Could improved health for people and planet be as simple as eating fewer animals, and less junk food and super-refined carbohydrates? Yes, says Mark Bittman, author of Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating.
By reducing the amount of meat we eat, we can grow and kill fewer animals. That means less environmental damage, including climate change; fewer antibiotics in the water and food supplies; fewer pesticides and herbicides; reduced cruelty; and so on. It also means better health for you.
Reducing the amount of simple carbohydrates (including junk food) has similar ecological effects — less in some ways, more in others. Junk food uses tremendous amounts of packaging, for example. It’s likely that cutting back on this kind of eating also improves health, since there’s compelling evidence that our high consumption of refined carbohydrates (especially all that high fructose corn syrup) is largely responsible for the marked increase in type 2 diabetes.
As time goes on, we may well discover that increasing the amount of plants you eat is the most important part of this plan. Of course, the more plants you eat, the less you eat of other, potentially damaging foods. In a way, it’s addition by subtraction.
And it may be more than that. The micronutrients in plants remain little understood, and their benefits are far from being fully described. For example, it seems quite likely that eating an orange gives you a whole set of nutrients that come along with vitamin C but are far more complex than vitamin C, and eating a carrot provides many more benefits than a dose of beta-carotene. (There’s little indication that isolating nutrients, even micronutrients, and taking them as supplements, is a key to good health.)
As I’ve said, this style of eating can also promote weight loss, and that’s of primary importance to many people. The explanation is neither technical nor complicated, and mostly centers on the concept of caloric density, made popular by books like The Pritikin Principle and The Okinawa Diet. The idea is to rely on foods that have relatively few calories by volume.
Think of it this way: From the dawn of human life until the twentieth century, most people had to struggle to get enough calories, so calorie-dense foods were the most highly prized. These included meat, dairy foods, and fats, which, in a well-proportioned diet, are largely beneficial, because they’re also among the most nutrient-dense foods.
Highly refined grains, sugar, and alcohol (beer, vodka, whiskey, and so on have played important roles in supplying calories in specific cultures) are also calorie-dense, but they’re nearly worthless nutritionally, and they are potentially harmful when consumed in large quantities.
If you’re struggling to get enough calories, and you want to take in as many calories as you can possibly consume, calorie-dense foods gain in importance. They’re also convenient. Though we all love to eat, it takes longer — and takes more work — to fill up on a huge pile of romaine lettuce than on a small steak.
This is in part why I would never argue for a diet that totally eliminates anything. For one thing, such a diet arouses our rebellious streak. For another, it’s no guarantee of health; there are plenty of non–meat eaters who get their fill of junk food. But most important, I think, is that keeping some calorie-dense food in your diet — whether it’s meat, pasta, beer, or cake — allows you to reach satiety more quickly and easily. And this will keep you from feeling deprived.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Bittman, author of Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating (Copyright © 2009 by Mark Bittman), is also author of How to Cook Everything and other cookbooks, and of the weekly New York Times column, The Minimalist. His work has appeared in countless newspapers and magazines, and he is a regular on the Today show. Mr. Bittman has hosted two public television series and has appeared in a third.
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