When it comes to the food we eat, it seems our plate is never complete nowadays without a new helping of good news followed by a side of something disturbingly bad. A recent case in point comes in the form of news from Bon Appetit magazine that 2016 is shaping up to be the year of the vegetable. It looks like vegetables are now moving to the center of the plate as plants take their stand as "the new meat."
Last March, for the very first time since data has been collected by the Commerce Department, sales at restaurants and bars have surpassed those at grocery stores. Millennials — now more numerous than baby boomers — are having a huge impact on both dining out and eating trends.
The rise of vegetables is seen as the culmination of more than a decade's worth of government, consumer and environmental activists' concerns about the health consequences of our Western diet that have finally found their way into mainstream thinking.
In response to the growing demand by consumers, food purveyors are rallying to remove GMOs, artificial ingredients, preservatives, antibiotics and growth hormones from food. Food waste also has been given its proper seat at the table as a major issue we need to address. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, food loss and waste account for about 31 percent (133 billion pounds) of the nation's food supply. The government has set a goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030, calling consumers, chefs and the food industry to "feed people, not landfills."
This movement has not only added to the ascendance of vegetables at the dinner table, but added a new word to the food lexicon — spiralizing — the art of turning vegetables into noodles. Spiralized vegetables are replacing pasta in the kitchens of both homes and restaurants around the country. Cookbooks and blogs are now devoted to this cooking technique.
At the same time, the United Nations has declared this the "International Year of Pulses." What's that, you may ask? This is a reference to "pulses crops" which include beans, peas and lentils. The U.S. is one of the world's leading producers and exporters of pulses. Eaters are likely to see more of these items on their plates in the year ahead as the nutritional and environmental benefits of these edible dry seeds are touted.
Last year, the World Health Organization also used its media clout to raise awareness of the link between cancer and excessive red meat consumption. The environmental movement also has been pushing the message of the cost of meat consumption as well, pointing to all the energy, water and land it requires and the pollution it generates. Both appeals seem to be having some impact. Famous chefs like Mario Batali have answered the call by reportedly embracing the concept of Meatless Monday. But is what we're seeing really a clear signal of a nationwide rejection of even reduction of meat eating?
Americans are among the very highest per capita consumers of meat on the planet, eating on average 71 pounds of red meat (beef, pork and lamb) a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In 2012, as part of NPR's Meat Week series, they teamed up with Truven Health Analytics to survey Americans about their changing habits. Of the 3,000 Americans surveyed, 56 percent ate meat one to four times a week, and 31 percent ate it five or more times a week.
In Dec. 2015, NPR decided to conduct a survey of another random selection of 3,000 Americans. What they found was only a slight drop in the number of people who said they were eating less meat than they had been three years earlier.
According to their findings, fewer people — especially seniors — are eating less red meat than in 2012. So, here's that bad tasting side dish. While there may be a loud and increasing chorus upon the "eat more plants" bandwagon, we shouldn't assume everyone is influenced by them. Some habits are slow to change.
Yet, according to food journalist and historian Bee Wilson, changing the way we eat is not as impossible as it may seem. We first have to understand how our likes and dislikes are formed. Wilson is the author of "First Bite: How We Learn To Eat," and a leading authority on taste preferences and food habits.
Our tastes are not fixed, she theorizes. Our bad habits and the bad habits we've passed on to our offspring can be undone through retraining of our palates. All the foods that you regularly eat are ones that you learned to eat as a child, she says. Today, the main influence on a child's palate comes from a large variety of manufactured foods that all deliver a monotonous flavor hit of salt, sugar and/or fat.
No wonder kids and adults can be picky eaters. We were all weaned in a modern food world where little or nothing was natural — where those people in lab coats were working overtime to create food products designed to short-circuit all sense of wisdom or intuition and, instead, drive us to follow our cravings.
In confronting this formidable obstacle, we must shift our efforts to focus on behavior. For picky eaters of any age, Wilson recommends a program of "tiny tastes." For example, trying pea-sized morsels of a problematic food, like broccoli, over several days until one starts to like it. We can change our ways by reacquainting ourselves to the pleasure of vegetables and moderate portions — including scaling back on meat consumption.
Eating well is a skill and a skill can be learned.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Rob and Stephanie Levy