There are, as my friend, the doctor David Katz, often says, no major questions remaining about the best way to eat. It’s food, real food, minimally processed, with as much as possible from the plant kingdom. Whatever went wrong with our diet — and we know that something did — it involves products of the last hundred years: factory-farmed meat, hyper-processed foods of all kinds (but especially carbohydrates) and lots and lots of sugar. Choose your poison, because that’s what all of these are, and eliminate what you can, making sure always, or at least whenever possible, to plug those gaps you’ve left in your diet with fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds. I’m sure you know the drill.
Because I write about all of this regularly, because for better or worse some people have the impression that I’m a vegan, because I advocate for more plants in our diets and less junk, I get asked what I actually eat a lot. The short answer — which is much more about my personality than my diet — is that I’m routine-resistant. I’m reluctant to establish predictable modes of behavior, and that’s doubly true for diet. I can’t give you my “usual” weekly menu.
Thus, 12 years ago, when I had gained the weight that many careless people gain in the years after turning 40, when my blood numbers were headed in the wrong direction and my knees hurt from carrying the equivalent of a pre-Macbook Air-laden backpack in my stomach, I created “Vegan before Six,” or “VB6,” a diet in which I ate like a fanatic vegan from dawn until dusk, and then consumed whatever I wanted at night, including more than enough meat and alcohol.
That worked well enough for me to recommend it: I still do, if you need rules and structure to get more plants and less junk in your diet. But I do it with less religious fervor than I once did.
Now, I eat more plants routinely; I eat more plant-based dinners. I try to eat no junk food at all. Having said that, I cheat more: I have a weakness for licorice (including Good & Plenty) and chocolate, three-quarters of which I know you can argue is a good thing, but even the best contains a fair amount of sugar. Speaking of which: I put sugar in my coffee, and half-and-half, too. And I avoid dessert, but if you put a good one in front of me, I’ll attack.
The non-cheating, the diet of whole foods, mostly plants, is more interesting. I firmly believe that if you know where food comes from and you prepare it carefully, you can hardly go wrong. It’s not that complicated.
Where it gets really tricky is when people become obsessive. “What kind of butter do you buy?” someone asked me yesterday.
Well. I sometimes buy butter made not far from where I live, but I sometimes buy butter at our local supermarket, which is not exactly an ingredient mecca.
The point is that I’m neither consistent nor necessarily sensible. (Surprise!) I won’t buy fish in that supermarket (I try to buy it either from my friend Alex up in Massachusetts, where I spend some time, or from Antonio, the fish vendor at the Cold Spring Farmers Market), and that’s kind of where I am consistent: The closer I can come to a producer and the source, to knowing the ingredient, the less I worry. I’d rather buy a “conventional” apple from someone who farms near me than an organic apple from New Zealand. (An easier choice is the non-organic rice and beans over the supposedly organic cheeseburger.)
There are no typical days for me; I travel a lot. On the road, I eat in restaurants, of course, but I also go to supermarkets and buy carrots and pita bread and hummus or guac and call it lunch. (I sometimes pack a lot of my food in my bag and try to live off that, but that gets crazy.)
When I’m home, I’m all over the place. I had leftover baked ziti for breakfast yesterday: hardly vegan. The day before I had fruit. The day before that I skipped breakfast. For lunch, I usually have something with whole-grain bread, real whole-grain bread, and that “something” is often some kind of bean concoction. Or I might have pasta and tomatoes. Or leftovers. And then dinner is whatever is around, but there’s definitely less meat than there used to be, even a couple of years ago. These days, three dinners out of five are vegan or nearly so: a lot of stir-fries, and soups, and stews, often over or with some whole grain or other.
The biggest difference is that I no longer believe that dinner isn’t dinner unless it contains an animal product, that you’re not going to get “full” unless you eat meat, which is a ridiculous notion, but a hard one to tame.
For example: The other day, I was standing in the kitchen, “starving.” And I ate a couple of handfuls of this mix of almonds, walnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, and raisins that I put together. I stood there eating that and an apple, and then some dates, while thinking how badly I wanted a cheeseburger. Really: That’s what I was thinking. And I was envisioning that kind of 100 percent all-the-same-texture salty/peppery/onion-y/ketchup-y/pickle-y/sweet cheeseburger you get from McDonald’s, and I was craving the taste of it and knowing, for sure, that I wouldn’t be satisfied, or “full,” until I had it or something like it, and then 10 minutes later, having had my nuts and raisins and apple and dates, I was indeed quite satisfied and full.
And I forgot about that awful-from-every-perspective cheeseburger.
That’s the lesson we all have to remember: We are bombarded with “eat me” messages for things that just plain suck. That doesn’t necessarily mean they taste bad (although they often do, if you take the time to taste them), but they make you feel bad, in several ways, and they actually are bad, in the sense of evil: They hurt you, they hurt the people all along the production chain, they torture the animals, and they are, corny and dumb as it sounds, “bad for the planet.” Steer clear of that shit: That’s how I try to eat.
Mark Bittman has written about food and cooking for nearly 40 years, and has published 30 books, including the “How to Cook Everything” series and “VB6.”