Probably the number one concern that Americans have for vegetarians and vegans is but where do you get your protein from? I’m not sure where this American obsession with protein comes from, but it’s a dangerous myth that only animal products contain protein. It’s in virtually all foods—some more than others—and with a balanced diet of plant foods (I’m not talking about cucumbers all day or plain rice for every meal), it’s easy to get an adequate amount of protein, as well as any other nutrient that our bodies need. The fascinating documentary Forks Over Knives has an interview with a strictly-vegan mixed martial arts fighter, who says that he fights better and feels healthier when he stays away from all animal products, and has no issues with protein deficiency. I, too, have realized just how much better I feel eating the way I do nowadays, which I suppose is somewhat similar to the famously healthy Asian diet as extolled in The China Study. Whenever I go into a big city and want to splurge on foods that I can’t get at site, like pizza or ice cream, I always feel a bit sick to my stomach afterwards. And whenever I spend time at the Peace Corps training center for meetings or conferences, where they spoil us with macaroni and cheese and other temptingly delicious non-vegan food, I always find myself battling terrible heartburn and regretting what I’d just eaten. Plus, on top of leaving me feeling not-quite-so-hot, these dietary dalliances always leave me about 5 pounds heavier than normal—so my new way of eating definitely has its weight loss/maintenance benefits to boot.
I’ve thought about going strictly vegan when I go home to America, but then I think about all the things I want to keep enjoying even on a limited basis, like Ben & Jerry’s, or cheddar cheese, or poached eggs, or the occasional bacon indulgence. Plus, I love to cook, and I’d hate to look at my treasured recipe binder and realize that I’d need to throw out half of my favorite recipes simply because they contain some meat, eggs, or dairy. In general, I struggle with the desire to be healthy and eat the way that my body wants, but also retain my identity as (much as I hate the word) a “foodie”—that is, a culinary aficionado, someone who knows how to cook, and who appreciates good ingredients and good food
But then I came across the book VB6 by Mark Bittman, the celebrated New York Times food columnist, in which he outlines a way of eating that is vegan-centric but also gives leeway for enjoying a wide range of animal foods, albeit in small quantities and only at certain times of the day. The “VB6” acronym stands for “vegan before 6:00PM”, which is a plan that Bittman worked out for himself after his doctor diagnosed him with a host of health problems that could only be caused by the occupational hazards of a food writer: decadent restaurant meals, nonstop recipe tasting, and the task of living up to the persona of someone who only eats delicious food. Bittman started eating vegan-only until 6:00, and then after that allowed himself to eat pretty much whatever what he wanted. The reason for the post-6PM timing decision was because he surmised that dinnertime is when we want to relax and indulge after a long day, and it’s easier to eat vegan for breakfast and lunch. After several months of doing this, all of his diet-related health problems were essentially gone, and he has since adopted this as a way of life. So when I read this book, and realized that it was possible to still be a “foodie”-- even a career foodie like Mark Bittman—while trying to eat a largely vegan diet, it sort of became a lightbulb moment for me. I don’t think I will stick to a strictly clock-based system of food allowances like he does, because I’d never want to give up the possibility of eggs or yogurt for breakfast, but I think I will copy his strategy of eating vegan for the majority of my calories, while still allowing myself to eat some animal products.
In addition to reading VB6, I’ve also recently read a few other food-related books that talk about the dangers and detriments of the Standard American Diet. The first was the groundbreaking 1970s book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé, which exposed the shockingly high environmental cost of producing all the industrial meat that our country so loves, and shows readers how to combine vegetarian foods (by amino acid-matching) to create complete, usable protein. After reading this and seeing the spectrum of inputs required for all animal-based foods—16 pounds of grain are needed to create 1 pound of beef, for example—it reiterated my desire to eat less of them, and confirmed for me that when I do eat animal products, I should aim for them to be on the lower end of the input spectrum: eggs, dairy, chicken, and fish are all better choices than red meat from an environmental impact standpoint.
Another food-related book I recently read was also a groundbreaking work, albeit one from the 2000s: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, which is part diary of Kingsolver’s family’s attempt to grow or raise all their own food for a year, and part dissection of the horrendous impacts of our fossil fuel-dependent system of shipping food around the world to satisfy the American consumer’s demand for any food product, in any location, at any time of year. (Raspberries in Minnesota in January? Do people really shop this way?) It was (and still is) an important work that captured the spirit of the local food movement that really began to pick up steam in the mid-2000s, and although I didn’t get a chance to read it until now, it came out just at the time when I was beginning to get involved in the local food movement in Brooklyn—subscribing to and then helping run a CSA, making weekly pilgrimages to farmers’ markets, and generally beginning to have my own revelations about the beauty of eating locally and seasonally. Kingsolver is actually pretty against veganism and vegetarianism, because she believes that locally, sustainably, and humanely raised meat is a far better choice than eating processed, GMO soy-based meat substitutes. And I have to say that I agree with her —I don’t believe in the kind of veganism that says it’s better to eat packaged, processed food created who-knows-where instead of a small quantity of well-raised meat and dairy products from a farmer in your zip code. So in addition to my desire to eat a smaller amount of animal products, I also have a desire to keep my food miles as low as possible.
I will never deny that roast chicken is uncommonly delicious. And I will never stop loving cheese, especially true Vermont cheddar, fresh local goat cheese, or an authentic French camembert. But I also will never deny that eating fewer of these decadent foods is better for my body, and better for the planet as well. The key here is the word fewer—I’m not going to say never. How could I travel to Argentina and not sample their local beef? Or not savor an ice cream cone on a hot summer day? The key for me will be to make these occasional indulgences, not everyday occurrences. But I think viewing these foods as the luxuries that they are helps me to appreciate them more on the rare occasions when I do eat them.
Finally, for anyone curious, here are a couple of sample day’s diets that give a snapshot of how I eat here in Madagascar. In addition to their low amount of animal products, my meals are almost wholly local: the oatmeal, rice paper, olives, Mexican spices, powdered milk, and sardines are the only non-local foods I consumed during those two days. I’m lucky enough to be able to eat extremely locally here (even the soy sauce, cinnamon, coffee, beans, salt, pepper, and sugar are local!) for not very much money, and that’s something I will definitely miss upon my return home.
Breakfast: oatmeal with cinnamon, peanut butter, and sliced bananas; coffee with a tiny bit of powdered milk
Snack: 2 small mofo balls (fried bread)
Lunch: raw vegan summer rolls with soy-peanut dipping sauce; 10 fresh lychees
Snack: handful of peanuts
Dinner: Greek salad (minus the feta) with sardines; 2 mangoes
Breakfast: 4 mofo balls (like a small donut), coffee, 1 banana with peanut butter
Snack: piece of cooked breadfuit
Lunch: homefries with fried egg, tomato, and avocado; 1 pocanelle
Dinner: Mexican-spiced beans with rice and avocado; 10 small guava