Thursday, April 25, 2013

Healthy, Meet Delicious


Serge Bloch
There was a time when few of us thought about what we ate, but that’s been turned upside down since the reigning wisdom first decried salt, then cholesterol, then saturated fat, then almost all fat, then red meat, then carbohydrates and so on. Recent culprits include so many foods and foodlike substances that at least twice a week someone asks me: “What’s left to eat? I feel like nothing is safe.”

Evan Sung for The New York Times - Pasta with clams.
Evan Sung for The New York Times Chopped salad.
Evan Sung for The New York Times - Vanilla-fruit smoothie.
Before the end of innocence, when hyperprocessed food dominated the diet, we might eat a breakfast of Pop-Tarts or another sugary pastry, followed by a lunch of burgers, fries and a shake, and a dinner of meat-laden pizza, and feel not even a twinge of guilt. Now, almost nothing can be eaten without thinking twice.

And so a spectrum informs the contemporary diet: on one end is thoughtlessness; on the other, neurosis. One extreme is Morgan Spurlock’s orgy of fast food; the other is something like an ascetic diet of raw vegetables.

The first of these is not recommended. The second is almost equally extreme, almost impossible to achieve and of questionable value.

All of us live along this spectrum. The moderate, conscious eater — the flexitarian — knows where the goal lies: a diet that’s higher in plants and lower in both animal products and hyperprocessed foods, the stuff that makes up something like three-quarters of what’s sold in supermarkets. That’s the kind of cooking and eating I’ll be exploring in this monthly column. (It’s also the topic of my new book, “VB6” — for vegan before 6 p.m.)

This is not a diet column, unless you accept that “diet” means something closer to “way of life” than “weird quick fix.” Rather, it’s an eating column, one that will remain — in the tradition of the Dining section — more about great food than anything else.

One might reasonably wonder whether we truly need the label “flexitarian” or whether, indeed, it is so different from “omnivore.” Both, after all, describe someone who eats more or less everything.
But the word flexitarian contains a couple of helpful implications. It was originally applied to those who ate mostly vegetables but also incorporated meat or fish: people who were moving their meat-heavy diets in a more vegetarian direction, as well as vegetarians who were adding meat or fish back into their meals. The word also suggests a regimen that includes more whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables than the Standard American Diet, or SAD, as some have taken to calling it.

And at least the word flexitarian hasn’t been perverted, as has vegetarian. After all, there is a name for a vegetarian who eats fish — pescetarian — even though that’s entirely contrarian. There are even self-described vegetarians who eat chicken. (You might call them confused, hypocritical or simply flexitarian.) “Vegan” is more consistently understood, but few of us want to become real vegans.

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