Saturday, November 08, 2008

Primarily Plants

I wrote earlier about Linda Bacon's book Health at Every Size. I've now finished most of the book. Along with some details and a fair bit of encouragement, Bacon has some pretty simple eating advice:
Enjoy a variety of real food, primarily plants.
Each word is important. She emphasizes enjoyment (taking time to savor your food and also learning to enjoy cooking as well as, e.g., shopping at the farmer's market), variety (not eating the same things over and over again), "realness" (staying away from processed foods), and a plant-based diet.

There is one recipe in the book, for beets, but she does give a little bit of advice, like that if you find vegetables too bitter, roasting them often brings out their sweetness. (Apparently sour tastes like lemon juice also decrease the perception of bitterness. I hate sour and don't seem to taste bitter very strongly, so I'm going to promptly ignore that advice.)

The book has a lot of encouragement that you can change your tastes, and I have found this to be true when I've tried it. If you lay off processed, overly salty and sweet foods for a while, you do learn to appreciate "normal" food more. It's a slightly difficult road to go down, though, at least for me, and the road in the other direction is quite easy. (Taco Bell might taste like crap the first couple of times but then it's delicious! And so easy! And cheap!)

Along with her emphasis that diets don't work ("even if you don't call it a diet!"), Bacon doesn't suggest that you forbid yourself any particular foods. For things that are comparatively energy dense or unhealthy, she suggests monitoring yourself for the point at which pleasure starts to drop off, and listening to that signal, and seeing if you've maybe had enough at that point. And I have found (independent of reading this book) that while I could eat several Twix bars or something, I can also keep a large bar of really good chocolate in my living room and eat very small amounts of it.

The book argues, as I've seen argued elsewhere, that Americans' obsession with protein is misplaced - that we all get plenty and most of us get far more than is necessary. A vegetarian diet is definitely not necessary for health, but a normal vegetarian diet with a variety of foods (not one dominated by sweets) provides plenty of protein.

Honestly, I can never figure out who is right on this protein issue, possibly because I haven't done any real research myself. According to the standard (government-sanctioned?) information about how much protein I should get, it's not automatic that I would get that much from a healthy diet. But that number may be something like enough protein for 98% of people my size (a population that includes men my size who have a lot more muscle), and I don't know what the curve looks like. For that matter, I have no idea how "how much protein X person needs" is calculated in the first place. What are the signs of protein deficiency/sufficiency?

Bacon advises getting some protein and some fat in every meal, for satiety and because (she claims) fat increases nutrient absorption. (She cites studies to this effect, I just haven't looked at them.) She generally advocates not being afraid of fat and not worrying too much about it, but substituting plant for animal fats where possible.

And as I mentioned above, she really does advocate enjoying eating. Her suggestions include not eating while distracted by other things (hard for me; I have a seriously ingrained habit of watching TV while I eat), eating family dinners together, and eating foods that you enjoy (while hopefully training yourself to enjoy more natural, home-cooked foods).

I think that's about as good a summary as I can give about this aspect of the book. I still recommend reading it; it's a pretty easy read in any case.


susan williams said...

The key to good health is moderation, which sounds easier than it is to do. Who hasn't overdosed on something just because it tastes so good.

Sally said...

On the protein issue: a very hard call. I know that if I go about three vegetarian meals in a row (including breakfast) I get weak, dizzy, and break a sweat walking up a flight of stairs from the exertion of it. It doesn't make any sense, but that's what happens. (To the extent that I have many times been like "What is wrong with me?" and R has said "What did you eat today?" and I'm like "Ah fuck.") So mileage may and does vary on how much protein a person needs (or what the appropriate balance of various macronutrients is or whatever) and whether "mostly plants" will get you there.

When I hear this kind of advice that I have demonstrated does not work for me, it makes it harder to take the rest of the advice from the source (however valuable and applicable it may actually be for me) to heart. It's like, maybe for 99% of people, her plant-based diet idea is perfectly workable, I just know that it doesn't work for me and there's no easy way of knowing how much other people are like me. Obviously, I have observed other people to be *less* this way than I am, but does that mean that it's true that they could all cut the protein as drastically as this sort of source says? And how does being "wrong" about this one point affect the likelihood of other things also being inapplicable?

I am down with the roasting veg thing, though. She's got that right.

Tam said...

I haven't typically noticed any ill effects from not eating protein. But something I haven't emphasized here but that is emphasized in the book is paying attention to how different foods make you feel. I think a lot of the food learning that you (and I) have done over the past few years is exactly the kind of stuff that she would advocate.

One of her examples is a woman who ate a croissant for breakfast a lot, and thought it must be filling because it was so (basically) unhealthy and fattening. But once she started to really pay attention and get over the guilt of eating a "decadent" breakfast, she was able to find that in fact it didn't fill her up or keep her sated through the morning at all, and that a different breakfast option would be better.

I do suspect, on the protein issue, that most Americans could lighten up about it without harm.

Debbie said...

On the fat nutrient absorption issue: some nutrients are soluble in fat and others in water. Or fat-loving and hydrophilic, something like that. So, fat does increase the absorption of some (but not all) nutrients.