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.”
Q. So this plan isn’t a gateway to eventually eating vegan full time?
A. I don’t see that. For anyone who wants it to be, great, but it’s not for me and I don’t think it’s going to be for a lot of other people. I’m getting hostile e-mails and phone calls from real vegans, shall we say, instead of part-time vegans, who say, “Being part-time vegan is like being a little bit pregnant, it doesn’t exist.” But I disagree with that. You can eat however you want to eat and I think the goal is to eat less junk and fewer animal products and if you want to eat no junk and no animal products, fine with me, but I wouldn’t ask that of people and I don’t think it’s necessary. But let’s bear in mind you could be a full-time vegan and be eating really terribly. Coke and french fries are vegan.
Q. So does eating healthfully before 6 p.m. increase your food awareness and reduce your risk of splurging in the evening?
A. I think that what seems to happen to people is that they are more conscious about the choices they make, as they feel better about eating more plants and less of other stuff, their dinners become more moderate, too. I mean, that’s what happened to me and that’s what seems to happen to other people. I think “VB6” is fairly moderate, it’s pragmatic, and it’s not extreme. But when people change their diet even moderately, they find that they’re more conscious of stuff, they find that they have fewer cravings for junk and for animal products, a lot of people just stop eating dessert or they have it once a week. It sort of makes sense intuitively.