I’ve dropped about 10 pounds so far, and a little more falls off every day. The fix hasn’t been running, lifting, or anything trendy—I’m just eating less meat, and enjoying what I eat more.
What I’m doing isn’t exactly new or original. You could call it flexitarianism, or a more regimented form of semi-vegetarianism. You could accuse me of jumping all over the latest thing foodie guru Mark Bittman said or wrote, and, given how often he shows up in my food-focused posts, you’d have good reason to bust out the fanboy flag.
However I came to it, I’m avoiding meat for all but one meal of the day. This plan has worked where a lot of other plans and diets haven’t.
First, a quick step back. I carried, in December, about 205 pounds on my 6-foot-1-inch frame. By all accounts, I’ve got a lucky metabolism, but I also love food—all of it, everywhere, in any amount—and dark, regional beers. And I’ve spent most of my career sitting down to write or edit words. So an excess of physique-softening, energy-reducing weight gradually accumulated on me, and it was defeating to think about. I’d read most of Michael Pollan’s popular eat-better-or-else books, and my family history is full of diabetes and obesity. Still, fast food drive-thru visits were written off with excuses about a tight schedule, vegetables were given the same respect as salt packets, and my sedendary life left me feeling pretty unfit.
Most diets seem to be based around broad concepts (Don’t eat carbohydrates!), ridiculously strict regiments (any crash diet focused on one type of food), or lists of “good” and “bad” foods so varied and long that scanning a restaurant menu feels like a course in advanced database queries (next stop: South Beach).
The diet suggested, or at least discussed at length, in Mark Bittman’s new book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, is simple, and centered around a rule a four-year-old can understand: Don’t eat meat before dinner. It might sound like sacrilege to those who truly relish a good meal, or foolishly restrictive to anyone raised on bacon with their breakfast, meat in their sandwiches, and a dinner plate with starch, vegetable, and entree. But for this Lifehacker editor, it’s an easily-defined, sensible challenge, and one that’s paying off the more I rise to it. It doesn’t punish you for dreaming of applewood-smoked pork ribs, it shouldn’t turn you into a waiter’s worst nightmare, and it makes it harder for you to overeat.
Bittman’s diet suggestions stem from a wider-focused concern about the earth’s ecology, the food production demands of our modern diet, and other pressing topics of the day. If vegan, organic, or locally-sourced foods are what you’re into, a daytime vegetarian diet can certainly accommodate. But the weight loss that’s worked for me and the New York Times food writer is more due to how scaling back on meat—dense with calories, a great hider of fat, and easily eaten too quickly—tricks you into consuming less. It almost goes without saying that avoiding the processed, mass-produced meats in burgers, re-heated chain restaurant meals, and packaged entrees is better for you in any situation. But avoiding \any kind of meat forces you, or at least me, to get creative with your daytime diet, and makes the evening meal something you really want to enjoy, not just scarf down.
Here’s how I’ve made a flexitarian/daytime-vegetarian/Bittmanist diet work for me as a day-to-day reality:
- Broaden your food base: Hide these from your friends with the “Meat is murder—tasty, delicious murder” T-shirts, if you must, but there are tons of great cookbooks, websites, and idea wells to grab meat-less meals or snacks from. The Meat Lite recipe series from the foodie blog Serious Eats, and a cookbook from the authors of that series, Almost Meatless, are just what they sound like—scaled-back quantities of meat that use it for good flavor. Sites like VegKitchen, 101 Cookbooks, and others have creative takes on meals that work great at breakfast, mid-day, or dinner. My personal source for endless inspiration? Asian cookbooks—any cuisine, any recipe. You can swap in tofu, if you dig it, or beans, fresh vegetables, or pretty much anything for most dishes, and you’ll find a few that work great with any ingredients.
- Don’t get held hostage at restaurants: If you’re sitting down for breakfast or lunch and the vegetarian offerings are unappealing, consider getting a salad and an appetizer, two appetizers, two salads, or asking the waiter for a plate with a few of the menu’s appealing sides. Last resort? Ask the waiter (gasp!) if the chef recommends any vegetarian substitutions. In a lot of cases, you’ll pay less than if you grabbed a full-fledged meal, and if you end up eating less, well …
- Re-think your hunger: As Bittman notes in Food Matters, most of us can’t (or, at least, don’t) have sex every single time we think about it—we’ll wait for you to finish up whatever wisecrack you got going with there. But hunger, real or routine, is something many of us satisfy with an unnatural level of urgency. You can fight off some of those pangs with a slow, steady stream of healthier stuff, like popcorn, almonds, or snacks that don’t come in thin foil, but it’s easier to engage in something, anything time-consuming when your body feels hungry and you can’t remind it that dinner’s only an hour away. There’s a reason critics always swipe at artists by referring to the work of their “young and hungry” days—being a little hungry is far from a bad thing.
- It’s a guideline, not a religion: Your buddy’s in town, and wants to meet at Texas Jack’s House of Steak for lunch. Go for it, try to eat just a reasonable amount—about the size of a deck of cards, and switch to vegetarian fare for dinner. But your spouse planned a great chicken dish! Okay, eat a healthy amount of that too, tell her you’re stuffed from lunch, and eat as many veggies as you can. This plan isn’t about quick results, or proudly waving a trendy diet flag in everyone’s face. Eat as realistically vegetarian as you can in the day, eat small amounts of (really good!) meat at night, and you’ll eventually adapt to eating smaller portions. You could eat nothing but Snickers bars all day and technically be eating vegetarian, but that’s not the point—use your meatless day to inspire your diet, not constrain it.
Photo by moriza.
This is, of course, just one man’s plan for losing weight, and anyone picking it up has to do a bit of research into what kind of meat-less meals are nutritious and relatively painless to cook and eat. It should be accompanied with real exercise; I’m just putting it off that part until spring because, well, it’s 12 degrees here on days like today. And results will vary, based on a lot of factors. But feeling good about what you’re putting in your body, and having a simple rule to manage it all, has worked out great so far.
Anybody in the crowd made a switch to lower-meat diets? Got any suggestions for staving off hunger and replacing those big hunks o’ flesh? Gather ’round the kitchen and offer some tips in the comments.