It’s late morning, and Mark Bittman is hungry. The New York Times columnist and bestselling author of How to Cook Everything is at Granville Island for an interview with the Georgia Straight. Earlier on this rainy Sunday, he did the Stanley Park seawall, which he calls “one of the great urban runs in North America”.
The Public Market is packed, so rather than browse we sit down at nearby Edible Canada Bistro. Bittman scans the menu and grumbles. Bacon and eggs, duck poutine, seafood soup, a beef burger, fish and chips… Nothing is obviously vegan. He asks the server about vegan options and the server struggles with suggestions.
“I could cheat,” Bittman says matter-of-factly.
By “cheat” he means cheat on the diet he’s followed for six years, the very one he’s here to promote with his new book, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health…For Good. But breaking his vegan diet wouldn’t be as drastic as it sounds. That’s because Bittman is a part-time vegan who advocates eating only plant-based foods during the day—in the evening, he puts meat, eggs, and dairy products back on the table.
In VB6, Bittman explains that he devised this plan when he was overweight and pre-diabetic at the age of 57. After 25 years as a professional food writer, his diet “had become increasingly indulgent and untamed”. His doctor told him he should probably become a vegan to stop his advance toward diabetes and heart disease.
“The idea of becoming a full-time vegan was neither realistic nor appealing to someone accustomed to eating as widely and as well as I do,” he writes. “Furthermore, I had no interest in becoming an isolated vegan in a world of omnivores.”
That said, Bittman was already well aware of the joys and benefits of eating a plant-based diet. (In 2007, he wrote his tome How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.) He knew that North Americans were eating too much junk food, and too many animal products, and “that food was being produced in an increasingly mechanized and unprincipled manner, without taking into account the welfare of consumers…or the environment or animals or the people who grew or processed it.”
So he came up with a diet that worked for him: eat vegan for breakfast, lunch, and daytime snacks and avoid processed foods. But after 6 p.m. he loosened the reins: if he wanted a steak, he could have it. He lost 35 pounds in four months—and he felt so good he’s never looked back. Six years later, he’s maintained his weight loss and kept his cholesterol and blood-sugar levels in check.
But why pause the vegan regimen at 6 p.m.? Bittman explained the logic at a Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar event, the day before our Granville Island brunch. “One of the reasons it makes sense for me is it allows for us to enjoy dinners like this,” he said of the gathering that featured spot prawns and sablefish. Since people do their relaxing and socializing with family and friends in the evenings, that’s when they’re more likely to drink and lose discipline. “I thought, for me at least, this is a diet that might have a chance of working, a diet that might have the chance of lasting the rest of my life.”
That’s what he tells people who argue that it’s healthier to eat the biggest meal of the day at lunch rather than dinner. He’s also got a simple answer for those who ask if they can put milk in their coffee on the VB6 diet.
“The answer is yes,” he said. “The idea is not to be pure but to be progressive, to move towards a more plant-based diet. And if I say to you, ‘No, you can’t have milk in your coffee,’ you’re liable to say, ‘To hell with this.’ I don’t want people to say, ‘To hell with this.’ ”
Indeed, he encourages people to adapt VB6 to their own lifestyle. “The science about what we should be eating is that we should be eating more plant foods, period. And we should be eating them in place of industrially processed foods and industrially processed meat,” he said. “VB6 is a strategy for increasing the amount of plants in your diet. Any strategy that works for you is fine with me.”
He acknowledged to the Straight that his ideas aren’t fine with some vegans, who feel that “being a little bit vegan is like being a little bit pregnant”. But others have offered him positive feedback: “They understand that eating less meat means eating less meat.”
“I’M DELIGHTED AT the thought of millions more humans becoming part-time vegans for whatever reasons they may have,” Carolyn Mill, executive director of Earthsave Canada, tells the Straight. “This can only help the planet and the creatures on it.”
Earthsave is a registered charity that advocates a move toward a more whole-foods, plant-based diet for the sake of environmental sustainability, better health, and animal welfare. On the line from her Vancouver office, Mill says she supports the idea of VB6 and that Earthsave encourages experimentation with plant-based diets through initiatives like Meatless Monday. However, some vegans believe that promoting flexibility makes people more likely to slip back into their meat-eating ways.
“It’s a step,” she says of part-time vegetarianism. “Everybody has to move at their own pace and their own level of comfort, or they will backslide.”
Mill hopes that those following VB6 will avoid industrially produced animal products. “Something magical happens when people start down the path of a plant-based diet,” she asserts. “They start asking what’s in their food. They begin being concerned with the ingredients, quality, the source, the cost to the environment, and the toll it takes on animals.”
From a health perspective, registered dietitian Lindsay Jang says the principles behind VB6 are sound. Although she notes that the benefits you’ll gain from consuming fewer animal products depend on how many you were eating in the first place, “anytime you can get more vegetables and fruits in your diet, that’s going to be a good thing.”
In a phone interview from her North Vancouver practice, she tells the Straight that the benefits of eating a plant-based diet include a lower intake of saturated fat, which contributes to high cholesterol. As a weight-loss strategy, vegan eating also makes sense. “With a vegan diet, a lot of your protein sources are high in soluble fibre,” she explains. “That helps to balance blood-sugar levels, helps to lower cholesterol, and helps to manage appetite.”
However, she notes that losing weight “still comes down to making healthy choices within a vegan diet”. There’s plenty of vegan junk food available, and even healthy items like olive oil and nuts can be calorie-dense. She worries, too, that dieters unaccustomed to eating in moderation could use the 6 p.m. switch-over as permission to overeat.
But Jang sees the logic behind Bittman’s regimen. “People like to have a plan,” she explains. “They like to have structure, and sometimes that is what helps people stay on track. If they know that they can only eat specific foods, by default they end up eliminating packaged food, processed foods, foods that are high in refined sugar.”
She notes that VB6 won’t suit everyone. “Like any other diet, what works for someone else doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for you.”
But with the accompanying health and environmental benefits, weight loss may not be the whole point.
THERE'S NO QUESTION that Bittman is an influential person. His cookbooks are go-to resources in kitchens across North America. His Minimalist cooking column ran in the New York Times for over 13 years; in April, it morphed into the Flexitarian.
As a Times columnist, he often writes on food politics; according to his Times Opinionator bio, “he has been urging Americans to change the way we eat for decades”. In 2009, he wrote Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, in which he talks about the environmental, economic, and health reasons we should be eating a more plant-based diet.
Over brunch at Granville Island, the Straight asks if his intention with VB6 was to use the mass-market appeal of a diet book to change Americans’ meat-eating behaviour. “Is it a Trojan horse, is it a way to get people to eat a plant-based diet for other reasons?” he asks. “I would say there’s a happy coincidence…what’s good for you is good for the planet.”
Bittman reiterates that he wrote VB6 because the diet worked for him and others he knows. He explains that while Food Matters focused on the political reasons to eat a plant-based diet, VB6 covers the personal, and the two can be discussed separately. “But each has an effect on the other,” he acknowledges. “If I can get people to eat a more plant-based diet by saying it’s good for your health—and I’m not lying, it is good for your health—and that causes them to eat a more plant-based diet, which also happens to be good for the environment, then how great is that?”
People who consider themselves environmentalists, he notes, should think about their animal-product intake. “For consistency, the biggest impact you can have on the environment is to eat a more plant-based diet,” he says. “If you’re driving a Prius, if you’re changing your light bulbs [to more efficient ones], you should be eating a salad.”
Still, he understands the challenges of sticking to a vegan diet in an omnivore’s world. “This situation happens all the time,” he says of the vegan-option-deficient menu. “Maybe because it’s brunch… everybody wants Belgian waffles, pancakes, and bacon. I get it. But I think it will change.”
In VB6, Bittman details strategies for eating out, such as ordering multiple side dishes like soup and salad instead of a meaty main. But the book largely focuses on cooking healthy vegan dishes for breakfasts and lunches, with 60 recipes and a 28-day eating plan. It also highlights strategies for working more plants into your diet, such as prepping big batches of beans and grains for the coming week’s meals, and packing your own vegan lunches and snacks.
AND IF YOU HAVE TO, the book gives you permission to cheat. “The idea of VB6 is not to be perfect,” Bittman explains. “It’s to be shifting the balance of your calories to plants. If you can’t do it at lunch, you do it at dinner.”
Bittman elects not to cheat today and orders a spinach and wild mushroom eggs Benedict—without the eggs or the hollandaise sauce. It comes with a leafy green salad, and he adds another side salad—quinoa minus the goat cheese.
Later, when we do a quick spin through the Public Market, he points out what he might have picked up there—prepared salads, a falafel wrap, vegan sushi, or a variety of fruits and vegetables to eat raw back at the hotel. “Two cucumbers, a bunch of snap peas, some fava beans, whatever, and I would have been totally happy with that,” he says.
Then some beautiful halibut cheeks catch his eye, and he adds, “You should buy those for dinner.”