Six years ago, Mark Bittman, a columnist for the New York Times and one of the country’s most respected food writers, was told by his trusted doctor that his diet needed some changes. He was headed for heart disease—diabetes too. Would he consider going vegan?
For someone accustomed to “eating widely and well,” as he puts it, forgoing all animal products just didn’t seem realistic. So Bittman developed a smart strategy to shift his eating patterns in the plant-based direction, which he has now turned into the brand new book, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health . . . for Good. Bittman answered a few questions for Men’s Fitness—and also shared three of his best VB6 recipes.
Men’s Fitness: Why does “vegan before 6” work for you?
Mark Bittman: Eating vegan part of the day works for me because there aren’t too many rules. I can stick with it for the first two-thirds of the day, and then I can eat whatever I want in the evening, thus hanging out with my friends without appearing weird.
MF: If you had to give your quick elevator pitch on the merits of a plant-based diet, what would you say?
MB: Eating more vegetables will improve your health, lower your carbon footprint, and push back against the world of processed foods.
MF: In the book, you talk about the “protein myth.” What is it?
MB: The average American eats two to three times as much protein as he or she needs. This overconsumption can result in a variety of health issues—obesity, heart disease, I could go on. The “myth” I’ve labeled is multilayered: Americans have been urged by food marketers to consume far more meat than we should be eating, and many people don’t realize that there’s plenty of protein in plants. In fact, many plants have more protein per calorie than meat. While meat, eggs and cheese are, sure, nutrient-dense, they’re calorie-dense too, and they’re usually produced in, let’s say, not-ideal conditions. Plants provide the same vitamins and minerals plus protein—along with phytonutrients not found in meat.
MF: Does it really hold true for athletes—or guys who are trying to build muscle?
MB: While real athletes may need additional protein, and it may be easier for them to get it from animal products, the vegan Iron Man winners, football players and ultra runners demonstrate that it isn’t essential to go that route.
MF: What are the special merits of plant-based proteins, which men in their 20s and 30s should consider?
MB: Well for starters, eating more legumes and other high-protein plants will hopefully mean eating less meat. That shift is essential not only for our health but for that of the planet and many of the things living on it. Just to give you an idea of how influential meat consumption is on our plant, industrialized livestock production appears to account for a fifth or more of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. Eating less meat and more vegetables will not only improve your own health but the health of the planet.
MF: You’re a marathoner. For the endurance athletes out there, how do you, personally, adapt this diet to your nutritional needs while training?
MB: I do get hungrier when I’m training, especially when my mileage gets up to 40 miles a week or more; and, occasionally, I feel like I’m starving no matter how much I eat. So I cheat; that isn’t the worst thing in the world either. This isn’t about dogma; it’s about sensibility.