For the past few years, more and more people have been extolling the virtues of a purely or mostly vegetarian diet. Recent books by Mark Bittman, a food writer for The New York Times and an author of several popular basic cookbooks, and Jonathan Safran Foer, a fiction writer, have been critical of the primacy meat holds in the American diet.
For seven weeks, 65 East Hampton residents (and this reporter) gave up meat, dairy, fish, and eggs to improve their health, lose weight, and just feel better in general. The results were not only positive, but will serve as a model for the introduction of a similar program to be run in Whole Foods stores around the country on a quarterly basis.
The center used Rip Esselstyn's "Engine 2 Diet" as its model. Mr. Esselstyn, who is a firefighter and former triathlete who lives in Austin, Tex., put his own firehouse crew on a low-fat vegan diet a few years ago. The results among these largely meat-eating Texans were dramatic weight loss and significant drops in cholesterol levels. He has since broadened the program to residents of Austin. East Hampton is the first place outside of Austin that has participated in such a structured program.
The diet was modeled after the research of his father, Dr. Carl Esselstyn Jr., an endocrine surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic who put his patients on a low-fat, whole-grain vegetarian diet to reverse their heart disease and wrote his own books detailing the plan. Even Alzheimer's disease has been connected to a high-fat diet and sedentary lifestyle in several studies cited in the "Engine 2 Diet" book.
From the traditional arguments of the cruelty and brutality of mass market meat production to new reports on the health and environmental impacts of a meat-based diet, it appears that a drive for eating mostly or all plants is becoming more and more mainstream. In New York City, Le Pain Quotidien, a popular chain bakery and cafe, has introduced vegan options and Candle Cafe and its upmarket sister restaurant Candle 79 are packed with people seeking out their solely vegan fare.
In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report stating that current levels of meat production contribute 14 to 22 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted each year -- more than transportation.
Michael Pollan, the author of "The Botany of Desire" and "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" who appeared in the documentary "Food, Inc." about the food industry, noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times in September that obesity and illnesses related to overeating junk food accounted for as much as 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past two decades.
Other doctors, such as Dean Ornish, have also been arguing for the benefits of diet in reversing heart disease and other illnesses, but have also acknowledged that getting people to actually follow such a plan has been a challenge.
Yet, Ms. Taylor, who led a weekly support group in Amagansett, noted that her group and most of the people who answered the questionnaires given before and after the seven-week program said it was surprisingly easy to follow the program. "I expected people to say it was hard, but there were so many things to substitute for things like meatloaf, so many bridge foods. It was not just rice cakes and tofu," she said.
The foundation has sponsored group programs in the past, but this time they approached it more scientifically. They used thorough questionnaires that detailed each participant's eating habits, lifestyle, weight, body mass, and general fitness going into the plan as well as a doctor's questionnaire for medical data such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels both before and after the plan.
Mr. Esselstyn's program included an exercise component, which was demonstrated during one of the seven support sessions. He said he preferred to call his plan "plant strong," because even the standard vegan diet can be high in fat and processed starches and sugar.