If you have thought of trying a vegan diet but fear it’s too monotonous or simply don’t want to give up the foods you love, Mark Bittman’s ‘flexitarian’ diet is one you can really stick to – for life.
Six years ago, I was overweight, pre-diabetic, and facing a medical order: adopt a vegan diet or go on medication. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life on pills, but as a food writer I lived – and worked – to eat. My solution was to switch to a flexitarian diet: until 6 p.m. each day I was a vegan, my food consisting of fresh vegetables, fruits and grains. After 6 p.m., I’d eat however I wanted. Not only did I swiftly lose 17.5 kilos, but the diet proved to be sustainable in the long term. Not bad!
1. Eat fruit and vegetables in abundance
You can eat almost all fruits and vegetables in unlimited quantities; a few, like pulses, nuts, seeds, whole grains, starchy or fatty vegetables or fruits, and oils, should be eaten more moderately. Remember that fruits and vegetables are full of fibre and water, which is why you can eat a lot of them. VB6 becomes a lot easier if you eat beans daily; they’re high in protein and fibre, and they’re delicious, versatile, filling, and easy to cook in bulk and reheat. Finally, nuts. Crunchy, nutritious, beloved, nuts are also super calorie-dense, so you shouldn’t eat them with abandon, but a handful trumps a handful of crisps for both nutrition and satisfaction.
2. Eat fewer animal products
Get over the meat-as-main-course mentality. Meat is a treat, not the main event, and 80g will satisfy your craving as well as 200g. This is the inevitable future. There is not enough land, water, energy, or mineral resources for the earth’s billions to consume animal products at the rate we do, and the knowledge that we as individuals can take such a simple step to affect the fate of the planet is extremely empowering. Then, of course, there’s health. Eating fewer animal products is key to avoiding chronic disease, because while they’re good sources of protein and certain micronutrients, they’re high in saturated fat and cholesterol, calorie-dense, and often tainted by antibiotics.
3. Eat (almost) no junk food
You know this already and you know what they are: foods that are unrecognisable as coming from their source (like Pringles), contain ingredients you’ve never heard of (like energy bars), are thought of as quick meals (2-Minute Noodles, to name just one), are ultra high-calorie (ice cream – I know, you need it now and then, but not every night), are nutritionally useless or even damaging (sweetened fizzy drinks), and so on down the list of hyperprocessed snacks, drinks, and fast food. Like pornography, junk might be tough to define but you know it when you see it. It’s fairly safe to say that foods with more than five ingredients – an arbitrary number, but a decent guide – count as hyper-processed. Read labels and stick with real foods.
4. Cook at home, as much as possible
What matters most is that when you cook, you know what you’re eating. Cooking is also the easiest way to control the quantity of food you consume: you know exactly how much of every ingredient you use and eat. You’ll also control the quality.
5. Consider quality over quantity
* Know when to buy fresh and when to turn to frozen. For example, in winter you’re probably better off with frozen green beans or corn than hunting down ‘fresh’ that comes from another hemisphere.
* The markets of immigrant groups or of people who are less assimilated food-wise (and who therefore may be eating less of the standard Western diet), are the best places to shop for interesting produce, pulses and spices. Check out Southeast Asian, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, or Korean, markets, for example.
* Waste as little as possible. Throwing food away is literally money down the drain. Think of ways to ‘repurpose’ whatever vegetables, salads, grains or beans you have from dinner the night before into the next day’s lunch, even if you just use it as sandwich filling or toss it into salad.
6. See weight loss as just one component of good health
Just as marketing has redefined food, it’s warped our notion of what constitutes a ‘good’ body. We’ve become more than 20 percent fatter over the past 50 years, yet our physical ideal as expressed by the media has become thinner. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think he or she needs to lose at least 2 or 3kg, regardless of present size. But healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. There is no single ‘ideal’ weight applicable to more than one person; depending on your metabolism, your genetics, and your body composition, your ideal weight might be 5 or even 10kg heavier than that of someone else of the same height and gender.
7. Eat more fruit and veg
* Buy them. It may sound silly, but the first step is to actually shop. If you load up the fridge with fruits and vegetables you’ll be far more likely to eat them.
* Prep vegetables so they’re always ready to eat. Whenever you’re watching TV, or have a few minutes: trim, chop and refrigerate carrots and celery, rinse lettuce, tear it into pieces, and stash it in towels in plastic bags; or pre-cook broccoli, cauliflower or beans, so they’re ready to go.
* Make big batches of grains and beans every week. Cooking these requires virtually no effort, and they keep in the freezer indefinitely. That way, salads, soups and stir-fries come together in an instant.
* Step out of your comfort zone. Resolve to try at least one new plant every month – you’re bound to like and even love some of them. And you’ll never run out of options.
* Experiment with ways to make vegetables exciting. Be sure to try other techniques like roasting, grilling, sautéing, or braising.