When I saw that Mark Bittman, one of my favorite food writers, had come out with a new book called "Food Matters; A Guide To Conscious Eating", I was frankly a little skeptical. Hasn't Michael Pollan pretty much said it all? Do we really need another socio-political look at diet that tells us to "eat food, mostly plants, not too much?"
Turns out, there is quite a bit more to say about the medical, socio-political and especially the environmental effects of the standard American diet, and, more importantly, what a large-scale change in that diet could mean both personally and to the world at large. And Mark Bittman, with his straightforward, very readable and instructive style of writing, is just the writer to do the job. This is a timely book for the masses, and hopefully the coming generations.
In Food Matters, Mark Bittman finally tells us specifically what to eat, and with 75 recipes, how to prepare it. He does it without dogma, self righteous proclamations or notions on what constitutes "good vs. bad" food. NO food is banned from the diet, although he shows a distinct preference for the wholesome and natural instead of processed foods. And he suggests a way of eating that is reasonable, logical, healthful, satisfying, much more ecologically sustainable, and above all-- achievable by anyone with even a modicum of self-control.
Not bad. In fact, if ever there was a diet recommendation for the modern world, this book is it.
The first few chapters lay out the relevant facts about what the standard American diet has become, and how it got there through marketing and governmental collusion with agribusiness and "big food". In particular, Bittman does the math for us when it comes to the beef industry, and other industrial food production methods that are gigantically wasteful of natural resources even as these meat-centric foods provide less calories and more health challenges for the effort. Of particular interest, Bittman connects the dots between ubiquitous hamburgers and global warming.We ignore these basic facts at our peril.
One might assume that Bittman preaches a vegetarian and sugar-free lifestyle as the only viable alternative. But that's the genius of Mark Bittman: He knows that human beings, himself included, are not inclined to give up foods they love. This man is a food writer, remember. He knows what is delicious and what people want to eat. So rather than presenting an either-or scenario, he takes a moderate and much more workable approach that he calls "less-meatarian." Instead of giving up meat entirely, what would happen if one simply consumed a statistically significant proportion less of the meat and processed flour and sugar that dominates the typical diet?
Bittman's method is this: as a general rule, eat only whole grains and vegetables during the day, and consume what you want (meat, fish, refined flours or sugar) at night, and be moderate about it. His personal result eating this way was a significant reduction in weight, lowered blood pressure and other important markers of increased health and vitality. All without a depriving himself of any particular food. He also greatly reduced his food bill. Sounds good to me.
I happen to know this method works for me, because I have used a variation on this program myself in the past with success. This was during a time when I was cutting back on refined grains, specifically bread. My personal rule was, to substitute either vegetables or (more rarely) fruit wherever I might normally eat a piece of bread. I did this until dinner, when I would allow myself to eat some kind of carbohydrate with the meal-- whether that be a slice of bread, a roll, or pasta. And not too much. That simple dietary adjustment had me feeling very healthy in no time. For lunch, instead of a sandwich I had a salad with pieces of meat in it, and an egg with vegetables for breakfast.
For several years, I simply gave up cooking pasta altogether. Now, my family enjoys the occasional pasta meal, with the amount of pasta on the plate much more of a side dish than the main attraction. Coincidentally Mark Bittman also recommends reversing the proportions of pasta and sauce compared to the standard pasta-dominant dish. (Less pasta, more sauce). Over and over, I find that Bittman's approach to food is eerily similar to my own, only he is a much more knowledgeable and experienced cook. No doubt this is why I find him to be my favorite teacher when it comes to food.
Just as Mark Bittman noted in his book, this pattern of eating flouts (and reverses) the usual recommendation that the heavier meal be eaten in the morning, while the lighter (perhaps meatless) meal be eaten at night. But the fact is, I find it much easier to be disciplined about my diet during the day. At night, after work, I like to relax and indulge myself a bit. This usually includes my one glass of wine with dinner, and that one glass is just enough to weaken any resolve I have about dietary abstinence. And I like to have some dessert after dinner, usually a home made baked item such as a cookie or two, or a slice of cake. (If I have to bake it, and don't buy it, I don't eat so much sweet stuff.). Thus: it worked for ME to be disciplined with diet all day, and less so at night. To heck with common wisdom, I did what worked!
It looks to me like Mr. Bittman found the same routine true for him, only he includes avoiding meat in his day-time regimen. He has convinced me that cutting back on meat is not only healthful and wise, it is good for the environment and for industrially raised animals as well.
What if the entire population of the the United States suddenly reduced their meat consumption to one third, and replaced it with vegetables? The social, medical, environmental and economic changes would be enormous, and for the better. This is what is required for a sane way of eating, as Mark Bittman has outlined so well in his book. And with 75 recipes to get you started, you can begin immediately.
Because Food Matters. A lot more than we will ever know.