The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine recently proposed a new "four food groups," consisting entirely of grains, legumes, vegetables and fruit. The committee's recommendations for normal healthy eating eliminated meat, poultry, fish and dairy foods.
I thought about this for a while, and realized that the idea may have some merit, although it has drawbacks as well.
The committee's main point is that meats and dairy foods contribute excessive saturated fat and cholesterol to the diet, and thus are the culprits in raising blood cholesterol and increasing the rate of heart disease.
This implies that a healthful diet cannot contain meat or milk. But it's crucial to remember that it is the fat, not the meat or the milk itself, that causes the problem.
Now that we're developing low-fat purchasing habits, shops are overflowing with nonfat dairy foods and leaner cuts of meat, which fit comfortably within the bounds of a cholesterol-lowering diet. So it's not necessary to do without.
The recommendations should, however, stand as a warning that it's time to take a few steps in the direction of lowering fat intake. And even low-fat meat eaters need more fiber to help reduce cancer risks: That means smaller portions of meat and bigger portions of fruits, veggies and grains.
Meat is not a necessity in your diet. One can live quite healthfully without meat, by using whole grains and legumes (dried beans, peas, and lentils) as the main protein source, as long as the diet is well-balanced.
However, balance appears difficult to achieve. Most of the folks I counsel who have "gone vegetarian" simply eat fruits, veggies and pasta, and never think to add a good protein source. While we don't need massive quantities of protein, we need enough, and of high enough quality, to maintain muscle tissue and keep immune systems working.
The convenience factor may come into play as well. Mary Abbott Hess, president of the American Dietetic Association, raises an interesting question:
"Is it realistic to expect that a nation whose No. 1 complaint about microwavery is that you must take the time to turn the plate once during cooking will suddenly become a nation committed to cooking beans, peas, lentils and legumes from scratch to be eaten twice a day?"
But beans do come in cans. And brown rice now is sold in quick-cooking packages. Delis offer couscous and garbanzo entrees for pick-me-up suppers. And if we begin to request vegetarian choices at drive-thru windows, eventually we'll get them.
Once we've dealt with the issue of convenience, the real problem is the same old problem -- making healthy choices, whether you include meat, go strictly vegetarian or build your own combination of the two.
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.