Updated: Jul 10, 2019
By Anne Trominski:
So, there are several reasons why someone chooses whether or not to eat something.
There are moral reasons, which includes those types of vegans who think meat is murder, and members of certain religions who feel it is a sin or, at least, taboo to consume certain foods. Those are some strong deciding factors in whether or not to partake of bacon that I will not comment on. I 100% respect someone who believes in their convictions enough to translate that into a mode of behavior. That is genuine commitment. Go you and the higher being of your choice.
Some people don’t eat certain foods due to allergies. This is where a lot of dairy-free and gluten-free consumers are born. While, yes, some people just suspect they might have these allergies rather than have a medical diagnosis or, say, an anaphylactic reaction to back up their claims, there are several people who can’t eat certain things or it will literally make them ill. Whether a medically diagnosed allergy or not, people shouldn’t eat things that make them feel bad. Consider that a life hack from me.
Then there is the more nebulous idea of health. I deem it nebulous because there’s a lot (like super tons) of information out there telling people different things about what is healthy. This information is usually interrupted by commercials for fast food. The simple breakdown is that limiting certain foods that you eat will lead to better health.
Before I proceed any further I would like to point out again that I am in no way an expert in nutrition. What I am an expert in is getting a lot of this information thrown at me and trying to make sense of it all. Ultimately, if you are really concerned about your health, you should seek out the advice of a trained medical professional. If you are a muddler like myself, please keep reading.
Here’s my very high-level take on healthy eating.
The omnivore is a species of human who just eats food and does not worry about it. Strange but true, this person does exist. They are most likely enrolled in college, but they are real. To the omnivore, life is a banquet, calories are a thing that someone else worries about, and fast food is always an option. If you are a true omnivore, you are probably not reading this blog, because you are young and have yet to connect any gastrointestinal distress to the way you eat. True story: a doctor had to explain to a male family member of mine that he didn’t have an ulcer, he had a chili cheese dog habit. Age and such conversations with medical professionals usually lead the true omnivore to evolve into . . .
The Healthy Omnivore
Most of the general population can be described as a healthy omnivore. Truly. I think most people try to be healthy but aren’t quite sure the best way to go about it. The healthy omnivore will eat anything, but feels guilty about eating certain things. It’s not that they don’t eat pizza and donuts, they just try to not do it everyday. The healthy omnivore orders salads when they go out for lunch and may even order the dressing on the side. He or she tries to have more chicken than beef, and knows that fiber is good, sodium is bad, and the box that says low-fat is probably the one they should be buying. They may not be a 100% sure why those facts are true, but they respect science and doctors enough to hold those facts in their head. The healthy omnivore does their best in a hectic world, which occasionally means a trip to the drive-thru.
I bring this type of eater up because I have encountered them in the wild more than once in my quest for healthy. The pescatarian is like a Catholic but more laid back. No, wait, that’s a Presbyterian. A pescatarian is like a vegetarian but more laid back. Pescatarians have done a little more research into the health missives and have realized being a healthy omnivore isn’t enough. If they really want to get serious about losing weight or preventing certain health issues then they need to kick up their healthy eating. One of the simplest and most straightforward ways to do that is to cut out meat. What they’re okay eating, though, is fish and seafood. Fish is lower in fat and cholesterol, has bonuses like omega-3s, and can be very yummy. A pescatarian agrees that the plant-based lifestyle is the way to go, but shrimp is so tasty. Think Mediterranean diet. A pescatarian knows how to prepare asparagus al dente and how to cook salmon in their dishwasher. (Yep, that’s really a thing. I don’t do it, but feel free to give it a try.) A lot of people I’ve encountered who have found a plant-based diet too restricting have been able to successfully maintain a pescatarian diet.
(*blogger slowly raises her hand*)
When I am eating out, and don’t feel like I have a good plant-based option on the menu, I am almost always able to find a seafood-based one. Pescatarianism is very doable for me. I still try to focus on plant-based eating, but I’m not going to lie, being a pescatarian is sometimes as healthy as I can get.
There are many (many) variants of the vegetarian. The main defining factor is a vegetarian does not eat animal-based protein. They won’t eat beef, pork, chicken, or (unlike the pescatarian) fish. Where it gets a little more complicated is dairy and eggs. Some vegetarians are okay with both, some only eat one or the other. That’s where you get terms like lacto-vegetarian (no eggs, yes milk). The main focus of vegetarians though, of course, is plants. Most of what they consume is vegetables, fruits, and plant-based proteins like tofu. The key difference between a vegetarian and a vegan is what they use to flavor said vegetables.
That’s right. Cheese.
If it in any way was generated by an animal in some form or fashion, it ain’t vegan. What separates the vegans from the vegetarians are mostly found in the dairy section of the supermarket. Milk, eggs, and cheese are verboten in the vegan diet, and it’s that last one that’s the killer. Cheese is yummy stuff and can make any vegetable tastier to the average American eater. Unfortunately, we don’t . . . actually . . . need it . . . at all. Sure, back in the days of yore, cheese was super beneficial to the nascent species of human and a solid argument can be made for cheese’s role in the spread of civilization. But you and I, here and now, we don’t need it. Cheese is fat and salt, and we’ve got plenty of that without sprinkling it on our salads. A true 100% vegan is plant-based only. No cheese for you.
The Healthy Vegan
Wait, what?! There’s more? You already made me give up cheese! What else can you take from me?!
So, here’s the thing. Oreos are vegan. It’s true. There is noting animal-based in an Oreo. Does that make it healthy? Even the dorm-living omnivore doesn’t believe that. If you live in a fair-sized city, you have access to vegan foods, including vegan junk food. It’s a very popular market. Visit a Whole Foods if you don’t believe me. They have vegan brownies. They are exactly as healthy as non-vegan brownies. You just didn’t involve eggs in the transaction. The stories of people going vegan and changing their lives and losing weight and going off medication are true. But those people weren’t eating Oreos.
The healthy vegan forgoes meat, dairy, and eggs, but they also forgo oils and (hold on everybody) alcohol. The alcohol probably isn’t a surprise, plus it makes me sad, so I’m going to focus on the oil part. Oil is fat. Fat makes food taste good, which is why we cook things in it. Again, at one point in the evolution of mankind, fat was a good thing that we needed to seek out, but now . . . let’s just say we’re doing okay in the fat department. We really don’t need to add fat to our food for any nutritional benefit. Even in a strict plant-based diet, you can get enough natural fat and oil that you don’t need to add the processed stuff to your food. This includes (*weeps silently as she types*) roasting your veggies in olive oil. If you want to be as healthy as you can be, you need to ditch the oil, even the glorious kind that comes from olives. Yes, my good friend and healthy omnivore, olive oil is still better than lard, but don’t fool yourself that you are adding anything healthy to your food. You’re adding a less-unhealthy fat. Recognizing that difference is taking one step closer to true health.
So, the bad news is, you can’t eat vegan brownies and legitimately be smug about being healthier than your healthy omnivore friend. You have to put a little more effort into it. And that leads us to . . .
Nope, not the overpriced supermarket nirvana. I’m talking about a type of food. I’m not breaking this out as a type of eater, because every type of eater can benefit from focusing on whole foods, including the dyed-in-the-wool omnivore. “Whole food” has several titles including “clean eating” and, as Michael Pollan dubbed it, “real food.” What is that? Simply put, whole food is food that is as close to the natural source as possible. So, the less processed the better, the fewer preservatives the better, and the simpler the better. If you aren’t familiar with what I’m talking about, or would like a deeper dive into your understanding of it, I recommend Pollan’s book “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.” It’s a short and sweet introduction to whole food eating and, pun intended, easily digested. Avoiding highly processed foods will lead to health benefits no matter what type of food that is, or if it had a mama.
Simply put, the healthiest diet is a whole-food, plant-based one.
Which leads me to one more type of eater . . .
The Human Being
(*blogger waves at reader*) Does anybody fit perfectly into any one of these categories? Well, yeah, I guess some do. Some people can be healthy vegans who forgo olive oil and don’t get excited when they read that Oreos are vegan. It is a very real possibility, and people do it everyday. But it’s haaaaaaaaaaard. And I like pizzaaaaa. And wiiiiiiiiiine (again, pun intended).
Most of us can read that plant-based whole foods are best and know this and want to be as healthy as possible, but fall somewhere in between these categories of eaters. I’m doing my best I, and I am working at being better, but I’m not a perfect plant-based, whole-food eater.
If you are like me, you might be thinking, “What? We don’t get a fancy name?”
No, it’s a thing. No, it is! Really! I didn’t make that up! Google! You’ll see! Flexitarians are people who eat a plant-based diet for health reasons, but will occasionally eat meat or fish (or pizza). The key is the word “occasionally.” More plants than not is my personal goal, and it’s doable! For one thing, it’s not really that different than the healthy omnivore, so being a flexitarian really can fit into this thing called life. The key difference is putting the plants first. Make meat the outlier in your diet, and you will be on your way to a healthier lifestyle, even if that way occasionally goes through the drive-thru.
Whatever you call yourself, remember that plants are good and whole foods are good and that it’s okay if you are not perfect. Any step you take to make yourself a healthier human being, is a good step to take.