted, as has vegetarian. After all, there is a name for a vegetarian who eats fish

- pescetarian - even though that's entirely contrarian. There are even self-described vegetarians who eat chicken. (You might call them confused, hypocritical or simply flexitarian.) "Vegan" is more consistently understood, but few of us want to become real vegans.

A story: Last week I reunited with three childhood friends. All of us grew up on a diet of hot dogs, corned beef, 15-cent pizza, egg-and-bacon-and-home-fries breakfasts and lunches of two cheeseburgers, fries and Cokes, when we weren't eating french fries on the run (out of paper bags, mind you). Our mothers fed us steaks and chops and mashed potatoes and ice cream.

We are all now in our mid-60s. We got together with two of our wives at a Korean restaurant, where I was stunned to discover that of the six of us, one was vegan, two were vegetarian (whatever that meant to them), one ate almost no red meat and the other ate it rarely. (Both agreed to eat kalbi - grilled short ribs - if I insisted. Since you'll ask, yes, I did.) Of all of us, I probably have the most conventional diet of anyone who sat at that table.

Things are changing, and fast. Only 5 percent of Americans define themselves as vegan or vegetarian, but almost everyone believes they need to eat better. What does "better" mean? See above: much less junk, fewer animal products and more veggies. Could not be simpler.

But it could be easier. I'll attempt to make it so here.

For more than 13 years, I wrote The Minimalist, a column on from-scratch and easy cooking (at least in theory). Readers of it may have noticed that, as the years passed, I began cooking with fewer animal products and more plant foods, and even with smaller amounts of pasta and white rice. I wasn't secretive about this, especially after 2007, when I determined to eat more healthfully. But neither did I broadcast it. (By the way, it worked: I lost weight and saw all my blood numbers move in the right direction.)

This will be different, a road map for what I believe represents delicious, smart, contemporary cooking and eating. I'm starting with a breakfast-lunch-dinner menu of items I consider staples.

Personally, I'm mostly a savory breakfast person, but I appreciate the convenience, ease, nutrition and sweetness of smoothies; this one is my favorite.

Chopped salad has become such a cliche that it's barely worth thinking about. But this one, which uses the Middle Eastern (or is it Korean?) technique of salting the vegetables for extra flavor, is something I eat at least two or three times a week. And pasta remains not only a staple but also a favorite, so much so that my pasta with clams recipe has evolved yet again, this time into something truly (forgive me) minimalist and quite fantastic.

I hope these recipes demonstrate the general goal of The Flexitarian, which will be to marry the burning question "What should I be eating?" with another: "How do I cook it?" And just as it will describe the latter with the most flexibility and the greatest possible sense of ease and relaxation, it will recommend the former with as little dogma as an advice-giver can muster.

It'll also be about personal experience: I'm just another guy trying to figure out what to eat. (Everyone is. And I've no intention of abandoning the occasional rib-eye, nor of seeing that as a betrayal of anything.) I might be able to cook nearly anything decently, but I can be slow to figure things out (it took me a long time to realize that popcorn with a little oil and salt was the closest you could get to healthy junk food), and I certainly struggle with cravings.

That makes the primary challenge for me, as it does for most eaters and cooks these days, to discover how to satisfy those cravings while staying as best as I can within the boundaries of what we know to be sane, or conscious, or well-informed - call it what you will - eating.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Mark Bittman



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