Mark Bittman: Eating Right Can Save The Planet

Mark Bittman i i

hide captionMark Bittman is a food columnist for The New York Times and an advocate for '"conscious eating."

Evan Sung/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Mark Bittman

In his new book, Food Matters: A Guide To Conscious Eating, Bittman offers diet changes that he believes can help both the planet and the reader's health.

Evan Sung/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

What's Wrong With The American Diet?

"Much about the typical American diet is wrong," writes Bittman in Food Matters. "It's damaging both individually and globally, and we can't expect Big Food or the government to help us fix it." (Read the entire excerpt here.)

If you're one of those people hoping to change the world in 2009, writer Mark Bittman says you can start by changing what you eat.

In his new book, Food Matters, The New York Times food columnist writes about the environmental impact of industrial farming — and how individuals can make a difference by cutting down on the amount of animal products they consume.

"All industrial farming — from fish farming to chicken farming to egg and dairy farming — has an environmental impact," he tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep.

Bittman's recommendation? Eat more fruits and vegetables and skip a few helpings of meat.

"There's nothing wrong with eating smaller amounts of meat," he says. "It's quite common sense that you can eliminate animal products from some of your diet."

Bittman says that Americans raise and slaughter 10 billion animals each year for consumption. If we all decreased consumption of animal products by 10 percent, he says, it "would have both an environmental impact and an impact on all of our mutual health."

As for Bittman's personal diet, it used to be that he'd eat bacon and eggs for breakfast and a hamburger for lunch. But a few years ago, he changed his ways. Now, a typical day's fare might include a bowl of oatmeal (see Bittman's recipe for porridge) with maple syrup for breakfast, fruits and vegetables for lunch, then a more "old-style" type meal — which might include meat — for dinner.

After just a few months of the new diet, Bittman says, he noticed improvements to his health: "I lost 35 pounds — which is about 15 percent of my body weight — my cholesterol went down 40 points; my blood sugar went from borderline bad to just fine; [and] my knees, which were starting to give out as a result of running at too high a weight, got better."

All of those things — and, he says, he's shrinking his carbon footprint.

"Feeling like you're changing the world," he says. "That's a nice thing, too."


Recipes From Mark Bittman's Food Matters:

Chocolate Semolina Pudding With Raspberry Puree

Somewhere between a cake and pudding, this lovely dessert is served warm, with a simple raspberry puree that balances its richness. Other fruits that work well here include stone fruits, but (except for cherries) they have to be peeled first. Figure on about a pound of fruit for just over a cup of puree.

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, plus butter for the pan
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/3 cup (2 ounces) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup whole-milk yogurt
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup semolina
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound fresh raspberries
Sugar (optional)
Freshly squeezed lemon juice (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease an 8- or 9-inch square baking pan. Put the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. When the foam subsides, add cocoa powder and semisweet or bittersweet chocolate and stir until smooth. Remove from the heat.

2. Beat the yogurt and sugar together in a large bowl. Add the butter and chocolate, the semolina, the baking soda and the vanilla; beat until thoroughly blended. Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Bake until the pudding is lightly browned, about 30 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, puree the raspberries in a blender or food processor. Depending on how flavorful they are, you may want to add a tablespoon of sugar or a squeeze of lemon juice to the mixture, but taste first to see if either is necessary. Then strain the puree, stirring and pressing the mixture through a sieve with a rubber spatula to leave any seeds behind; be sure to get all the puree from the underside of the strainer.

4. When the pudding is done, let it rest for a few minutes, then cut it into squares or rectangles and serve warm, on some of the puree, with a few whole berries on top.

Breakfast Bread Pudding

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

Time: About 1.5 hours, largely unattended

Not your usual bread pudding; this has less custard and more bread, fruit and nuts. For variety, use pears, peaches, cherries or blueberries instead of the apples.

Butter or grape seed oil or other oil for greasing the pan
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/4 cup honey, or to taste
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch salt
4 medium to large apples, cored, peeled (or not) and cut into chunks or slices
1/2 cup raisins (optional)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or hazelnuts (optional)
8 slices whole or multigrain bread (preferably stale), cut in 1-inch cubes (about 3 cups)

1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 1 1/2-quart or 8-inch square baking dish. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Whisk in the milk, honey, cinnamon and salt. Stir in the apples, raisins and nuts. Then fold in the bread cubes, using your hands or a rubber spatula to make sure everything is evenly coated. Let the mixture sit for about 15 minutes or until all of the liquid has been absorbed; give another good stir. (You can prepare the pudding ahead to this point; cover and refrigerate for up to 12 hours.)

2. Transfer the mixture to the prepared dish and smooth out the top. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until golden and only a little wobbly in the center. Let sit for a few minutes before cutting.

Porridge, Updated

Porridge is an ancient and international breakfast staple, for good reason: It's cheap, easy and nutritious. Oatmeal and cornmeal mush are the American classics, but you need not stop there: Use any ground, cut or rolled grain. Steer clear, though, of fast-cooking or instant oats, which are tasteless. For extra flavor or texture, stir in fresh or dried fruit, nuts and seeds, vanilla, or ground spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves or cardamom; add sweetness with a little honey or syrup or richness with a small pat of butter or a spoonful of milk or cream.

To go savory, try topping the porridge with a spoonful of chunky salsa, grated cheese, chopped hard-boiled egg (or, for a special treat, poached or fried egg), a drizzle of soy sauce and a few sliced scallions, or simply coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. Or fold in leftover chopped vegetables (mushrooms are nice) or raw tender greens (like spinach) and let them wilt a bit.

Cooking times will vary depending on the grain you use, but even if you're cooking for yourself you may as well make a full batch, since this keeps for days in the fridge and reheats perfectly in the microwave. (This means you can make porridge at night or any other time that's convenient for you.)

Pinch of salt
2 cups grain, like rolled oats (or other rolled grain), cornmeal (or grits), cracked wheat, quinoa, millet or short-grain brown rice
Butter, to taste (optional)
Salt, sweetener (like maple syrup, sugar or honey), and/or milk or cream, as desired

1. Combine 4 to 4 1/2 cups water (more water will produce creamier porridge), the salt, and the grain or grains in a medium saucepan and turn the heat to high. When the water boils, turn the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until the water is just absorbed: about 5 minutes for rolled oats, 15 minutes for cornmeal or cracked wheat, 30 minutes for quinoa or millet, or up to 45 minutes or more for brown rice. Add water as needed to keep the porridge from sticking.

2. When the grains are very soft and the mixture is thickened, serve or cover the pan and turn off the heat; you can let sit for up to 15 minutes. Uncover, stir, add other ingredients as desired and serve.

Excerpt: 'Food Matters: A Guide To Conscious Eating'

Food Matters
Patti Ratchford/Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating
By Mark Bittman
Hardcover, 336 pages
Simon & Schuster
List price: $25

Sane Eating

In sum: Much about the typical American diet is wrong. It's damaging both individually and globally, and we can't expect Big Food or the government to help us fix it.

But the realization of just how straightforwardly and even easily we can make things right—at least a great deal for ourselves, and to some extent for one another—was the driving force behind my decision to change the way I ate. The more I understood about the relationship between human and environmental health, the more I felt a need to act. (As I said in the Introduction, a key moment for me was the publication of Livestock's Long Shadow, the UN report revealing the link between raising animals and climate change.)

Equally important, though, since I was unwilling to give up one of life's basic pleasures, was that I saw a way to introduce a much better diet into my own life without much sacrifice.

At first, I simply eliminated as much junk food and overrefined carbs as I could, along with a sizable percentage of animal products. All this turned out to be easy enough, for a couple of reasons. One, when I did allow myself to eat meat, or dairy, eggs, sugar, or bread made from white flour (usually at dinner), I ate whatever I wanted, and as much of it as I wanted. And two, I started to lose weight, quite quickly—a big boost of positive reinforcement.

I wondered: If the cumulative effect of the American diet could have such a negative impact on our bodies and the planet, then couldn't individuals help reverse the damage—again cumulatively—by making small changes in what they choose to eat?

Clearly, the diet was helping me; I lost weight and saw my cholesterol and blood sugar improve dramatically. But my impact on the industrial meat and junk-food complex—what I've been calling Big Food—and on slowing climate change was obviously insignificant. Suppose, though, I could get others on this bandwagon? This way of eating is far from complicated, has few rules, makes sense, and works. It can have its own reward in better health and often weight loss, but it also is a way to save energy in the same way as carpooling, turning off the lights when you're not in the room, lowering the thermostat during the winter and wearing a sweater in the house, installing a windmill, whatever other parallel you care to draw.

So. Welcome to Food Matters: a not very new (but for most Americans novel) way of eating that's personally healthy and globally sane but not deprivation-based, faddist, or elitist. No calorie counting, and no strictly forbidden foods: Just a few quite specific recommendations that you can adapt to your own style.

Sane eating, simplified

Here's the summary: Eat less meat, and fewer animal products in general (I'll get to specifics on page 93). Eat fewer refined carbohydrates, like white bread, cookies, white rice, and pretzels. Eat way less junk food: soda, chips, snack food, candy, and so on. And eat far more vegetables, legumes, fruits, and whole grains—as much as you can.

If you followed those general rules and read no farther, you'd be doing yourself and the earth a favor. And I'm by no means the only one who thinks so.

Shortly after I started eating this way, an article appeared in Lancet, the highly respected British medical journal, that supports the general position of Food Matters, even in its specifics: 'Particular policy attention should be paid to the health risks posed by the rapid worldwide growth in meat consumption, both by exacerbating climate change and by directly contributing to certain diseases.'

As a measure of progress, the authors propose this: 'The current global average meat consumption is 100 g per person per day, with about a ten-fold variation between high-consuming and low-consuming populations. 90 g per day is proposed as a working global target, shared more evenly, with not more than 50 g per day coming from red meat.'

Ninety grams a day is about 3 ounces (50 grams is not even 2 ounces; it's less than an eighth of a pound); Americans' per capita consumption, as I've noted earlier, is more than 8 ounces per day. You might eat more than that; you might eat less. But for most Americans, cutting down to the international average would be a huge step (cutting 10 percent beyond that would be practically insignificant). In fact, it we ate the world average, 3 ounces a day, that average would fall to about 90 grams a day, or just about what Lancet recommends.

The goal of eating sanely is not to cut calories; that will happen naturally, and you probably won't notice it. The goal is not to cut fat, either; in fact it is possible that you eat more fat than you do now, although different fat. The same is true of carbohydrates—again, you may wind up eating more, but different kinds. And the goal is not to save money, though you will. No—the goal is simply to eat less of certain foods, specifically animal products, refined carbs, and junk food; and more of others, specifically plants, in close to their natural state.

If you made those your goals, you'd change your life. You'd probably weigh less, you'd have lowered your chance of heart disease and other lifestyle diseases, and you'd make a contribution to slowing global warming.

For a variety of reasons—it's not temporary, no foods are strictly forbidden, and there's no calorie counting—this is not what's popularly called "a diet," as in "I'm on a diet." Rather, it's a shift in perspective or style, an approach.

In any case, the principles are simple: deny nothing; enjoy everything, but eat plants first and most. There's no gimmick, no dogma, no guilt, and no food police.

I want to stress, too, that this is not a new way to eat, but one that's quite old-fashioned; you could even say it's ancient. Among our ancestors, there were few people who did not struggle to get enough calories; it was only in the late twentieth century that people could and did begin to overeat regularly. Until then, most people considered themselves lucky to eat one good meal every day; many people spent half the year eating poorly, and the other half eating decently, though certainly not lavishly, except on certain feast days and holidays. Think of Lent and Mardi Gras, meatless Fridays and Sunday dinners, festivals in autumn and spring, and more. These were all formalized acknowledgments that food was and is something to be celebrated and enjoyed, but overdone only occasionally. Food Matters is no more than a way to look at this from a contemporary perspective.

Books Featured In This Story

Food Matters
Food Matters

A Guide to Conscious Eating With More Than 75 Recipes

by Mark Bittman

Hardcover, 326 pages | purchase

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  • A Guide to Conscious Eating With More Than 75 Recipes
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