thoughts on the minimalist and "vegan until six"

I've been a fan of food writer Mark Bittman for a long time. These days he's getting a lot of publicity for a new book and the eating plan he's promoting, but my interest in Bittman goes way back.

Bittman writes a great column in the New York Times called "The Minimalist". He combines a few fresh ingredients to make simple, wonderful food. From The Minimalist, I learned the principles of making a good marinade, and once you do that you will never use the bottled goo again. (For convenience, we do buy two bottled brands of marinade, but both are expensive and hard to find. Most bottled marinades are mostly sugar, salt and chemicals.)

Bittman's column taught me how make fresh salad dressing, how to make delicious cold summer soups, how to roast a chicken, and a whole bunch of other useful cooking lessons. I have a slew of his columns photocopied in a binder. In fact, writing this reminds me of something I lost when I gave up my addiction to the Sunday New York Times Magazine. I think I'll pick up a copy of one of his books that's a collection of columns.

I don't want to give the impression I'm an avid and accomplished cook. I'm not. I go in and out of cooking in phases, and am just coming out of a prolonged period of not cooking at all, except marinating and grilling every day weather permits.

We always eat healthfully at home, but when I'm in a no-cook phase, dinner involves minimal effort and a lot of repetition. Now I'm getting back into it again, making soups and stews (I'm big on one-pot meals), and in general thinking of new ways to serve the organic beef, lamb and chicken that crowds my freezer. (My most recent post about that change is here, with links to older posts.)

I'm also trying something new: cooking in the morning, when I have time and energy, instead of at dinner time when I'm already tired and hungry. Added to my preference for cooking in large batches, this is a good way to cook several meals at once. I've set the modest goal of doing this every-other week, and so far it's working out pretty well.

Back to Mark Bittman. He has a new book out called Food Matters - A Guide To Conscious Eating. I haven't read it, I've only read about it. All the stories about it say the same thing, so it's safe to say they all come from the publisher's press release, and hopefully that accurately represents the book.

The expression "conscious eating" means different things to different people. For some people - like the websites here and here - it's about liberating themselves from a life of fad diets and learning simple principles of how to eat healthfully.

For other people, it's about knowing where our food comes from, and eating more locally-produced, minimally-processed food. For anyone who can afford it, this kind of conscious eating is an important step for your own health, for reducing animal cruelty, and for the health of the planet.

Mark Bittman has his own take on conscious eating. As I said, I haven't read the book. It may be chock full of great stuff that every single media outlet is omitting. But from the short version I'm seeing out there, I have some issues.

Bittman calls the basic eating plan "vegan until six".
With a colleague, Kerri Conan, Bittman devised a plan they called "vegan until six." They ate almost no animal products at all until dinnertime, no simple carbohydrates and no junk food. (Simple carbs are sugars, white flours and other processed grains like white rice.) At dinner, they ate as they had before, although in time Bittman found that even his evening meals came to include more "vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains and less meat, sugar, junk food, and overrefined carbohydrates." It was easy, and in a matter of months he'd lost 35 pounds, lowered his cholesterol and blood sugar, and had no trouble sleeping through the night. Most important, he continues to eat this way and is content to do so for the rest of his life.

I have some problems with this.

One, the "do this until dinner, then eat whatever you want" strikes me as a gimmick, similar - if not identical - to many other gimmicky diets out there. For a lot of people, restricting eating for part of the day, then hitting the off-switch, won't encourage good food choices. It will encourage over-eating, even binging.

I think a more integrated approach, eating from the same principles all day, would be healthier. Eating as few simple carbohydrates as possible and no junk food is smart eating. You can do this all the time, and if you need an occasional break from it - if you're just craving a juicy burger on a white-bread roll - then have it, and return to conscious eating.

"Vegan until six" strikes me as an all-or-nothing approach, which is just what conventional dieting is all about, and a huge reason why it doesn't work. (I realize if you're vegan, it doesn't seem extreme to you, but for an omnivore, a vegan diet will be very restrictive.) If using daytime vs. dinner eating helps you eat more healthfully, there's nothing inherently wrong with it. But if you feel deprived all day and let yourself go at the dinner table every night, you're not going to achieve good health and balance.

Two, for Bittman to have lost that much weight and straighten out his blood levels on this plan probably means that (a) he was eating far too much of the wrong foods, so drastically reducing them makes a huge difference, and (b) he may never have dieted before, or not for years, even decades. If you are a "diet virgin," and you cut out white sugar and white flours (i.e. simple carbohydrates), you are almost guaranteed to lose weight. Once. After you gain it back - which is inevitable - you'll find that the same eating plan no longer has the same effect. Conscious eating shouldn't be about weight loss. It should be about health - and the two aren't necessarily the same thing.

My third issue comes from a quote from Bittman that's making the rounds. This is from the Globe and Mail, but I've seen it several places. It's undoubtedly in the press release, and Bittman is using it for every interview.
The three things people are most neurotic about are food, sex and sleep. Very few people, every time they want to have sex, go have sex. Almost no one goes to sleep every time they get tired. But people think 'I'm hungry' and they go get food right away.

This jumped out at me right away as both wrong and unhealthy.

First of all, are people really neurotic about sleep? I know that many people don't get enough sleep, and could benefit from having more and better sleep, but does it really consume their thoughts in an unhealthy way? I don't think most people are neurotic about sex, either. I have no evidence either way, but my observations don't give me the impression that most adults have an unhealthy relationship to sex.

But most importantly, if you are hungry, you should eat. Any good nutritionist will tell you that. Your food choices are important. Crunching on some vegetables or an apple is completely different than scarfing down a box of cookies. And we have to distinguish between hunger and boredom or stress. Learning how to identify real hunger instead of I-feel-like-eating or I'm-unhappy-so-I-eat is a big part of healthy eating. That's why it's called "conscious eating". But if you are actually hungry, you should eat.

If you're hungry, and you don't eat, two things happen.

One, your blood sugar drops. This makes you hungrier. For most people, it also leads to irritability, lack of concentration, headaches, shakiness - and a general inability to make good food choices. If you wait until you're very hungry to eat, the chance of your making healthy food choices decreases.

Two, your metabolism slows down. Your body thinks it's starving. Not knowing when its next meal is coming, it tries to hold on to every last calorie, so rather than using stored energy reserves, it saves them up. That's why chronic dieters stop losing weight, no matter what they do. Restricting intake slows metabolism.

There are a gazillion websites and books about dieting and weight loss, and many of them promote fasting as a magic bullet. My perspective comes from my former life as a chronic yo-yo dieter, my work with a great nutritionist who is a nationally recognized expert in weight loss and eating disorders in the US, and my own research and writing about eating disorders, both for a major US magazine and a book.

Conscious eating is partly about listening to our own bodies. Sleep when you need to, have sex when it's right, and when you're hungry, eat.

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