Six years ago, Mark Bittman was faced by his doctor with two unsavory choices in order to address a smattering of health issues related to being overweight: surgery or drugs. Another physician recommended going vegan, but The New York Times columnist and host of Cooking Channel’s “The Minimalist” decided to compromise, building a flexible vegan diet that fit his lifestyle. In the first six weeks, he lost 15 pounds. In the next six weeks, he reduced his cholesterol and blood sugar level, cured his sleep apnea, and shed another 15 pounds. “The emphasis is on changing the proportions of what’s in your diet. Then everything else kind of follows from that,” Bittman says. “Obviously, there are political and environmental and larger implications of all of this, but I wanted to do something that didn’t confuse the issues, that said, ‘If you want to have a sort of personal food policy that’s going to improve your health, reduce your carbon footprint, probably make you feel better, this is the way to think about it.’ The science is pretty clear and this is a strategy. There are a lot of other strategies but this is a strategy that seems to be working.” On April 30, he released his latest book, “VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health . . . For Good,” detailing his experience and showing how to follow a similar path.
Q. There are a lot of common diet mistakes people make. Why is this easier to commit to?
A. Well, I think the cheating is built in. One of the first questions people ask me is “Can I put milk in my coffee? I can’t live without putting milk in my coffee.” And the fact is, I put milk in my coffee and I break the rules all the time. But it’s a common-sense thing. There’s a big difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon of milk or cream in your coffee and two cheeseburgers or a large fry. Science says that we should be eating more foods from the plant kingdom and less processed food and fewer animal products. That’s pretty much clear. So this is a strategy for doing that. If you follow it 100 percent, then obviously it’s more effective in executing what we think needs to be done, but if you follow it 60 percent, you’re probably still eating twice as well than if you’re eating a sort of standard American diet. So there’s a lot of wiggle room in here and I think people need to look at the strategy and say, “How do I make this work in my life and how strict do I want to be?” Obviously if you break every rule five times a day, then you’re not doing it. So there’s got to be some adherence to the principles of the strategy, but it doesn’t seem right to say, “Do this or it doesn’t work.”
When you think of spring rolls, you probably envision the kind that are served as an appetizer at nearly every Thai restaurant in this country, a tangle of sometimes-identifiable vegetables rolled in a thin wrapper, deep-fried and served with a sweet dipping sauce.
But spring rolls go far beyond that. They’re found all across Asia, with wrappers, fillings and cooking techniques that differ from one country to the next. Fresh spring rolls, sometimes called summer rolls, are a staple in Vietnam. Most typically, they’re made of rice paper filled with rice vermicelli, cooked meat or shrimp, raw vegetables, basil, cilantro and mint. They’re wonderful, a rare combination of substance and light.
Let’s get one thing straight: Mark Bittman is not a vegan. The first thing he does, sitting down to breakfast at a beautifully curated vegan feast while on tour to promote his mostly-vegan eating manifesto, is demand some dairy.
“What do you say we send this whole vegan thing to hell and get some milk around here?” he says. On cue, dainty milk pitchers arrive, and Bittman’s coffee gets a hearty dose.
The scene is an apt introduction to the longtime New York Times food columnist’s new and entirely nondogmatic approach to eating, outlined in his new diffusively-titled book, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 To Lose Weight and Restore Your Health…For Good. The book promotes a principally-vegan diet before 6 p.m., permitting reasonable freedom after that time to eat whatever you darn well please. Well, almost. He puts a few soft restrictions on the nighttime freedom, namely common sensical advice like not eating milkshakes until dawn and “all but” eliminating junk food (the “all but” being a nod to the truth that “everybody needs to break the rules sometimes”).
When you argue, as I frequently do, that cooking has the potential to help us deal with many of our dietary problems, you often elicit a kind of “I don’t care, I hate cooking” response in addition to the expected “I don’t have time.” And that’s fine; cooking isn’t the only route to eating better, and besides, those who hate cooking, or can’t make the time for it, may be lucky enough to have someone else cook for them. As long as they wash the dishes.
But it pays to remember that it’s been 40 years or more since cooking went out of style for most Americans, and that a positive approach to it — one that encourages cooking and counters the ongoing marketing surge that helped make it seem so “unnecessary” — could help to change matters. And although that kind of approach can be effective with anyone (I’m constantly meeting people who began cooking in their 30s and 40s, for example), it’s bound to be most effective with kids, who haven’t yet been fully brainwashed to believe that there are better ways to spend their time than cooking — like watching television, for example!
Question: I don’t know if I could give up bacon and eggs. How do you brunch on VB6? Answer:Making the change is not as difficult as you might think. At first I craved a bagel with cream cheese or bacon. But my habits changed after a few weeks, and now I enjoy my VB6 breakfasts as much as I did the old ones. Oatmeal with fruit, a smoothie, or fruit salads are all great brunch options.
Q: What was your inspiration for writing VB6? A:After five years of success on VB6, I came to really believe in the lifestyle. Then I started to hear from friends and coworkers—even strangers—and realized it wasn’t just a quirky little thing.
Q: Do you have a favorite spicy seitan recipe that is VB6? A:I like pan-searing, roasting, or grilling setian and then tossing it in sauces or stir-fries.
Q: What’s a favorite go-to vegan lunch for you? A:I don’t have go-tos; I pretty much cook what I’ve got. But I would say my most frequent lunch is either chopped salad, if I have a bunch of veggies laying around; and if I don’t, I almost always have cooked beans and grains, so I’ll throw something together with them. Having said all of that, it’s rare that I’m home for lunch, so I hit a salad bar or go out for falafel.