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By Margaret O'Malley

I've been a devoted of fan of cookbook author, speaker and food activist Mark Bittman for decades. I eagerly awaited his columns and op-eds in the "New York Times," armchair-traveled with him on his epic PBS road trip across Spain and religiously planned my meals from his How to Cook Everything cookbook series as a fledgling home cook. And although his recipes and culinary adventures expanded my palate and improved my cooking skills, his 2009 book "Food Matters" changed the way I think about eating.

Back in my high school and college days, being a vegetarian gave me some cred as a card-carrying member of PETA, but didn't do a whole lot for my overall health. Plant-based pickings were slim and dinners out at my favorite budget-friendly haunts quickly led to consolation orders of French fries, pasta, grilled cheese ... and more fries. The "veg" part of vegetarian was notably missing and I gained weight.

So I went back to my meat-eating ways — joining the low-carb, high protein revolution as a way to shed the pounds and it worked. Although maintaining my weight was easier, I still had that nagging feeling (let's call it guilt) that all of the meat, cheese and eggs I was eating couldn't be good for me — least of all for the animals who made the earthly sacrifice to fuel my low-carb lifestyle. Which was precisely Bittman's simple, but important point in "Food Matters": the way we eat isn't good for us, the animals we're rely on or the environment we live in. In fact, the way we eat is unsustainable.

Bittman's "Vegan Before 6:00" philosophy was just the answer I was looking for. All day, I'd follow a vegan diet (focusing on real food, mostly fruits and vegetables) and then relax things a bit later on at night. So, if I wanted a piece of salmon, a little piece of baguette and a glass of wine, that was okay. After three months, I was eating more fruits and vegetables than ever before and had lost 20 pounds in the process.

The benefits of being a part-time vegan

Bittman was following the science, of course. Studies show that eating a vegan diet, chock-full of antioxidant- and fiber-rich foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, may reduce your risk of cancer. And adopting a plant-based diet can lead to improvements in blood pressure, reductions in heart disease, and a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

So much as changed since my vegetarian days back in the 1990s and eating a plant-based diet is easier than ever. But you don't have to fully embrace a vegan lifestyle to reap some of these benefits — just eating fewer animal products and boosting the number of plant-based foods you eat every day can lead to many of these positive health improvements.

I sat down with Mark Bittman to talk about Vegan Before 6:00, what science tells us about how we should be eating and why we just can't seem to believe what health experts keep telling us.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

What's wrong with the way we eat?

MB: One of the interesting things about the way we eat is that — to the extent that we eat badly — it's bad for our personal health and it's also bad for the environment. A happy coincidence is that to the extent that we eat well, it's also good for the environment.

What we mean, generally, by "eating well" is eating real food. And real food — you know what real food is. We all know what real food is. It's generally food that doesn't have labels. It's generally food that's actually nourishing. It's generally food that you recognize as food.

The problem with the standard American diet is that we eat a lot of highly processed food. We eat way more saturated fats than we ought to, and we eat more sugar than we ought to. We also eat more industrially produced meat than we ought to. So, if we cut back on all of those things and focus on real food, our health gets better and we're less likely to develop chronic diseases. But we're also having a more positive impact on the environment so we lower our carbon footprint.

Right now, we seem to be obsessed with protein, most of which is animal-based.

MB: You know, we may seem to be obsessed by eating too much protein in this country, but our obsessions go from one obsession followed by another. So now we're obsessed with, "Do I get enough protein?," or, "Do I eat too much gluten?," and so on, when really the answer is as the best nutritionists and dietitians have been saying for 100 years. The answer is a balanced diet.

We eat a pound and a half or so of animal products every day on average, which is conservatively ten times as much as we need and ten times as much as is good for us.

A balanced diet means wide variety of foods, but real foods. Again, not hyper-processed foods, but real foods. Meat and dairy can be a part of that diet, but it should not be a part of that diet in the way that it is for most of us now, which is to say we eat a pound and a half or so of animal products every day on average, which is conservatively ten times as much as we need and ten times as much as is good for us.

So, the overconsumption of animal products is bad for us. The overproduction of industrially raised animals — as in factory farms — we've all seen pictures of those, is not only bad for us, but terrible for the environment, for the people who live around those factory farms, for the animals, of course. So, the idea is really a balance of real foods, but a much stronger and much heavier emphasis on plants than really we've done in the United States for 100 years.

Why aren't we happy with what the science tell us about healthy eating?

MB: Yeah, why do we ignore the science? Many books have been written about this. We look for silver bullets. We expect magic to happen. We think that at some point, there's going to be a pill that makes our ills go away — there's going be a tech solution that makes climate change go away.

And it doesn't always work that way. In fact, it usually doesn't work that way. So, when the science says, and the science does say a good diet is actually a very, very simple thing, people find that boring. Everybody says, "Oh, it's so confusing." Well, the reason it's confusing is because the industry wants you to be confused.

So, if I say to you, "Eat lots of tomatoes," and then a study comes out and says, "Well, tomatoes are good because there's lycopene (PH) in it," then the industry wants to promote lycopene because it can take lycopene and put it in Trix, and now tell you that Trix are good for you because there's lycopene in them.

But the fact is that's not how it works. What works is eating a wide variety of foods, as I've now said three times — most of them plants. And that's so simple that people think, "Well, it can't be like that. It has to be that some scientist invents something." That's not how things are going to get better.

We crave rules — a way of thinking that makes it easier to shift to a healthier diet. Vegan Before 6:00 is a perfect example — how did you stumble upon your personal rule?

MB: I was thinking about this for years — and not making that many changes in my own diet. I didn't eat much hyper-processed food, but I did eat a lot of animal products. And I thought, "You know, if I'm going to walk the walk, I have to be eating a more plant-based diet."

And I needed a rule. I recognized that I needed one and many of us do. It's not enough to say, "Eat more plants," because then you wake up and you say, "I'm going to eat more plants, but maybe not at breakfast." And then you say, "Maybe not at lunch, and maybe not at dinner, either." And days go by.

So, I made this rule that I called "Vegan before 6:00," which is I eat as a very strict vegan all day long. That is, I eat very heavily from the plant kingdom and exclusively from the plant kingdom, and no white flour, no white pasta, no white rice. Nothing white. No meat, no dairy, no junk.

Only plants until dinnertime, and then at dinner, I do whatever I want to do. It was just a thought. It was just like a little game I was going to play with myself, which was, "Let's see if I have the discipline to eat a strictly plant-based diet, all day long, and then at night I'll let myself eat meat and doughnuts or whatever," which I don't, but it worked. I did it at first as a challenge and it was kind of fun. I did it, and all my blood numbers, my weight, my cholesterol, all of that stuff went in the right direction.

So, I kept doing it, and it kind of became a way of life. But I want to emphasize that any strategy that enables you to eat more plant foods, more natural foods, more whole foods and less hyper-processed foods and fewer animal products, any strategy that works for you is the right strategy.

How do we make sure everyone has access to healthy food?

MB: Some people don't get to eat enough, some eat too much of the wrong things and then there's the environmental problems. So, all of this is an educational issue, which is why I'm talking to you now. There's a notion that so-called "healthy food" is more expensive than junk food, and it's really not true. And if you compare a dinner for a family of four at McDonald's or Burger King or any fast food joint you want to name,(and that is for the most part unhealthy food because no one's going there to order salads) to what it costs to cook a normal meal for a family of four ... and I'm not talking about organic and I'm not talking about going to a fancy supermarket ... We're talking about buying regularly grown vegetables and fruits, a little bit of meat, beans and rice, whatever, that is less expensive. You know, your $20 goes a lot farther at a regular supermarket than it goes in a fast food joint.

So, what's the bottom line?

MB: The bottom line is the same as the first line. The bottom line is eat less hyper-processed food. Eat no junk at all, if you can. Eat more plants, and when I say "plants," I don't mean distillations of plants. I mean things that don't have labels, like fruits and vegetables and nuts and seeds. And eat way fewer animal products. That is the formula. It's pretty simple.

WHAT HEALTH EXPERTS WANT YOU TO KNOW

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