When Mark Bittman's doctors told him he had pre-diabetes, pre-heart-disease, and high cholesterol, the New York Times food columnist knew he had to take back control of his health. The catch? He didn't want to give up the pleasurable aspects of eating, such as dining out and indulging in favorite foods.
With that in mind, he decided to embark on a mostly plant-based diet: He'd eat vegan meals and snacks before 6 p.m., and at night he'd enjoy whatever he wanted. Here, the best-selling author shares more about this non-diet "diet," how you can easily follow it yourself, and his favorite go-to vegan meals.
Shape: When you first started eating this way, were the initial effects on your health?
Mark Bittman (MB): This was about seven years ago, after I gained more than a little too much weight. After six weeks I’d lost 15 pounds, and four months later, I was down 35 pounds total. Then my doctors told me my cholesterol and blood sugars were down to normal levels, and my sleep apnea went away. All of this caused me to talk and think about this more, and I recognized I’d come up with something. That’s when I decided to write about it, and VB6 was born.
Shape: Why would you suggest someone try the VB6 lifestyle?
Mark Bittman (MB): We know that diets don't work. They’re depriving and hard to stay on long-term. I wanted something that was easy to stay on for the rest of my life. Everybody wants to go to restaurants, drink at night, and feel like they’re eating normally when they go out to eat.
Shape: You write in VB6, "There's no reason to let perfection be the enemy of good." Can you tell me more about this approach to eating?
MB: Cheating is built in. We want it to be doable and beneficial—and it's not beneficial if you don’t do it. Everyone’s first comment to me is, "Well, I can't live without half and half in my coffee." I tell them to have it. But then you can't have two double cheeseburgers for lunch, or eat animal products all day long. And you will know whether you're doing it seriously or not—because it's going to work. For most people, after starting this diet, you will lose weight and your blood numbers will look better.
Shape: What vegan foods do you always have in your kitchen?
MB: Tofu, canned tomatoes, a zillion condiments, blueberries, lettuce, broccoli, and of course staples like onions, bell peppers, and potatoes. I always have the makings of a chopped salad or stir-fry on hand.
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Shape: Many of the recipes inThe VB6 Cookbook seem to be relatively high in whole grains and fruits—they're not exactly low-carb. What do you think about the recent diet books promoting low-carb, higher-fat diets?
MB: There's a huge difference between hyperprocessed carbs like white bread and carbs like wheat berries. People are afraid of carbs. The gluten thing is out of control. I don’t think there’s a scientific basis that carbs are bad and that more protein and animal products are good—I don’t see the science supporting that. I do think there’s a good case to be made that we went overboard on reducing fats, but I don’t think that’s the same thing as saying all grains all bad.
Shape: If someone is extremely active, working out for more than an hour a day, should they be concerned about the amount of protein in their diet when following VB6?
MB: Concentrate on eating protein at every meal. Nuts, legumes, and tofu are vegan foods that have plenty of protein. If you need more concentrated sources of protein, have a steak at night.
Shape: There's a good amount of cooking involved in these recipes. What if someone is extremely crunched for time?
MB: A lot of vegan meals—oatmeal, fruit salad, chopped salads, for example—take 10 minutes, maybe. If you say you’re too busy to cook, I'd ask you what you’re spending your time doing. Say you go to a deli to get a salad for lunch. You’ll stand in line for 15 minutes. Why not spend that time in the morning to prepare lunch?