Richard Smith says make vegetarian food the norm at formal dinners

Richard Smith I’ve just attended a conference on preventing chronic disease, and something that appealed to me greatly was the idea that at all formal dinners (and my how I’ve suffered from formal dinners over the years) the main choice would be vegetarian. You’d have to request meat. The idea came from Susan Jebb, Head of Nutrition at the Medical Research Council.

How many people would request meat? Not many, is my bet. Many would just never get round to it, and others would feel slightly awkward asking for meat. Meat eating is, after all, one of the main factors destroying the planet as well as giving us chronic disease. I’d never have the nerve to ask for meat even if I was hungering for a rare steak dripping with blood, something I love.

Such a change would be a perfect example of “nudge economics,” whereby the healthy option is presented as the main option, and you must opt to get the unhealthy option. Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein describe “nudge economics” in their book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.”

You could, of course, do the same with all courses. Vegetable soup for the first course or maybe no first course at all unless people asked for it. Fruit salad for desert, and perhaps an expected 500m walk between courses unless people opted out.

Richard Smith is a doctor, editor, and businessman.

  • I think you mean “healthy vegetarian.” The places I go and ask for the vegetarian option tend to have as much or more saturated fat, especiallly if cheese based, and if not is deep fried or smothered in things that will more than nudge you faster to chronic diseases. But we have achieved healthy vegetarian food in some of our events, with my metaphor for this achievement being “baked samosas.”

    So this is a great idea, only if you nudge them again to a healthy vegetarian meal.

  • A great post – but I’m vegan so heavily biased. With that in mind I seem to recall (probably from Monbiot) that it’s better environmentally for a vegan to drive a 4-wheel drived SUV than a meat-eater to cycle everywhere.

    The notion of a long walk between courses particularly amused me. In my NHS place of work there is massive disquiet around car-parking. There are a few places close by with the majority a ‘massive’ 750m away. How do you allocate spaces? We’ve gone for lottery. Given it’s a public health body, surely it should be on BMI (the higher the BMI the further the car-parking). Perhaps if the BMI is too low, we could make them walk through the cafe.

  • KM Nathadwarawala

    Excellent idea. Will save us vegeterians lot of plight and anguish. Amongst Indians you will find Gujaratis (State of Mahatma Gandhi) are usually vegeterian. This has probably contributed to the state’s prosperity amongst difficult circumstances.

  • Surprisingly, no one among intelligent people is asking “Who may be involved by chronic diseases?”. Perhaps, ALL? Have ALL individuals borne equal?. In a few world, in spite of the import od diet (my ancestors have been eating meat for milion of years), most important is knowledging our, single, Quantum-Biophysical-Semeiotic Constitutions (Single Patient Based Medicine: its paramount role in Future Medicine. Public Library of Science, 2005. http://medicine.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=read-response&doi=10.1371/journal.pmed.0020107;Stagnaro Sergio. Biological System Functional Modification parallels Gene Mutation. http://www.Nature.com, March 13, 2008,http://blogs.nature.com/nm/spoonful/2008/03/gout_gene.html).
    In conclusion, everybody needs a personalised diet, ethimologically speaking: food, physical excercise, avoiding obacco smoke, a.s.o. Is Medicine Science and Art, isn’t it?

  • Dr Elizabeth Proude

    My, how I have suffered too, at conference or other dinners when I have a plate thrust in front of me that I cannot even look at, let alone eat. Especially when the alternate serving method is used: beef on one plate then the next person gets chicken, etc.
    Great idea!

  • I suggest this might delay global finacial recovery and worsen unemployment – not to talk of killing the joy of so many people. Dinner planners should keep the balance and choice, by catering for both tastes.

  • Anne Bedish

    Mankind evolved and thrived on a meat based diet It was with the advent of farming and subsequent consumption of grain based carbohydrates, only a mere 10,000 years ago, that chronic disease, in particular diabetes, cancer and heart disease, came on the scene.

  • Vikas Saini

    Excellent idea, but……

    At least here in New England, if one is vegetarian, even the most 5 starred of restaurant chefs haven’t gotten the idea that protein would be a good idea. Invariably a request for a vegetarian main course results in the delivery of a cluster of items, often delicious and always elegantly presented, but with nothing for us with a need for the umami taste. A major public campaign on vegetarian sources of concentrated protein is needed.

  • A great suggestion on Earth Day 2009, Dr. Smith! We took the opportunity today on ProCor (www.procor.org) of highlighting the interconnectedness of personal and environmental health, and I included an excerpt of your blog (http://www.procor.org/globaldialogue/globaldialogue_show.htm?doc_id=892669).

    Air pollution, animal fats, sedentariness, processed foods–the same things that make us sick make the planet sick. Instead of killing two birds with one stone, let’s nudge some global change!
    Catherine Coleman
    Editor in Chief, ProCor
    http://www.procor.org
    [ProCor is a global network promoting cardiovascular health in developing countries and other low-resource settings. ProCor promotes access to cost-effective preventive strategies and non-invasive medical management of cardiac conditions by using low-cost communication technologies to provide people in clinical, community, advocacy, and policymaking settings with the information they need to promote heart health.]

  • Tracey Koehlmoos

    Dear Richard;
    A good idea conceptually and health-wise (perhaps, if the vegetables are not fried or drowned in cheese); however as someone who is frequently the hostess of formal dinners, I find it difficult to develop delicious, interesting both in taste and appearance, and filling vegetarian meals that fit the multi-course requirement for formal dinning. Different types of meat are often highlighted during different courses.

    Apologies to all of my vegetarian guests–or maybe thank you for challenging the cultural norm but mostly thank you to Tony’s Italian Restaurant near West Point for sending me the eggplant rollatini recipe that is my standard main course for formal vegetarian dinners.

  • Richard Smith

    I’m humbled by the suggestion of my good friend, Joseph Ana, that my moderate proposal could “delay global financial recovery and worsen global unemployment.” Imagine having such power.

    But Joseph fails to grasp the point of nudge economics. Meat will not be banned. Rather carnivores will have to take the trouble to respond to invitations saying that they want meat–just as vegetarians have to do at the moment to avoid a meat course. It’s a small change, a nudge, but can have big consequences–because most meat eaters, I hypothesise, simply won’t respond and will be presented with the vegetarian course.

    Perhaps the BMA, a centre of big dinners, could test my hypothesis.

  • Dear Richard,

    Excellent idea. I am here in the cold Seattle early in the morning searching for some vegatrian breakfast. My hotel does not have any! I had to go to at least 4 restaurants to get something that could be classed as vegetarian. This has to change to give vegetarians like me a fair chance to get what they want. I had similar experiences in Dublin hotels to get a decent vegetarian main course! Even Royal College dinners I had to be content with good potatoes!

    I am surprised by one comment that said that mankind evolved on meat diet for thousands of years and vegetarians came on the scene only in the last 10,000 years after which diseases appeared.

    Our ancestors, who were hunter-gatherers, did eat meat but, NOT cooked meat or fried meat as we do today. They did not have fire then. Before that they were pure vegetarians eating fruits and roots (they were arborious). The human system does not have the teeth of meat eating animals but have the molars for grinding fibre. Our gut is much longer than the largest meat eating animal’s gut so that what the meat eating animal eats gets out faster.

    Cooking meat changes the chemical structure that becomes dangerous. Frying meat converts oils to hydroxy fats that damage the intimal wall. No meat eating animal in Nature eats cooked meat or preserved meat except our domesticated dogs and cats that have their life span cut drastically compared to their species in the wild! Man, basically, is a vegetarian, physiologically. Meat eating is relatively recent event if one takes mankind’s existence on this planet for 900,000 years in 50,000 generations into consideration!Imagine what happened to naturally vegetarian cows being made to eat giblets to make a fast buck! How did prions evolve to give Mad Cow Disease?

    Those doubting Thomases that think that vegtarians do not get enough proteins should test the strength of a vegetarian Indian or African elephant. Even meat eaters get their proteins from plants to start with!

    No disease is new. Only awareness and labelling have increased lately, a good business proposition, using ingenious methods at disease mongering.

  • Les Simpson

    Even if Richard Smith’s suggestion that formal dinners should be vegetarian was made in jest, there is no doubt that he would get support.
    Although there were many responders to his suggestion, it is strange that no one referred to “The China Story,” by Campbell and Campbell. The authors draw attention to the many benefits which accompany a diet rich in plant proteins and fibres, including risk factors for cancer. Although Campbell himself and his family became vegetarians, he seems to recognise that a small portion of fat-free meat is not harmful.
    However, it is difficult to imagine the economic consequences of a population-wide shift to vegetarianism, and the problems of growing sufficient vegetables to sustain the population. But this does not mean that have a formal dinner with a vegetarian menu is a bad idea.

  • Anne Bedish

    In reply to Professor Hegde, I fear you have misquoted me above. I never wrote that vegetarians came on the scene only 10,000 years ago, I wrote that health declined 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture and subsequent GRAIN based carbohydrate consumption. Early hominids as far back as 2.5 million years ago lived on a diet of meat, fish, plants, fruits and nuts. Doubtless it is true that very early hunter gatherers would have eaten their meat raw, but fire was used as early as 1.4 million years ago and certainly by 700,000 years ago.

    Our gut is intermediary length to cope with both meat and plants….it and our bodies cannot cope so well with grains and it is grain based meals that are often served for vegetarian dishes. I used to be a vegetarian. For years I ate loads of the so called healthy whole grains, made my own wholemeal bread, ate brown rice, millet and those types of foods. I never ate sugars or refined or processed foods yet I developed diabetes type 2 even though I was slim. Doing blood glucose tests upon my diagnosis I found that it was exactly bread, rice and grains (as well as over sweet fruits) that raised my blood glucose badly so I stopped eating those foods and am much healthier now on a more ‘primitive’ diet which consists of meat, fish, eggs, nuts and lots of leafy green vegetables. I don’t eat my meat raw since I don’t go out hunting it so I can’t rely on it being safe raw 🙂

  • Karen Arnold

    Wonderful discussion to have initiated, thank you! One issue for many ‘formal’ chefs, however, is their apparent inexperience in creating interesting vegetarian meals that don’t just substitute meat with dairy. Good vegan food actually trumps most meat meals in taste, it’s just that it seems it is not that easy (at least in Australia) to find chefs who can do what many Indian housewives do on a daily basis, meal after meal. I first became vegetarian in India, and it is still the best way I have found to eat vegetarian/vegan well. And even if concerns about health and the environment don’t lead to dietary change, cost might – eating vegetarian/vegan is incredibly inexpensive, as well as delicious.

  • Richard Smith

    Whether asking people to opt in for meat at formal dinner would make people eat fewer meals containing meat is amenable to experimentation. A group of us hope prospectively to randomise a number of dinners to have either the standard invitation, which presumably asks people if they want vegetarian food or have an special dietary requirements, or an invitation that says they have to ask for meat. The outcome measure would be simply the number eating meat–or maybe it should be an “intention to eat” analysis.

  • Patrick Brown

    Props for promoting this excellent proposal, Dr. Smith!

    Interested readers should have a look at:

    http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448/index.html
    (and download the full report)

    If you have any doubt that current levels of consumption of animal products are unsustainable and unconscionably destructive to our climate, water and biodiversity, this report from the UN agency, whose mission is to promote agricultural development, will be an eye-opener. As for the challenge of growing enough vegetables to nourish the world, consider that simply converting the farmland currently devoted to animal-feed crops to production of crops for human consumption would far more than replace the protein and calories currently provided by animal-derived foods.

    Anyone who professes concern about ongoing degradation and destruction of our biosphere should feel pangs about opting for the “meat-eater alternative”.

  • Richard, good stuff as always. You may be aware of the press coverage we got in January when we proposed that meat should not always the norm on every NHS menu. I undertand that some European cities (Ghent) are proposing meat free Thursdays (which I think local hospitals may be planning to join). However, this misses your excellent point of making a health veg diet the norm