The fundamental change I see in this aspect of American food culture is that vegetarianism is stepping out of the 'fad' category and entering the mainstream. Vegetarian societies are gaining membership at a rapid clip, 'vegetarian only' restaurants are springing up in the suburbs (and they aren't Indian), and every major restaurant seems to have at least one vegetarian entree they don't need to be ashamed of.
I started thinking about all this after reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. As I mentioned in my review of the book, Pollan is a vocal fan of the vegetarian diet. After reading the book, I also read a couple of interviews (in the previous issue of Time, most recently) where he reiterated this view.
Now, when I am at the table of an American restaurant, particularly with a group of friends, I want to draw as little attention as possible to my 'special' dietary needs. It would be so much more comfortable to point to an item of the menu and say "I want that". Unfortunately, that isn't always possible. Which puts me in the awkward position of talking to the waiter about my needs, him hemming and hawing, scratching his head (figuratively, if not literally), then saying something like "let me check with the chef" and disappearing mid-order. Doesn't really help my 'no fuss' prayer. Which is why I am so glad to see the changing direction of dietary winds.
Since reading In Defense of Food, I have also been reading research on vegetarian diets and their impact on long term health. I have to say, it is difficult not to gloat. Let me offer just a little sample -
This research paper is some sort of a meta-study on a lot of research in this area. In its summary of all the research, it says:
There is convincing evidence that vegetarians have lower rates of coronary heart
disease, largely explained by low LDL cholesterol, probable lower rates of
hypertension and diabetes mellitus, and lower prevalence of obesity. Overall,
their cancer rates appear to be moderately lower than others living in the same
communities, and life expectancy appears to be greater.
Or there is this other meta-study of research on vegetarian diets. It summarizes:
Data are strong that vegetarians are at lesser risk for obesity, atonic constipation, lung cancer, and alcoholism. Evidence is good that risks for hypertension, coronary artery disease, type II diabetes, and gallstones are lower.
This paper then goes on to say:
Data are only fair to poor that risks of breast cancer, diverticular disease of
the colon, colonic cancer, calcium kidney stones, osteoporosis, dental erosion,
and dental caries are lower among vegetarians.
While we are at it, let me also add that vegetarian diets do not make you more virile, give you the ability to talk to aliens or make you less of an ass than the guy next door.
[By the way, as a random aside, don't you just love the way academic research actually uses the word 'data' as a plural? As in, "data are strong that academics know 'datum' is the singular form of 'data'." Very cute. In all my years in banking, I must have heard a few million references to 'data', but if I said "the data are clear" tomorrow in a meeting, everyone would burst out laughing.]
Coming back to the vegetarianism research, this third study looked at 11,000 vegetarians in the UK and compared their health over 17 years (!) with the average population. It's findings?
Overall the cohort had a mortality about half that of the general population.Over 17 years of studying 11,000 subjects' mortality. The vegetarian gang had half the mortality. Kinda cool, huh?
As I read this and other research, I did get a kick out of the consistent findings of health benefits of vegetarianism. What surprised me was the question of proteins. All my life, I have eaten with the defensiveness of someone who knows his pig-headedness with regard to his diet denies him adequate quantities of an essential ingredient. The research though is pretty clear. As the American Heart Association puts it:
You don't need to eat foods from animals to have enough protein in your diet. Plant proteins alone can provide enough of the essential and non-essential amino acids, as long as sources of dietary protein are varied and caloric intake is high enough to meet energy needs.
In other words, vegetarian diets make up in lentils, dry beans or whatever else the particular ethnic diet calls for, all the essential proteins that the body needs.
Anyway, all said, I feel much better now to come out of the closet. And when the waiter hovers near me, I don't feel the need to whisper when I say, "I am a vegetarian. What can the Chef make for me?"