A couple of years ago, I had the typical experience of every normal, middle-aged American guy. My doctor told me I had to lose weight and lower my cholesterol and blood sugar levels. In other words, take drugs or stop eating.
But since I eat and cook for a living, and because I wanted to avoid the drug thing, I needed a different route. As it happens, the fix is pretty straightforward, and not only does it work — when the recession arrived, I was already eating on the cheap. It's just about making the right food choices.
But before you call me a nutritionist, think about this: The nuts-and-berries stories of our ancestors — the eating-turnips-and-cabbage-all-winter stories of our great-grandparents — these aren't myths. Until recently, most people struggled to get enough calories to thrive. Meat was a feast food; sugar, a luxury; fat, a treasure. As we got smarter, we converted plant energy into high-calorie food that kept well — things like cooking oil, meat, cheese and alcohol. And by the 20th century, we were doing that so efficiently that we started to eat in a way that makes us fat and unhealthy.
We now produce a billion animals like they were widgets; animals that produce 18 percent of all greenhouse gases. And we've ended up paying more for food that's bad for us than we do for what actually sustains us.
I'm not exactly a back-to-the-earth type, but it's clear that the key to avoiding the lifestyle diseases that plague many of us — even me — is the same key to saving money on food: Go to the source. Eat more plants, fewer animals, less processed foods. That's easy to say, but tempted by delicious burgers, fries and hazelnut gelato at every turn, how do you do it?
For me, the answer turned out to be simple: I began to eat plants and only plants. Vegetables and fruits, mostly. But beans and whole grains too, all day. At night, I reverted to the indulgent omnivore and let myself eat the food I love most, but with a little restraint.
I lost 30 pounds. My cholesterol and blood sugar went back to normal, and my doctors love me. I go to the supermarket and spend half as much money for twice as much food. I have a smug smile on my face, because by an infinitesimal amount, I'm reducing the pace of global warming. And all by doing what my mother told me: I eat my vegetables.
Mark Bittman is a food columnist for The New York Times.