Five Eco-Diets Get Put to the Test

Personal Health

I am your run-of-the mill vegetarian. I started up after a college cafeteria gave me dry Salisbury steak with a side of food poisoning, kept it going for a girl, then firmed up a deepening veggie philosophy with some essential reading. I stuck with it from there because I’m healthy as hell, think there is little more appealing than fresh arugula salad, and, really, who would doubt a diet promoted by Einstein?

But these days, regular old vegetarianism -- which 10 percent of Americans claim to be, by the way -- is just one jumping point for molding a healthy dietary conscience. As meals today come complete with a carbon footprint, more of us are eating with the health of the watershed, soil and sustainable farming in mind. Everyone’s favorite (albeit omnivorous) food guru Michael Pollan said it best with his sage advice for healthy eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Still, like any new dietary trend, sustainable diets are subject to extremes, as well as their own fair share of loopholes and problems (think Atkins and a bunless triple-cheeseburger with bacon). I decided to see for myself what’s on the menu for the vegan, for the 100-mile-dieter, for the raw foodist, the slow food advocate, and the strictly organic consumer, noting how these diets hold up beyond theory and in surreptitious practice (i.e. is that really organic?). To aid my assessment of each diet’s feasibility, sustainability, health and strain on the wallet, I attempted to practice each method for one week.

Don’t Panic, It’s Organic

Since J.I. Rodale began promoting organic farming in the 1940s, “organic” has come to mean opposition to the practices of industrial farming. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has now officially defined “organic” as, in short, food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers or sewage sludge, free from irradiation, genetic modification or -- for animal-products -- growth hormones or antibiotics. A USDA organic seal has been in existence under five years, but the time-consuming process of certification has limited the amount of farmers whose products carry the seal -- even if many (often smaller) farmers are practicing organic methods. This is bad news for me since I’m limiting my diet to USDA approved organics. Let the search begin…

Price: Quite pricey. Add $0.50 to $1.00 per item if you want to upgrade to organic. My grocery bill for the week went up a whopping $30.00.

Prep Time: Factor in conscientious label-reading, asking questions and spending quality time with a Sharpie, crossing off bogus terms like “all natural” from labels. Here’s a cheat sheet: “USDA Organic” is made with 100 percent organic ingredients, just “Organic” means ingredients are 95 percent organic and “made with organic ingredients” must be over 70 percent organic. “All natural” means absolutely nothing.

Health: Organics guarantee no pesticides or harsh, petrol-based fertilizers, with a growing finding of health benefits.

Sustainability: When farmers are held to organic standards, the surrounding environment benefits. Still, a simple meal could log a hefty carbon footprint. My organic enchilada recipe went on one heck of Spring Break before arriving on my plate -- including Mexico, Chile and Argentina. When local farmers nearby have fresh tomatoes, it’s going to be hard to argue that those hundreds of gallons of jet fuel are worth the guarantee of a pesticide-free salsa.

In the Garden of Vegan

The sustainable vegan diet focuses a critical eye on the conventional raising of livestock, a practice that is unsustainable and, many vegans believe, antiquated and cruel. The ecological problems stem from animal feedlot operations (AFOs). “By definition,” reads a passage on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, “AFOs produce large amounts of waste in small areas. For example, a single dairy cow produces approximately 120 pounds of wet manure per day. The waste produced per day by one dairy cow is equal to that of 20-40 people.” Meat and other animal products require gads of energy and water to produce. Mass-production of these products includes antibiotics and questionable feed practices, and leaves us with a whole lot of waste to contaminate the rest of our food chain. The vegan’s answer? Cut out the animal products.

Price: Plenty of room to price shop on this diet, and by definition you sidestep some of the pricier parts of an “average” diet -- meat and dairy.

Prep Time: No time added.

Health: Moderate. As with any nutritional regimen, eating healthy on a vegan diet still requires making smart choices. While vegans substitute most major sources of fat and cholesterol like eggs, meat, cheese and milk with heart-healthier alternatives like soy, beans and nuts, a vegan diet isn’t necessarily all health heaven. French fries, a can of coke and a sugary slice of vegan carrot cake for dessert are all still fair game.

Sustainability: Good. For every hunk of beef, slice of cheese and glass of milk you replace, you are giving a nod to the veggie farmer and shying away from problems plaguing the animal products industries: run-off, overuse of antibiotics and growth hormones. Still, there are no limits on your food’s carbon footprint (grapes from Australia, anyone?).

A Raw Deal

While sticking to foods prepared under temperatures less than 118 F makes for meals packed with nutrients, consuming only fruits, vegetables and nuts in caloric quantities equivalent to your average carb-heavy cooked diet can take some getting used to. Just three days into this diet and I had a daylong headache, my stomach was in knots, and the rest of my digestive system wasn’t so happy. I caved and headed to a favorite vegan restaurant for a hot meal.

But this wasn’t necessarily a sign of the diet’s failing -- it just shows that eating uncooked, unprocessed food is a radically different take on preparing chow. Raw foodists believe that heating and processing ingredients kills important enzymes, those unseen creatures in our meal that break down the food, molecule-by-molecule, and aid in digestion. Less enzymes, claim raw foodists, makes for more toxicity in the body -- leading to lethargy, obesity and generally bad health.

After recovering from the initial shock of going raw, I got back in the saddle with one of the best meals of all the diets combined: raw lasagna (zucchini, squash, pine-nut ricotta and basil pistachio pesto) at New York City raw restaurant, Pure Food and Wine. Afterwards, I felt like a million bucks -- sated, energized and just plain healthy. Maybe raw foodists are on to something after all.

Price: Moderately high. Many raw foodists eat organic (understandably, as they are only rinsing their food), and favor exotic and costlier ingredients like cacao, cold pressed oils and tropical fruits.

Prep Time: You’d think time would be saved since you need not turn the stove on. But after slaving over a food processor and blender (simultaneously), triple washing, slicing, dicing, mincing and soaking food for hours -- think again. Expect to add up to an extra hour of prep time.

Health: Raw food dieters believe that cooking food destroys important enzymes, bacteria and micronutrients that aid the immune system and general health. The marriage of fire and food may kill many nutrients and good bacteria, but it also kills dangerous bacteria and helps make food easier to digest (although many raw dieters note the cleansing properties of the diet).

Sustainability: Strong. On par with an organic, vegan diet.

Livin’ Like a Locavore

The “100-mile diet” began in 2005 at the home of Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon in Vancouver, British Columbia. Inspired by a vacation in a new cabin where they ate off the land for a few weeks, the duo staged a year-long experiment of only eating food grown within 100 miles of their home. In part, Smith and MacKinnon’s 100-mile diet was a reaction to the growing organic movement. “The original ideals of the organic movement included local,” said Smith in a radio interview. “[And that’s] the system to shoot for… Organics will follow.” The “real crisis in the food system is a crisis of transparency,” added MacKinnon. Eating locally puts knowledge of the health and safety of the food supply back into the hands of the consumer.

Price: Farmers markets, co-ops and CSAs are usually cheaper than your average grocery story.

Prep time: Much creativity is required for preparation -- you’ll have to do a bunch of gardening if you don’t live near a great farmers market -- and you’re stuck with what’s in season, which means learning to cook that cardoon, celeriac and oyster root soup.

Health: The health concerns of the 100-mile diet are readily apparent. Your diet is limited to what is growing. This may mean milk and potatoes for days on end. Don’t live near olive trees? You’ll have to use local butter to cook your food. Bread shouldn’t be a problem, unless the wheat fields are just beyond 100 miles. Still, MacKinnon cites the benefit that local food is usually harvested at its peak, which means that it has developed to its nutritional max. And eating what’s in season breaks repetitive eating patterns (you can’t fall back on spaghetti and marinara sauce if it’s not tomato season), thus introducing a wider range of nutrients into your diet.

Sustainability: Shining. Eating locally counters the bulk of the carbon footprint created by the average diet, and promotes diverse -- and therefore more sustainable -- farming.

Slow Down, You Move too Fast

Slow Food begins with gastronomy, the science of good eating. “There isn’t a ‘Slow Food Diet’ per se,” says Jerusha Klemperer, of Slow Food, USA. “We basically consider Slow Food to be food that is good (in that it tastes delicious and is clean), produced in a way that is ecologically sustainable, and is fair (produced in a way that fairly compensates),” he says. Slow Food founder, Carlo Petrini says the goal is to “bring gastronomy in service of the environment.” Petrini believes this happens when people stop, (or slow down) and think about what they eat and where it comes from. But “ultimately,” says Klemperer, “Slow Food is about reviving the pleasures of the table, eating your meal in a communal setting -- not at your desk, not in front of the TV, but at a table, with other people.” Slow Food is an approach to diet as philosophy rather than regimen -- which comes as quite a relief to me, after all this dieting.

Price: To ascribe to the Slow Food movement, first and foremost you must “buy good food.” This means organic and local, fresh and unprocessed. Petrini says that the average person must get used to paying more than double what they pay now for food.

Prep time: To truly eat slow takes effort -- and is decidedly not conducive to a 50+ hour workweek. With full meals extending up to six hours to prepare and eat, a slow meal once a week -- as an event -- is probably the way to go.

Health: “Welcome to a society where we spend more money to lose weight than to eat,” says Petrini. Putting more time and thought into food, he believes, is a good way to reverse this backward way of looking at nutrition.

Sustainability: Excellent. Slow Food is based on the marriage of a good diet and smart ecology.

My Diet, Myself

If you haven’t seen the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, you should rent it -- if only to witness the intriguingly gruesome health collapse of the protagonist, who attempts to subsist on a diet of 100 percent fast food. But the shock doc’s main point is not that McDonald’s is bad for you -- because, well, duh -- but rather that the average American thinks so little about the quality and history of the food they put into their body.

The sustainable diets I’ve explored have one unifying priority -- they aim to return thought back into diet. But, once the rules become unthinking habit, loopholes appear. Sure going raw can be healthy, but eating three Chilean avocados a day could leave you with high cholesterol and a hefty carbon footprint. The trick to eating with a conscience is to mix and match ideologies to create meals that are healthiest for you and the planet. After this experiment, I’ve signed up for a share from a local farm, put a number of raw recipes on heavy rotation, bought more organic (but only when there’s no local choice), and thought twice before buying processed foods. I’m no longer following the set rules of any sustainable vegetarian diet in particular. Instead, I like to think that I have graduated from “run of the mill” to fully sustainable vegetarian.

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