Is 90% Good Enough? What we can learn from the Reducetarian Approach and Blue Zones about Vegan Diets


Is 90% Good Enough?

Sometimes the idea of a 100% vegan diet can seem so overwhelming that it detracts us from the big picture.  The all-or-nothing approach might appeal to some, especially those of us who thrive off of extremes and set boundaries.  However, the totally plant-based lifestyle is foreign to our traditional Standard American Diet, and it may repel someone curious about a vegetarian lifestyle.  New science and recent discussions beg the questions:

Do I really need to go 100% vegan?

Is 90% good enough?

1) Avoiding the Vegan Label

“People don’t want that label of vegan”

— John Mackey

A common frustration for many vegans is the baggage that comes with the vegan label.  The word “vegan” might bring up images of red paint splattered on fur coats, horrific turkey slaughter videos in your Facebook feed, or, at the least, some horrible tofu-trying-to-be-a-meatball concoction.  In truth, many plant-based eaters are usually less concerned with labels and more concerned about blood pressure medications.

In an interview on the Rich Roll podcast, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey, discussed the weight that comes with the vegan label.  His book, The Whole Foods Diet, outlines the science of what we know: 

  • There has never been a vegan “tribe”:  Or evolution points to cultures that are omnivorous.  We come from lineages of mostly plant-eaters, but there was always still a little bit of meat.
  • 100% is no healthier than 95%:  The science simply isn’t there to support the argument that 100% vegan is any healthier than 90 or 95% vegan
  • 100 years old…with a little animal protein: In communities called “Blue Zones“, the average life expectancy is more than 100 years.  In these communities, you see a focus on a plant-based, whole foods diet, daily activity, regular social interaction, and at least one day a week of rest.  You also so a little bit of meat.  While the diets in these areas are mostly based on beans, whole grains, and complex carbs, there is still a little bit of seafood and animal protein on the table.  So 100% isn’t necessary for 100 years of vital, healthy living.

What Works For Me May Not Work For You

Mackey wrote his new book The Whole Foods Diet with co-authors Drs. Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman of Forks Over Knives.  (note: these are the two doctors who trained me while I worked for Whole Foods)  Ironically, while this team isn’t pushing the 100% approach, all of them are 100% plant-based and have been so for years.  It seems they have found the total commitment to work for their own lives, but they recognize that it might work for everyone.

While Blue Zone communities include a small amount of animal protein, their healthy longevity can be attributed to a plant-based diet centered around whole grains and beans, like these Braised Greek Giant Lima Beans 

Greek Baked Giant Lima Beans with Oregano Sunflower Seed Pesto – Healthy, Plant-Based, Vegan, Gluten-Free, Oil-Free Recipe

2) Reducetarian as an Inclusive Approach

To tell a meat-and-potatoes guy to suddenly go broccoli-and-quinoa can be very upsetting.  The thought of giving up the eggs for breakfast, the grilled salmon on the salad, the roasted chicken at dinner, the burger with the beer AND the cheese on the pizza?  Whoa, no way, no how.  Not all of us have a sudden Fat Man Rants turnaround.

A new approach is catching on:  Reducetarian

Reducetarian simply focuses on eating less red meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, and eggs.  Rather than “None of the above” it focuses on “less of the above”.  It’s aim is to create an inclusive community, joined around common issues.

People choose to adopt a vegan lifestyle for a few main reasons:  Health, Environment, Animal Rights.  When it comes down to it, these are three basic causes that many of us can support.  Many of us care about our own health and the health of our families.  Many of us care about the environment and our global footprint.  Many of us can empathize when we see animals treated cruelly and hear about harsh factory-farm conditions.  Eating more plants addresses all of these concerns.  Any changes we make to shift to reduce meat and dairy consumption and eat a more plant-based diet will help.

Moroccan Chickpea Tagine Stew – Healthy, Plant-Based, Gluten-Free, Oil-Free, Vegan Comfort Food Middle Eastern Recipe

One of my favorite Meatless Monday dishes: Moroccan Chickpea Tagine Stew – a flavorful mix of interesting spices stew together with hearty garbanzo beans for this satisfying, plant-based, vegan recipe

The Reducetarian approach acknowledges these common concerns and helps to welcome people curious about more vegetarian options.

Helpful Reducetarian Suggestions: It’s likely some of these Reducetarian approaches are already familiar to you

  1. Meatless Mondays — Eating a plant-based vegan meal for dinner every Monday night
  2. VB6 — Mark Bittman’s “Vegan Before 6” approach wants you to eat 100% plant-based…until 6pm.  Every day, make your breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks totally vegan.  Then, for dinner, eat whatever you like.  The focus is still on eating as much whole food and real food as possible (please, no processed chicken nuggets and pizza pockets), but this approach can really help families with mixed eating habits.
  3. No Meat Fridays — Catholics (and other religious groups) have cut meat from their diets for centuries to reflect their religious devotion.  While a true Reducetarian would also forgo the Friday fish fry, this concept is already familiar to so many of us who grew up in religious homes.  Taking it a step further to cut out the seafood and cheese is very achievable.

Rather Than Be Derisive with Labels,

Let’s Be Inclusive with Common Values

Lentil Tacos – Healthy, Plant-Based, Gluten-Free, Oil-Free, Vegan Mexican Dinner Recipe

Meat-Less Lentil Tacos – Hearty lentils replace ground chicken or turkey with a filling full of Mexican spices for a satisfying, meat-free vegan dinner

3) Room for Curiosity and Courtesy

“You either need to choose if you’re a vegan or a chef, as far as work goes.”

— Portland-based Vegan Chef, Cady Frazier
Curiosity Bites: When traveling to Germany, curiosity keeps me tasting non-vegan foods like this roasted pork and rich sauce. Then, I can come back to the US and create my own plant-based version

Curiosity Bites: When traveling to Germany, curiosity keeps me tasting non-vegan foods like this roasted pork and rich sauce.  Then, I can come back to the US and create my own plant-based version

As a vegan chef, there has to be give-and-take with my plant-based lifestyle.  On the one hand, my job requires me to taste everything I make to ensure it is up to my standards.  I cook for a variety of diets, and most of my private clients eat meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs.  Even more than in work, though, as a chef, my curiosity constantly beckons me to try new things and explore new flavors.  When traveling to Peru, I want to try fresh ceviche.  In Germany, I’m curious to try the sauce coating the roasted pork loin.  Even at home, I want to be courteous when family, friends, or colleagues are excited to share their cheese lasagna and homemade chicken empanadas.  While I’m plant-based 90% of the time, my 10% non-plants usually comes in the form of:

  1. Curiosity Bites — Tasting new dishes or trying sauces simply out of curiosity.  While I don’t want to eat a full meal, I’ll try a couple of bites of something to experience new flavors
  2. Courtesy Bites — Sharing and tasting food out of courtesy to the cook who made it.  Whether I’m a guest in someone’s home or simply trying desserts at a party, I’ll share a couple of bites to show my appreciation for the effort and love that went into creating that dish.


Allow Yourself Room to Be Curious and Courteous

French Tarragon Potato Stew with Root Vegetables – Vegan Navarin D’Agneau Recipe

How Much is 10%?

Let’s Get Real

I know what you’re thinking:  Great!  I can still eat meat!

If only it were that easy.

There is danger in moderation.  As Americans, we live by the philosophy “everything in moderation” and yet we are not doing well.  More than 2/3 of us are overweight.  Over 1/3 of us are obese.  Heart disease is our #1 killer, even though it is 100% preventable and reversible through diet and exercise.  If we were able to stick to moderation, we wouldn’t be so sick.

On a more personal level, for anyone who’s struggled with food addiction or compulsive eating, moderation doesn’t work.  There is no such thing as “just one” scoop of ice cream.  Eating is taken to an extreme, and clear boundaries become essential for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Ultimate Portobello Mushroom Burger – Healthy, Plant-Based, Vegan, Vegetarian, Grilled, Oil-Free, Hearty Recipe

If you’re okay eating 1/4 of a regular restaurant burger, the 10% guideline works for you.  If you’d rather eat an entire burger, without worrying about numbers, try my Ultimate Portobello Burgers

So let’s do some 10% Animal Protein math:

You need about 1800 calories a day x 7 days a week = 12600 calories a week

  • 10% = 1260 calories
  • 1 oz of boneless skinless chicken breast = 47 calories
  • 1 oz salmon = 59 calories
  • 1 oz ground beef (85% lean) = 71 calories
  • 1 egg = 78 calories
  • 10% = 26oz of chicken breast (that’s 1.75 pounds), 21 oz of salmon (less than 1.5 pounds), 17 oz beef (a little more than a pound) or 16 eggs…per WEEK

According to this math, one day you can have 4 oz of chicken, 3 oz of salmon, a 2.5oz burger OR a couple of eggs at breakfast

Most restaurants are going to serve you 6 oz of chicken and salmon, if not more.

Most restaurant burgers are at least 6 oz, and 8 oz is the norm

Most omelets are at least 3 eggs.

This is before you add the cheese, butter, or glass of milk.

Be honest with yourself: Can you happily navigate the world of 10%?

If you are struggling to lose weight, you may need the clear boundaries of 100%

So Is 90% Good Enough?  The Take-Aways:

  1. Avoid the Vegan Label
  2. Reducing Meat and Dairy Consumption is Better than Nothing
  3. Leave Room for Curiosity and Courtesy
  4. If You are Still Struggling, Try 100% Commitment

References and Resources

John Mackey on Conscious Capitalism, Building an Empire, and the Power of Plants to Heal and Thrive, the Rich Roll Podcast, May 28, 2017:

Blue Zones Approach: Live Longer, Better:

Tim Kaufman: Rantings of a Former Fat Man, Plants-Rule blog, February 26, 2017:

Can’t Cut Meat 100 Percent Yet? “The Reducetarian Solution” Says Less Is Next Best, by Brian Kateman on Forks Over Knives blog, April 17, 2017:

Frequently Asked Questions about VB6Mark Bittman May 7, 2013:

How does a vegan chef working with a non-vegan menu manage? by Avery Yale Kamila in Press Herald, May 12, 2016:


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