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.

See also: Can You Be a Vegetarian and Still Gain Muscle?>>

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.

NEXT: Get 3 of Bittman’s VB6 Recipes>>

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BREAKFAST: Scrambled Tofu with Spinach

Makes: 4 servings

Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 tbsp chopped garlic, or more to taste
  • 1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 1 tbsp red chile flakes, or 1 or 2 fresh hot red chiles (like serrano or Thai), minced
  • 1½ lbs fresh spinach, trimmed and rinsed well
  • 1½ lbs firm or silken tofu, drained and patted dry

Instructions:

  1. Put the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the onion and garlic and sprinkle with salt; cook until the onion is translucent and the garlic is soft, 3 to 5 minutes.
  2. Add the chiles and cook, stirring, until fragrant, less than a minute. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the spinach and ¼ cup water. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is wilted and fairly dry, 5 to 8 minutes.
  3. Crumble the tofu into the pan and stir, using a spatula to scrape the bottom of the pan and combine the tofu and vegetables; adjust the heat as necessary to avoid burning. When the mixture starts to stick to the pan, it’s ready: Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve hot or warm.

Variation: Scrambled Tofu with Tomatoes  — Use 2 pounds chopped tomatoes instead of the spinach. In Step 2, be sure to cook the tomatoes until they’re dry before adding the tofu. Then continue with the recipe.

Nutritional Info (with firm tofu): 224 calories; 0mg cholesterol; 13g fat; 1g saturated fat; 14g protein; 177g carbs; 727mg sodium; 5g fiber; 0g trans fat; 5g sugars.

Reprinted from the book VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health…for Good copyright © 2013 by Mark Bittman. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, Inc. Photo is a stock image not associated with the book and does not represent the recipe's exact finished product.

NEXT: Baked Falafel Recipe>>

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LUNCH: Baked Falafel with Tahini Sauce

Makes: 8 servings

Time: 45 minutes, plus up to 24 hours to soak chickpeas

Ingredients:

  • 1¾ cups dried chickpeas
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 small onion, quartered
  • 1 tbps cumin
  • Scant tsp cayenne, or to taste
  • 1 cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantro
  • 1½ tsp salt, plus more to taste
  • ½ tsp black pepper, plus more to taste
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ cup tahini

Instructions:

  1. Put the chickpeas in a large bowl and cover with water by 3 or 4 inches—the beans will triple in volume as they soak. Soak for 12 to 24 hours, checking once or twice to see if you need to add more water to keep the beans submerged. (If the soaking time is inconvenient for you, just leave them in the water until they’re ready; you should be able to break them apart between your fingers.)
  2. Heat the oven to 375°F. Drain the chickpeas and transfer them to a food processor with the garlic, onion, cumin, cayenne, herb, 1 teaspoon of salt, pepper, baking soda, and lemon juice. Pulse until everything is minced but not pureed, stopping the machine and scraping down the sides if necessary; add water tablespoon by tablespoon if necessary to allow the machine to do its work, but keep the mixture as dry as possible. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, or cayenne as needed.
  3. Grease a large rimmed baking sheet with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Roll the bean mixture into 20 balls, about 1½ inches each, then flatten them into thick patties. Put the falafel on the prepared pan and brush the tops with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Bake until golden all over, 10 to 15 minutes on each side.
  4. Meanwhile, whisk the tahini and remaining salt with ½ cup water in a small bowl until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning and serve the falafel drizzled with the sauce.

Variation: Nutty Falafel — Replace ½ cup of the beans with an equal amount of walnuts, almonds, peanuts, or hazelnuts (don’t soak the nuts). Omit the cumin and cayenne and use the cilantro instead of the parsley or try a tablespoon or so of thyme leaves. Proceed with the recipe.

Nutritional Info (with 1 whole wheat pita): 502 calories; 0mg cholesterol; 20g fat; 3g saturated fat; 18g protein; 68g carbs; 813mg sodium; 14g fiber; 0g trans fat; 6g sugars.

Reprinted from the book VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health…for Good copyright © 2013 by Mark Bittman. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, Inc. Photo is a stock image not associated with the book and does not represent the recipe's exact finished product.

NEXT: Steak and Broccoli Stir-Fry Recipe>>

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DINNER: Steak and Broccoli Stir-fry

Makes: 4 servings

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 12 oz beef flank or sirloin steak, very thinly sliced (easiest if you freeze the meat for 30 minutes)
  • 1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 2 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp minced ginger
  • 1 tbsp minced fresh hot chile (like jalapeño or Thai; optional)
  • 1½ lbs broccoli, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces
  • ½ cup chopped scallions
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce, plus more to taste
  • Juice of 1 lime or ½ lemon (optional)
  • ¼ cup chopped peanuts or cashews
  • 3 cups cooked long- or short-grain brown rice

Instructions:

  1. Put a large, deep skillet over high heat. When it’s hot, add 1 tablespoon of the oil, swirl it around, and add the beef. Sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of the salt and some pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beef starts to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the meat to a plate.
  2. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons oil, then the garlic, ginger, and chile, if you’re using it. After 15 seconds, add the broccoli and all but a handful of the scallions. Cook, stirring infrequently, until the broccoli is bright green and beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and ½ cup of water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until almost all the liquid has evaporated and the broccoli is almost tender, another minute or two more.
  3. Return the meat to the pan along with the soy sauce and lime juice, if you’re using it, and a little more water if the mixture is dry. Raise the heat to high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is reduced slightly. Stir in the peanuts, then taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary; garnish with the remaining scallions, and serve over the rice.

Nutritional Info (with ¾ cup brown rice): 572 calories; 55mg cholesterol; 28g fat; 5g saturated fat; 31g protein; 54g carbs; 1510mg sodium; 10g fiber; 0g trans fat; 6g sugars.

Reprinted from the book VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health…for Good copyright © 2013 by Mark Bittman. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, Inc. Photo is a stock image not associated with the book and does not represent the recipe's exact finished product.