September 08, 2016
(+++) THE FOOD PRESCRIPTION
Healing the Vegan Way: Plant-Based Eating for Optimal Health & Wellness. By Mark Reinfeld. Da Capo. $22.99.
One of the health fads of the moment is the 21st-century version of “you are what you eat.” Now, though, it is something along the lines of, “you are what your microbiota turn into, and that is determined by what you eat.” In other words, the trillions of helpful bacteria in the human digestive system are the key to human health, and eating should be done in such a way as to maintain the proper balance of those bacteria and keep them hale, hearty and healthy.
Like other fads and crazes, dietary and otherwise, this one contains enough truth to be attractive and is simplistic enough to pull in people who refuse to see the human body as an enormously complex, interconnected series of circumstances, systems and setups. Unfortunately, these people are simply the reverse side of the proverbial coin, the obverse being those who believe that if you only take the right pharmaceutical medicine or combination of medicines, all your ills will go away.
Life is not that simple, and neither is food. But without getting into the medical intricacies, suffice it to say that gastrointestinal health is a crucial element of overall body health, and maintaining and enhancing it is a way to be healthier overall. There is, however, a long distance between a way and the way, which is where the many books advocating a single approach to diet inevitably fall short. It is also where their introductions – which, unlike the books themselves, are often written by medical personnel – overstate the case. Mark Reinfeld’s Healing the Vegan Way is introduced by Michael Klaper, M.D., with the statement that, as regards “clogged arteries, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and a host of inflammatory diseases” of the joints, skin and other organs, “The cause and cure of all these dreaded diseases can be summed up in three words: ‘It’s the food!’” And anyone who accepts those three words from this particular source as gospel now knows more than all other medical personnel put together and can now single-handedly cure everything that ails modern Western society – or at least, somewhat more modestly, everything that ails the person himself or herself.
This sort of over-generalization undermines the genuine value of a book such as Healing the Vegan Way. The book is not for everybody; it will not cure all the ills of every person; it is not the sole route to better eating or better health in general; and its recipes will not appeal to everyone. It is simply one approach to more-healthful eating, one to be considered by people already committed to a vegan lifestyle or people on the road to being a vegan – perhaps they are vegetarians already – who would like to see some recipes designed to please the vegan palate.
The first part of the book, where the advocacy lies, is nothing special, but provides a reasonably useful overview and introduction. This is where Reinfeld discusses the importance of eating a diet that is good for you, exercising moderately, having a positive attitude toward life, getting adequate rest, fighting stress, and being engaged in one’s community. All these are indeed elements of balanced, healthful living. Some of what Reinfeld says here falls into the realm of viewpoint pushing, however, or at least of preaching to the choir. For instance, he insists on the importance of meditation or spiritual practices – but while those are fine for some people, there are other forms of stress relief that are more useful and effective for others; here as in so any areas, one prescription does not fit all. More disturbingly, Reinfeld says “periodic cleansing” is a necessity for health, and this is one fad area that is subject to considerable dispute: Reinfeld does say to “consult a qualified health-care practitioner” before a cleanse, but the reality is that doing so will result, in many cases, in not doing a cleanse – this is scarcely a generally accepted way to treat one’s body.
Beyond the introductory material here, beyond statements such as Reinfeld’s “there is a plant-based solution to every health challenge we face,” is a nicely put-together set of some 200 recipes. Readers who do not want a lecture can skip the book’s first 75 or so pages and turn right to them. Reinfeld presents his material unusually clearly – his “Grain Cooking Chart,” for example, is highly accessible and immediately usable. And he arranges the recipes in simple, easy-to-understand sections such as breakfast, “savory snacks and appetizers,” salads and sides, soups and stews, main dishes, and “desserts and sweet snacks.” As with any recipe book, there are hits and misses here – which is which will depend on each person. Breakfast, for example, can include chia pudding, multigrain grits or banana date breakfast muffins; among the salads and side dishes are watercress with pistachios and currants, ginger rainbow chard, broiled cauliflower with sun-dried tomatoes, and date glazed sweet potatoes; some of the main dishes presented are raw collard veggie rolls, lemon tempeh with kale and rice noodles, millet squash and broccoli, lentil walnut loaf, and broccoli rabe penne pasta with oil-free cream sauce. Readers who want to try the recipes should read them carefully, since some seem straightforward but have special needs that are not immediately obvious – for example, for banana mango ice cream, Reinfeld notes midway through the recipe that “this will only work in a strong blender or a gear juicer, such as a Champion.” Vegans and would-be vegans who evaluate the recipes before trying them will find a variety of healthful and good-tasting foods here. When stripped of all the dross associated with one-size-fits-all advocacy, Healing the Vegan Way has much to recommend it for anyone who does not believe that any single book holds every possible answer to every possible health situation and every possible person’s every medical condition.