Friday, September 21, 2012

Mark Bittman: food policy, public health, and VB6

You better sit down for this.
I actually went OUT on a work night. I mean, out-out. With a girlfriend!
I know, it's crazy.

I met my friend CC for happy hour (I need to interview her, she's very knowledgeable about organophosphate pesticides / food consumption / organic vs conventional food & her upcoming doctoral dissertation work is going to kick ass) then we went to a Seattle Arts & Lectures series speaker, Mark Bittman.

CC is a big Bittman fan, formerly read his food column in the New York Times, currently reads his blog, and has his cookbooks which are all about simple, healthy home cooking (see: How to Cook Everything). To be honest, I pretty much only knew of Bittman through his PBS series on eating in Spain, that he did with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow (Spain: On the Road Again). It was an interesting talk and I thought it would be nice to give a quick summary in case anyone is interested...

His talk was about what you would expect:
  • Soda makes us fat and kills more people than cigarettes kill via lung cancer. We need to villainize soda in the way we've villainized cigarettes. This is a public health issue, not a consumerism issue.
  • We need to stop subsidizing monoculture (i.e., soy & corn) for animal feed and subsidize nutritious people-food instead, especially foods from small local farms.
  • Our current ag practices are not sustainable, one way or another we will be forced to change our current practices.
  • Call for a soda tax and limits on marketing processed foods to children.
  • Promote simple home cooking. If people can't cook for themselves, figure out ways to get them help so they can get home-cooked meals.
Preacher & choir we were. Nevertheless, it was a good reminder to keep doing all the things we've been doing in our house:
  • Buy locally sourced foods = Our veggies & dairy come from a local farm, we buy locally produced meats that aren't from giant feed lots MOST of the time. We eat a ton of fish (we buy from local salmon fishers or my husband gets the salmon himself). But, we need to start just buying a whole cow/pig with friends from local farmers and cutting out the middle-part of going through a grocery store or butcher. I know this costs $$ and right now we can afford it. It shouldn't be the case where this is out of reach for most people though. Healthy, organic foods that are grown in ways less damaging to the environment need to become more affordable.
  • Eat a plant-heavy diet = My goal with meals is to have half our plates filled with veggies, 1/4 protein (usually meat), 1/4 carb or grain. I'm also trying to have weekly "meatless Mondays" but it doesn't always happen. 
Other things we can do are to support an initiative coming to Washington in Fall 2013 that will require genetically modified foods to be labeled. I guess the big guys are trying to squash California's Referendum 37 that will require labeling of GMO foods because polls show that if given the information, people will not buy GMO foods. Hmmm. So better to keep us in the dark about what we're putting into our bodies.

I think my favorite part about Bittman's talk came toward the end when he talked about how he had gotten quite overweight and his doctor told him to become a vegan. Bittman, being in the food industry, laughed because that was clearly unrealistic and not how he wanted to live.

Instead, he decided to look at it how we look at exercise. Eating "vegan," or along those lines, wasn't something that you necessarily have to do each and every day. With exercise, you have your days where you get your workout in and some workouts are heavier than others, but sometimes you just rest.

Bittman approached his diet the same way and he calls it, "Vegan Before 6:00" or VB6. He also cut out all processed foods and white foods before 6:00 p.m. As often as he can, he tries to eat vegan all day until dinnertime. Then, he eats healthfully but he will allow meat into his diet. It's not everyday but it's most days. Doing this, he lost 40 lbs. in just a few months!

I found this approach quite refreshing. It's so easy to look at things in absolutes, to force strict rules that must be obeyed for every meal, most every day. Some people are disciplined enough that it works. For me, I feel like it's just setting me up to be frustrated and feel like I've failed. It's probably common sense to other people but for me, it's helpful to be given permission to not be so extreme!

I don't necessarily want to go VB6 but I do like the moderate approach to improving my habits or showing more restraint. I think it's similar to Bob Harper's Skinny Rule about no carbs after lunch, with dinner being "lean & green." Quite practical.

So there you go. If you are interested in a thoughtful critique on U.S. food policy, politics, and advocating for change in how we define and view our food, definitely check out Bittman's personal blog or his New York Times blog, The Opinionator.


  1. OMG, I wish I would have known he was in Seattle...I love this guy and have his cook book sitting on my coffee table for easy access!

  2. Wow, I like these ideas a lot. Thanks for sharing. Off to check out his blog...

  3. Thanks for the post
    I wanted to go hear Bittman talk but it was a crazy week

  4. Interesting. I agree about soda. I don't drink it and I don't let my kids drink it. Maybe not as bad as smoking, but bad for us. Thanks for the info:)

  5. I bet this was a very intriguing talk, I know I would have been completely absorbed. Glad you had a great evening out - on a week night, no less! :)

  6. VB6... I like it!
    For many years I did something similar. Super healthy, farmers-market-based dinners during the week. Dinner of nachos and a couple of beers on Fridays.

    Then I moved in with Hubby and our habits changed. I can't complain about any dinner he puts on the table on nights when I teach late. So if it's pizza on a weeknight, well... at least he took care of dinner! ;)

    Slowly I'm working him into planning for at least 2 vegetables/fruit at every meal. Maybe I should start leaving Bittman articles hanging around the kitchen table?

  7. Yes, soda is bad! (not that I don't drink it on occasion). But soda isn't the only evil beverage...think about all the juices, ice teas, "energy" drinks, etc. that are FULL of high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and who knows what else. I watched a lecture on TV once about how terrible flavored beverages are for us, including 100% pure fruit juice. Just think about what's in 8 oz of pure orange juice - that's the juice of 6-8 oranges. Would you ever eat that many oranges in one day? No! Plus, you're getting mostly juice (maybe a little pulp, but not much compared to how much pulp you would consume if you ate a whole orange instead). The fiber in the pulp helps your body process all that "natural" sugar from the fruit, so if you drink the juice of 6 oranges without much pulp, you're body is taking in a lot of sugar that will be hard to deal with.

    Maybe I should write a blog post about that! I just think most people don't realize that fruit juice isn't all good for you, even though it might be 100% juice. Even people, like myself, who thought soda was bad but juice was fine. That talk made me seriously cut back on my juice consumption (I still have some though). =)

  8. I'm hosting a So Delicious giveaway - would love for you to enter!