My route to saner eating was more or less accidental. Two years ago, I was 57 and weighed more than I ever had.
When I graduated from college, I weighed 165 pounds; when I stopped smoking, about five years after that, I weighed 180. Then, when my first daughter was born and I had started writing about food and doing some serious eating and drinking, I hit 190. Over the next 20 years, I managed to gain more weight, reaching 214.
I’m not a small person, so I didn’t look that heavy (I thought), but I was overweight and developed health problems. My cholesterol was up, as was my blood sugar (there’s diabetes as well as serious obesity in my family). I had a hernia, my knees were giving out, and I’d developed sleep apnea.
As a reporter and researcher for many years, I was writing a food column called “The Minimalist” for the New York Times and a book called How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I had (and still have) no intention of becoming a vegetarian, but I could see the writing on the wall: Industrial meat production had gone beyond distasteful and alienating to become disgusting and dangerous (its link to global warming didn’t help); traditional, natural ingredients were becoming rare; and respectable scientific studies pointed toward the health benefits of eating more plant-based foods and fewer meat-based foods.
For me, the combination of cholesterol, blood sugar, and apnea was the real trigger. My problems were scary — and, according to my doctor, all easily remedied. For the cholesterol, I could take cholesterol-lowering drugs or eat less meat; for the blood sugar, I could eat fewer sweets; for the apnea, I could lose 15 percent of my body weight.
Everything pointed to a simpler style of eating. I started following a diet that was nearly “vegan until six.” Until dinner, I ate almost no animal products and no simple carbs (no white-flour products, junk food, or sugar-heavy snacks). At dinner, I ate as I always had, sometimes a sizable meal including animal products, bread, dessert, wine — you name it — or sometimes a salad and a bowl of soup. I also took several long walks each week (my bad knees couldn’t handle more).
Though few nutritionists would disapprove, this eating plan may seem counter intuitive. The opposite schedule (eating the day’s heaviest meal for lunch or breakfast) may make more sense for many people. But this suited me. I detest overly prescriptive diets that are impossible to follow, and the point was to eat more vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains and less meat, sugar, junk food, and overrefined carbs, without giving up foods I loved.
My results were striking. I had little trouble eating this way, I began feeling and sleeping better, and I didn’t think much about it for a month or two. It just made sense. A month later, I’d lost 15 pounds. A month after that, both my cholesterol and my blood sugar were down, well into the normal range (my cholesterol went from 240 to 180). My apnea was gone, and I was sleeping through the night.
Within four months, I’d lost more than 35 pounds and was below 180, less than I’d weighed in 30 years. In fact, of all my diet-related ailments, only my knees didn’t respond. (Oh well. One does age.) My weight has stabilized, and — perhaps more important — I’m at home with this way of eating. My doctor was happy with my progress. (Check with yours first.)
Today I eat about one third as much meat, dairy, and even fish as I did a few years ago. (Farmed fish has many of the same issues as farmed land animals, including antibiotic use and environmental damage.) I eat few refined carbs. But if there’s good white bread at dinner, I attack it, and I still have pasta a couple of times a week. I eat almost no junk food. I eat about three or four times as many plant foods (like green leafy vegetables) as before; probably 50 percent or more of my calories come from nonanimal sources.
For some people, a shift of 10 percent of calories from animal to plant may feel significant, though I doubt it; it would be the equivalent of maybe not having chicken on a Caesar salad at lunch. A person making that kind of shift, along with cutting way back on junk food and carbohydrates, might still see positive health changes. But a shift of 50 percent — replacing half your animal calories with plant calories — would be significant and need a conscious effort.
The goal of eating sanely is not to cut calories; it will happen naturally. Nor is the goal to cut protein, though again, you’ll wind up eating less. The goal is not to cut fat, either; in fact, you’ll eat more of it, though different fat (the same is true of carbohydrates). And the goal isn’t to save money, though you probably will; think of the cost of rolled oats ($1 a pound) and, say, Honey Bunches of Oats (about $5 a pound). Rather, the goal is to eat less of certain foods and more of others — specifically, plants, as close to their natural state as possible. Above all, this is a shift in perspective, one that means better eating for both your body and the planet.