It all started with a prescription from his doctor, but not for a drug.
"You should probably become a vegan," New York Times food writer Mark Bittman says his doctor told him. That was six years ago. Then 57, Bittman says he was 40 pounds overweight, and his cholesterol and blood sugar which had always been normal, had moved into the "danger zone."
Bittman had built his career around food, and being a vegan didn't appeal to him, as he recounted this week on KQED's Forum. "I wanted ... something do-able, something I could stick with," he said.
He hatched the idea of being vegan until dinner -- "you're only postponing gratitude" until then.
It seems to have worked. Today, he's 35 pounds lighter and he says his blood sugar and cholesterol are back in the normal range.
His approach shatters the idea of a diet as being something you go on and then at some point go off. "It's not a diet of 'lose 21 pounds in 21 days,'" he says. "It's a plan for how you're going to eat, not for a month, but from now on."
Specifically, Bittman eats very few animal products before 6pm -- one allowance he makes is for cream in his coffee. He also avoids highly processed foods such as white rice, white pasta, all junk food and alcohol. For breakfast, often it's oatmeal, fot lunch, rice and beans, or a salad, or both. He snacks on nuts and fruit.
After 6PM, he reverts to his "wicked ways," at least in theory. Bittman found that once he started losing weight, he felt better, which was powerful incentive to keep eating a more healthy diet. Today, even after 6PM, he eats fewer animal products than he used to.
He embraced a vegan diet (even if part-time) because the "writing has been on the wall for a long time that a plant-based diet is the way to go."
On Forum, he argued strongly against processed foods. "As far as a daily diet goes," he said, "the reason that plants are better than processed foods is that they're real, they have one ingredient ... we know what's in them."
Animal products, he pointed out, are full of nutrients, but we eat "way too much of them," around 600 pounds per person annually in the U.S.
Not only are all those animal products bad for your health, it's "not sustainable environmentally," he added.
His approach is alluring, since he's allowing freedom from rules. "I like to punctuate my day with a nice meal and a glass or three or wine," he joked. "And I like to stop thinking about rules ... when I'm done working. Dinner does that for me." He pointed out that plenty of research shows that eating your big meal in the middle of the day is likely better for you, but that "doesn't work for me."
By now you might be wondering how you would actually put this into action. On Forum, he easily listed three dishes, each endlessly variable, that even a basic cook could whip up:
Rice and beans: He described a recent meal of brown rice, chick peas, chopped kale and stir-frying it with jalapeno and cilantro. "It was really fantastic. That was a great lunch," he enthused. (Note that he specified whole grain rice.)
Chopped salad. Just take things out of your fridge, "start chopping them up, put them in a bowl, you're in business."
Stir fry. "Instead of having center-of-the-plate meat, you're having two ounces of meat per person -- or even less -- a much more moderate amount, mixed with vegetables in a style most people like."
A caller asked where to begin if you're cooking for a family. He advised starting with breakfast, getting rid of "everything that is not a whole-grain alternative." He recommended smoothies with fruit and soy milk or almond milk, oatmeal with "stuff in it, whatever reasonable thing you want," or a fruit salad.
But even with his suggestions, he said "everybody's got to ... tinker with this a bit."
"It's just a strategy, but it's not the only strategy."