I've been writing about veganism in both books and blogs for over a decade, and the experience has certainly proven to me what most readers probably also know by now: If you want to stay sane, don't read the comments. This has been especially true for me because I'm a fan of "leaning in" to change. So when I write about moving away from meat consumption, the pro-meat side is upset by any change at all, and the anti-meat side thinks that incremental change is not good enough. Fortunately, as we all know, the comments tend to reflect only the views at the extreme.
Enter the concept of the "part-time vegan," as brilliantly articulated in Mark Bittman's new book, Vegan Before Six (VB6). The book is likely to infuriate the meat industry (it encourages people to slash their meat intake!?!) and more than a few ethical vegans (it only encourages people to slash their meat intake!?!), but I suspect that for many Americans, it will represent a perfect happy medium.
Two caveats: First, VB6 is not just a diet book -- it's a manual for a lifestyle change; you don't need a book to follow the simple concept of eating vegan before 6:00 (and Bittman has already converted many people to this way of eating). Second, VB6 is not a cookbook, though it is packed with amazing recipes and a complete (and delectable) 28-day plan for getting started.
What VB6 really is, it seems to me, is the beginning of a conversation about what matters to readers and what we can do to live in better alignment with our values. And then Bittman adds to that the benefits that we get when we make the change, as well as how to do it.
Most Americans care about the environment, and yet, as Bittman rightly notes, "of all the changes you can make to your diet, eating fewer animal products has the most dramatic impact on the health of the planet" because eating meat is a top cause of global warming, depletes "land, water, energy, [and] mineral resources," requires 80 percent of all antibiotics produced in the U.S., and more. To live more environmentally, he argues, we should be cutting back on our meat intake.
Similarly, almost all Americans care about animal welfare: 97 percent of us, according to Gallup. And yet as Bittman notes, "Animals grown in factory farms live in horrific conditions ... They're drugged, mutilated, and denied the opportunity to fulfill every natural instinct." So eating less meat (and boycotting factory-farmed meat entirely) also allows us to live out our universally shared opposition to factory farms, which treat animals "as if they were widgets, with little to no care for their welfare."
Bittman is most convincing, though, when he's talking about the health benefits of his diet, and when he walks us through a step-by-step "how to" for implementing the VB6 program in our lives.
He should be convincing on the health front: Until he starting eating vegan before six, he was overweight, pre-diabetic, suffered from sleep apnea, and sported a cholesterol level that clocked in over 240; basically, he was a heart attack waiting to happen. Within four months of adopting the VB6 eating-pattern, he lost more than 35 pounds and was sleeping through the night for the first time in 30 years. Perhaps most critically, the diet brought his cholesterol down to below 180 -- 60 points in four months, without drugs!
Six years, later, he's maintained the weight loss, the sleeping habits, and the healthy cholesterol level.
Bittman was not alone, of course: He reminds us that two-thirds of Americans are overweight and that more than one-third are obese. Obesity rates for adults have doubled since 1980 and (frighteningly) have almost tripled for children.
Why? This will be controversial, because some people continue to promote the myth that our national fat consumption has fallen -- in fact, VB6 shows statistics that since 1980, fat consumption has skyrocketed by one-third, from 57 to 79 pounds per year. And the vast majority of that added fat comes to us from animal foods. Conservative figures for the cost to our economy from the obesity epidemic: $150 billion annually.
In addition to the "why to," Bittman also convincingly explains both how nutrition works and why the VB6 diet will work for you (in part because it's not based in deprivation or impossible eating patterns). He also offers a step-by-step plan, complete with fantastic recipes (I mean FANTASTIC RECIPES -- this is Mark Bittman, after all), for four full weeks of the VB6 program.
Like many vegans, I would love to see the world stop eating animal products full stop; I'm convinced that a vegan diet is the best diet for our environment, our health, and animals. So it disconcerts me a bit to be so enthusiastic about a book that suggests eating whatever you want after 6 p.m. If vegan is better for animals and the environment before 6, surely it's also better after 6.
But as I ponder my feelings on this, I come to two conclusions: First, many people are simply not going to consider a completely vegan diet, but they will consider changing the way they eat so that they're eating much less meat. VB6 is a great way for them to move in that direction -- with significant positive consequences for our environment, animals, and our health.
Second, as people eat less meat before 6, they come to want less meat after 6 too; it's a process wherein meat is not consumed for most of the day, and after 6, it moves from the center of the plate to the side of the plate. I don't know for sure, but I would bet that a lot of people will start with VB6 and end up completely vegan.
Regardless, VB6 is a massive step in the right direction, with huge positive ramifications as more and more Americans eat this way. Truly, Bittman is offering a way of eating that could be transformational: Readers will lose weight (if they have weight to lose), have more energy, and suffer much lower risk for diabetes and heart disease. And animals and the earth will be better off.
For more by Kathy Freston, click here.
For more on diet and nutrition, click here.
Follow Kathy Freston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kathyfreston