Are you a flexitarian or an omnivore?

 

Green Pea Soup | Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics

Flexitarian and omnivore are two words that describe the eating pattern of someone who eats plant based and animals based foods.

Flexitarian is a new word. It’s a neologism coined in the early 1990s by putting two familiar words together – vegetarian and flexible.

Omnivore is an old word. It’s descended from the Latin omnivorus via French into English probably during the 19th century and used to describe a person who eats both plants and animals.

If you had asked me a month ago if I were an omnivore or a flexitarian, I would have said both. Lots of vegetables and fruits and legumes and nuts and whole grains and smaller portions of meats or poultry or fish or cheese have always been part of my usual pattern.

Something happened recently, however, that caused me to change my mind. The EAT-Lancet report was released last month. This report champions a planetary health diet and a flexitarian dietary pattern.

The report is the result of a three year effort and reflects the work of many international experts. Described as a dietary approach that promotes both the health of people and the health of the planet, the flexitarian pattern that emerges is largely plant-based but includes small amounts of fish, meat and dairy foods. Links are provided for those of you who want to read the report and the summary for yourselves.

Now getting more fruits and vegetables and legumes and nuts and whole grains on the plate is a great idea. But the flexitarian pattern proposed in the report is not a pattern I want to follow and here’s why.

RIGID

Like so many diet plans, the guidelines are not flexible and virtually eliminate whole groups of foods. Many fashionable diets reflect rigidity. Keto eliminates carbohydrates. Fat Free eliminates olive oil and avocado and nuts. There are plenty of vegetables in the planetary health diet but I don’t see a lot of flexibility for animal based foods. Like whole milk yogurt. Or a cheese omelet made with eggs from pastured hens. Restricting personal choice and spontaneity and surprise takes so much of the joy out of eating.

DOGMATIC

Saving the planet is a goal most of us support. It’s just not clear to me however why a piece of farmhouse cheese from grass fed cows is a worse choice for the planet than an industrially produced cashew analogue made with nuts imported from who knows where. Cashew analogues are encouraged as per my reading of this flexitarian approach and whole milk products like cheese are not even allowed.

Doing my own research and making my own moral choices is important and the more I studied the report, the more inflexible and dogmatic the flexitarian pattern sounded.

AUSTERE

Shopping and cooking are fun. At least for me.  Experimenting with new foods and exploring new places and learning new techniques are part of the adventure. Food should be celebrated and, all due respect, I found the report lacking in joy and spontaneity.

§§§

Time for reassessment. Maybe I’m not a flexitarian after all. But does that make me an omnivore? I went out looking for confirmation and found myself on Michael Pollan’s website.

No other food writer is more closely associated with the word omnivore than Michael Pollan. He wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma about a decade ago and penned that famous dictum: eat food, mostly plants, not too much. He is not, or at least he was not at that time, vegetarian. Here’s how he phrased his response.

“Meat eating may have become an act riddled with moral and ethical ambiguities, but eating a steak at the end of a short, primordial food chain comprising nothing more than ruminants and grass and sunlight is something I’m happy to do and defend. The same is true for a pastured chicken or hog. When obtained from small farms where these animals are treated well, fed an appropriate diet, and generally allowed to express their creaturely character, I think the benefits of eating such meat outweigh the cost. A truly sustainable agriculture will involve animals, in order to complete the nutrient cycle, and those animals are going to be killed and eaten.”

Makes perfect sense to me. Exactly the path I’ve followed. Making peace with the messy realities of eating animals is necessary. My way of making peace is to support small scale agriculture, humane treatment, and pasture raised meat, dairy, and cheese.

I understand this pathway is not for everyone and honor the personal choice of others. The recommendations in the EAT-Lancet report hit me as rigid, dogmatic, and austere. I feel the writers are mandating a course of action and are not in the mood for compromise. I’m not expecting the flexitarian movement to honor my personal choice, but I’ve decided to keep my mind open and hope for a pleasant surprise.

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Here’s why indulgence has a place at my table.

photo credit: gourmetmetrics
Omelette plated with greens and cannelloni | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

An omelette is my go to meal when I’m hungry, pressed for time, and feel like indulging myself.

Pictured above is a quick and dirty meal I put together a couple of weeks ago. Bitter greens and cannelloni beans mixed with calamari, restaurant leftovers from a meal the night before, filled up half the plate so all I did was make the omelette.

My meal was delicious. Greens and legumes fall into the healthy column, but I’m wondering about that omelette …

First cholesterol and now veganism.

Since the 1970s, we’ve been told to avoid foods high in cholesterol and egg consumption has taken a major hit. In 2015, cholesterol was removed as a nutrient of concern and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines say eggs are now okay with this disclaimer. Eggs like all animal based proteins should be consumed in moderation.

Vegans take that advice one step further.Eating an egg is as bad as smoking cigarettes.” That claim was made in a recent Netflix movie funded and produced by folks promoting veganism. What the Health got mixed reviews but vegan messaging tends to be aggressive and the message is clear — eating eggs is not okay.

Does anyone think eggs are healthy?

An Organic egg farmer in New Hampshire recently filed a citizens petition asking the FDA to allow them to label eggs healthy based on the revised guidance issue by the FDA. The petition points out that the fatty acids in an egg are predominantly unsaturated.

Eggs do have an impressive nutrient profile. Excellent protein with all essential amino acids, a favorable mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, and a very impressive list of micro- and phyto-nutrients.

So what is it — are eggs healthy or unhealthy?

Here’s the problem. Eggs are a mixed bag and making an omelette with butter or oil and salt adds more variables to the bag.

My omelette has strong positives. Complete protein plus all those other micro nutrient benefits.

And my omelette has strong negatives. Saturated fat, calorie density, and sodium.

Here’s why I use the word indulgent.

Swinging back and forth from one extreme to the other is not helpful. We need a better approach. Some kind of hybrid system that scores the omelette as a whole.

Towards this end, an approach developed in the UK and recently implemented in France has potential. The metric is weight based and positives are balanced against negatives to come up with a single score. I’ve adapted this approach for recipe analysis. When I ran the numbers, my omelette got more negatives than positives.

Actually got a lot more negatives than positives and that’s why I use the word indulgent.

Some final thoughts on healthy.

• Nutrition research is constant and ongoing. Saturated fat and sodium score negative because current guidelines from both the US and EU recommend moderation. Both nutrients however remain controversial in some research circles. Especially the complex issue of saturated fats.

• Ingredient quality and degree of processing aren’t scored. Pastured local eggs, California certified olive oil, and home cooking add value for me but are not part of the scoring metric. And because I value home cooked from whole minimally processed foods, delicious indulgent is okay at my table as long as I source my own ingredients and make it myself.

• Putting my omelette, or any other meat based protein, on the same plate as greens and legumes makes the whole plate healthier.

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Reducing a radiantly complex plate of food down to a couple of nutrients is insane.

Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics
Salade Composée | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

That’s not to say that nutrients aren’t important. Because they are. They’re very important. But nutrients are only one of many parts to a complex story.

Take my beautiful salade composé pictured above. There is so much more going on than a string of numbers can communicate.

NUTRIENTS

Let’s look at the nutrition facts first: 660 calories, 48g fat, 8g satfat, 660mg sodium, 30g carbohydrate, 8g fiber, 6g sugar, 26g protein.

INGREDIENTS

Here is the list of ingredients: arugula, chickpeas, tuna, cucumber, tomato, egg, farro, red cabbage, parsley. All artfully arranged or “composed” on plate and generously dressing with a classic vinaigrette.

Those chickpeas were home cooked with salt from a heirloom variety. But I had many other options. Canned, drained, or rinsed. And how old were the chickpeas because age really does make a difference when you’re cooking chickpeas from scratch.

The tuna pictured above is Tonnino, a branded product imported from Italy. Again, there are many options to choose from. Is it domestic or imported. Line caught or net caught. Skipjack or yellowfin or albacore or one of the lesser known species. Jared or canned or fresh.

As for the vegetables, one thing for sure is they were imported from some warmer part of the country because here in the northeast planting doesn’t get started until May. Probably not USDA organic either because my Italian green grocer believes “organic” is a scam and tells me his customers don’t want to pay extra for the label.

Eggs are from pastured hens that are free to roam, weather permitting. The farro is grown here but I’ve used farro imported from Italy and it’s very tasty. Finally my classic vinaigrette is made with a certified branded dated olive oil from California and a distinctive sherry vinegar imported from Spain and salt.

Ingredients always generate so many questions and it’s hard to believe your choice of ingredients doesn’t impact the healthiness of the plate independent of those nutrition facts noted above.

SO WHAT EXACTLY MAKES A PLATE HEALTHY?

That’s a good question and the answer all depends on who is looking at the plate.

If you’re the FDA, you’ll gauge “healthiness” on milligrams of sodium, the ratio of saturated fatty acids to unsaturated fatty acids, and the respective percentage contributions of certain essential nutrients to established reference values per day. I understand how to run those stats and am happy to explain the calculation in detail.

If you’re the USDA, you’ll gauge “healthiness” on cups of vegetables, ounces of protein, grams of saturated fatty acids and milligrams of sodium with bonus points for whole grains and fish. Again, I know how to run those stats and can explain in detail.

I’m just not sure, however, that explaining in detail is helpful. I’ve tried in the past and most folks go glassy eyed.

And I’m also not sure my explanations answer the question of whether of not the plate is healthy. The folks who believe low fat is healthy won’t like the fact that 65% calories come from fat and 11% calories come from saturated fat. Vegans won’t think the plate is healthy because of the tuna and egg. Carnivores won’t think it’s healthy because there’s no meat.  Keto enthusiasts will reject the plate because of the grain. The organic crowd will reject the plate because my vegetables are conventional. So you see, it all depends.

Maybe someday researchers will figure out how to reflect all the radiant complexity in my salad with a single healthy symbol. But for now it makes more sense to my simplistic mind to source my ingredients carefully, go with my gut, check the nutrition facts, and retain at all times a healthy dose of common sense.

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