Friday, May 16, 2014

7QT (Vol. 79): Sea Change in our Diet

Guest post by my husband, who also lovingly took full responsibility for our over-tired but hyper children tonight so I could pray and socialize with some of my "mom friends".

For a number of reasons that could be their own blog post, I’d been starting to try to eat a better diet. A friend had recommended I read The China Study, a book by a well-regarded nutritional researcher at Cornell made famous in part by the documentary Forks Over Knives and by President Bill Clinton’s drastic dietary changes. The book points to a mountain of scientific evidence suggesting that eating a vegan diet and avoiding processed foods can help prevent everything from cancer to cataracts.

The book was certainly compelling enough to convince me that there was something to it, but had a few points that bothered me - one particularly glaring example being that he spent the whole book bashing multivitamins and other supplements before recommending that vegans take B12 supplements. I did some more research and ended up with a dietary plan that was still largely plant and whole food based, but also included some animal products - primarily small amounts of fish and dairy. (As frequently happens when I get started on these research projects, Liana just kind of lets me make me the call for the family, which is why I’m writing this one and not her.)

A big early challenge was finding recipes that matched our guidelines. It’s tough to find recipes that feature meat where the meat is a compliment rather than the bulk of the meal. Most vegetarian recipes that were readily available were heavier in cheese and/or egg than I was comfortable with, while far too many vegan recipes were based on processed soy (which doesn’t seem to be significantly healthier than meat, and neither of us really like it). I was browsing through cookbooks at the library, and saw a copy of Mediterranean Diet For Dummies (which includes recipes). I thought that sounded pretty close to what I’d settled on. After reading the book, I’ve realized that it’s exactly what we were trying to do.

The Mediterranean Diet (which would be more accurately described as the Greek/Southern Italian Diet) is primarily plant and whole food based. A typical day includes 7-10 servings of fruit and vegetables and lots of olive oil, nuts, beans and/or whole grains. Additionally, there’s 1 serving of fish or seafood, 1 serving of dairy, and possibly an egg. Many people on this diet have about 3 ounces of red meat per month, and similarly little refined sugar (desserts are often fruit-based).

There’s lots that I like about this diet. For one thing, it’s not a fad - it’s based on what real people actually eat (or ate - ironically, the diet seems to be in decline in its native region as it’s gaining traction elsewhere). Further, unlike any other diet I’ve looked at, there don’t seem to be any nutritionally based downsides. The only criticisms I’ve found is that certain food allergies might make it difficult or impossible to follow and that it’s easy to overeat - compare that to the health problems you face if you do vegan or low-carb incorrectly. Having a label for what we want to eat also makes it easier not just to find things, but to discuss with others - the best I’d come up with was “lacto pescatarian”, which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Besides health, another great benefit of this is environmental responsibility. As a carnivore, I’ve carried a small amount of guilt for years with the knowledge that the amount of cow I was eating meant I was using more than my share of the planet’s resources. There were many reasons I was slow to change, most of them selfish, but they also included nutrition and flavor - I was concerned about my protein intake, and hadn’t found many plants that could compare to a burger, let alone a good steak. My reading has led me to the conclusion that there’s nothing health-wise I gain from either red or white meat that I don’t get at least as well from a combination of fish and cheese, even in small amounts. And as far as taste goes, I think I just wasn’t trying hard enough; just for one example, we had Beans with Pesto Bulgur for dinner earlier this week and it might just be the tastiest thing I’ve ever cooked.

Lest I come off like a zealot, we’re not completely forsaking our previous eating habits. We’re not changing the kids’ diet beyond shared meals; we actually weren’t too far off from this diet to begin with, so it’d mostly be having them give up chicken, and I don’t think that’s really worth fighting a battle over. We’re also not going to change anything when we visit people or go out; this very evening Liana and I had dinner at Five Guys, in fact. Even at home we’re not going militant about it, as the chocolate chip and M&M cookies with both sugar and egg sitting in our kitchen attest. One of the most interesting things I learned in the book about the Mediterranean “Diet” is that one of the pillars is community. They even put it at the bottom of the “food” pyramid. Our health is important, but an occasional bit of unhealthy food is much better than alienating someone.

Besides, then we'd miss moments like these.

Jeremy is very sad to have just been informed that we’re out of cornmeal, which means a delay on his first home-baked loaf of bread.

More 7 Quick Takes at Conversion Diary!


  1. I really enjoy reading about people changing their diets and making it into a lifestyle change (not just a 20 day fad). Thanks for sharing. That's what I did this past January with the Daniel Plan. I too was a big meat love, especially pork, but now I've learned to enjoy so many other "whole" and real foods that I really don't find I miss having it too much.

    And I have made community (or "friends" as my plan had it) a center too, and will eat whatever is prepared for me. Glad to see you guys are enjoying it so far! Share some recipes sometime! : )

    1. As far as recipes go, we're still pretty early on with this; we were originally going to start after Easter, but then my surgery pushed things back a bit. There were 3 recipes in that book I'd like to try (including a chocolate avocado cake that sounds really good) - I'll probably be able to tell you more in 6 months or so.

      The two so far that I can wholeheartedly recommend are the Pesto Bulgur linked in the post and these Black Bean Quinoa Burgers. The former also has the benefit of being quick and easy; the burgers are neither, but taste really good.

  2. I really like that idea of putting community as the foundation for eating. I've never thought about it like that before.
    If you are looking for recipe ideas, I am currently obsessed with (she has both vegetarian and meat recipes, as well as too delicious desserts) and has some good recipes, a lot of them soy-free (her not-so-dirty rice, with lentils and spinach added to make it a one-pot meal, is a regular at our house). I also like Mexican food and cities as an easy and delicious way to get in extra vegetables. Bon appetit!

    1. Thanks! That not-so-dirty rice does look good. I'll have to poke around there some more.