Shortly after turning 57, Mark Bittman found himself sitting on an examination table, listening to his doctor tell him he was 35 pounds overweight, his cholesterol was too high, his blood sugar was elevated, he had sleep apnea and his bad knees were getting worse.
“Doctors have a level of credibility and authority that we don’t really assign to anyone else, and they’re able to intervene at your most vulnerable moments,” says the genial Bittman over the phone from a hotel room in Seattle, a stop on a book tour for his new tome, The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living. “You’re sitting there naked and fat and old, and they’re saying, ‘Well, we can help you with some of this …’ ”
Not that Bittman was wanting for knowledge about food. He has spent his career showing people that it’s easy to cook well and eat well. In “The Minimalist”—his long-running weekly New York Times column and accompanying online video—he presents delicious, unfussy recipes crafted from just a few well-considered ingredients. He’s been a go-to food guy on The Today Show, and a judge on the Food Network series Chopped. He’s brought his expertise and encouraging tone to numerous best-selling cookbooks, most notably 1998’s How to Cook Everything. And, having paid closer attention to the ever-worsening state of the American diet, sustainability issues and the negative environmental impact of industrially produced meat, Bittman had already begun thinking about the notion of “healthy cooking” as much as “simple cooking.” In 2007, he published How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
But on that morning in the doctor’s office three years ago, he realized it was time to get his own kitchen in order. His doctor advised him to become a vegan. “I have no intention of ever becoming a vegetarian or vegan,” Bittman laughs. “I wish How to Cook Everything Vegetarian could have been called How to Cook Everything Less Meatarian, but nobody would have known what that meant.” Still, he began eating in a common-sense manner that he advocates in the Food Matters Cookbook (a companion to last year’s best-selling Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, in which he describes how the food we eat damages ourselves and the planet): Consume fewer animal products and processed and junk foods, and eat more plant-based foods.
Bittman doesn’t suggest eliminating meat, or white flour, or sugar, or any of the so-called “bad” foods from your diet, just eating much less of them. He calls his diet a “Two out of Three Plan” or “Part-Time Vegan” or “Vegan Before Six”; i.e. consuming mostly vegan fare during the day, and then for dinner essentially eating anything you want. There are no nutritional counts, no “off-limits foods,” no obsessing about putting a little cream in your coffee. The Food Matters Cookbook—upbeat but not cloying, informative and demystifying—contains vegan, vegetarian and meat-based recipes drawn from numerous cuisines, and Bittman says it’s worked for him. He’s dropped those 35 pounds, got his cholesterol and blood sugar back in check, his sleep apnea went away (he stopped snoring for the first time in 30 years), and he’s run two half-marathons.
Sounds pretty simple, right? Not so fast. “I think people are conditioned to think that with a plant-based diet they’re going to be deprived. I’m not saying you’re becoming a vegan with this, you’re just eating more plants. So that needs to be clear.
“And obviously, on top of that, for every person like me who’s out there advocating this stuff, there’s literally billions of dollars in marketing that are saying, ‘Have It Your Way,’ ‘I’m Lovin’ It,’ ‘Coke Is It.’ So there are forces working against this.
“There’s a couple of things that need to happen,” he continues. “We need to make cooking more popular, and we need to make natural, wholesome normal foods more popular. We need people to understand that even if they increase the proportion of fruits and vegetables in their diet by 10 percent, that’s fantastic.”
In that way, Bittman says, the oft-difficult battle to eat better and get healthier is won gradually, without feeling deprived, which greatly improves your odds of sticking with it for the long haul. “I had a hamburger this week. I didn’t feel like I was sinning, particularly. So if you’re driving down the road and you’re dying and you think you really want McDonald’s, by all means go have it. Just make sure that the next day that’s not what you’re doing. I guess I’m optimistic that this will work for most everyone because I just can’t believe that eating this way is that difficult.”
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