Mark Bittman Makes Food Matter

Mark Bittman, cookbook writer and New York Times columnist, spoke yesterday at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. Bittman was there as part of WSHU's Join the Conversation series to talk about his just-released book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More Than 75 Recipes. He began by lamenting the government's role in global food issues and then delved into the reasons that led him to practice healthy eating habits and environmental consciousness. First inspired by Livestock's Long Shadow, a United Nations' report on livestock production, Bittman started to make significant changes in his diet about two years ago. He had developed high cholesterol and high blood sugar along with sleep apnea. Bittman says that he had weighed more than he ever had before. It was time for a change.

Bittman emphasized the need for our government to address the problems stemming from the production of food. Unfortunately government has not been on the side of the people. It continues to support and subsidize Big Food. Lobbyists have more sway than the American people. A good example of this is the FDA food pyramid, a vague effort on the part of the government to appear nutritionally nonpartisan. Bittman says that as individuals we can start by incrementally changing the world: it starts at the personal level, then grows to the local, and on to the global level. Bittman provides many statistics in the book to shock and/or inspire us, telling us that 18% of the world's greenhouse gases come from the production of livestock, more than transportation; that each year 9 billion chickens, 100 million pigs, 250 million turkeys, and 36 million cows are killed for food just in the United States. The typical American diet includes 1/2 pound of meat per day plus 1-1/2 pounds of other meat products including dairy and eggs. We eat 180 to 200 pounds of meat products per year. Altogether Americans eat 3 pounds of food per day, which includes only about 1/2 pound of fruit and vegetables. "Diet" according to Bittman is a style of eating. It's up to us to define that style.

Bittman, in a way much like Michael Pollan, tells us how we can develop a new diet by reducing our caloric intake and increasing our consumption of plant-based foods. This will add much-needed nutrients and fiber to our diet. The results of this change will also contribute to reducing levels of harmful fat, lowering our risk of getting cancer and heart disease, and reducing the size of our carbon footprint. In the end we will feel better, look better, and sleep better. As a collective group we can positively impact climate change and stop cruelty toward animals. It starts by being an advocate of healthy eating: limiting the consumption of animal products, processed foods, and refined foods; increasing the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Bittman gesticulated with his hands to show that it's much like a seesaw. On one side we have all meat products and on the other fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Right now the meat side is very high for us. Ideally the plant side should be the highest, but if we get to the point where the seesaw is balanced, that is a good thing in itself. We can start by eating one less cheeseburger a week. An impact would be noticeable if everyone followed. Action and discipline are required.

When asked if he's a vegetarian, Bittman adamantly replies "I am not a vegetarian." He says that vegetarianism really should not include the eating of eggs and dairy. There is as much hormones in one egg as ten pound of meat. And dairy too, counts as much as meat: one pint of milk weighs one pound, so drinking milk is just like eating meat. Cruelty is not limited to meat production: Dairy cows along with egg-laying hens are held in terrible conditions. In reality we don't have to be vegetarians, Bittman proclaims, all we should do is eat less meat products and more plant products. Americans can start by bringing home better foods from the supermarket and shifting eating habits. Bittman uses the phrases more "incrementalism" and less "meatatarianism" to describe the process. We can incrementally, practically, and believably make changes. Even a small change is a good change. When posed the question about eating locally, Bittman says that we should buy locally and seasonally as reasonably as possible: buying produce that is as close as we can get it. But remember that California is just as far as France, he said. And organic food is not always completely organic. In many cases organic farms are actually large industrial farms that claim to be organic. If presented with the choice of buying a conventional product from a nearby farm or an organic product from afar, Bittman says he will always choose the local item.

In the end Bittman talked about how a closer connection to food sources might help make us more conscious of what we eat, i.e. to know where our food comes from. He immediately made me think of this New Yorker cartoon where a mother attempts to illustrate to her child the source of her food, see here. Bittman plainly said that keeping animals one hundred years ago was like raising family members and then killing and eating them. (Now that's food for thought.) Back then we were connected to our food; now meat from the market is disambiguated and wrapped in plastic. Years ago we ate differently, we ate to survive. Today, in an age of plenty and affluence, we eat until we're full and happy. Moreover marketing techniques from USDA-regulated food boards have helped to proliferate the desire to overeat the wrong foods. (Remember such advertisements and commercials as "Got milk?, "Beef: It's what's for dinner," and "Pork: The other white meat.") We can start by bringing our own lunch to work, gardening at home, and making informed decisions when we reach for the meat in the supermarket.

In the book, Bittman outlines the ways to change our diets, that by relying on foods with relatively few calories by volume, we can achieve better health and at the same time reduce our carbon footprint. He makes a simple calculation to help in planning our meals: Divide the calories of a food by its weight to get a number. The lower the number the more you can eat of that specific food, and the higher the number, the less you should be eating of that food. Bittman calls all this the "sane" eating. This isn't a fad diet like low-carb or low-fat diets, which don't work because eating low-carb leads to more cravings, and eating low-fat results in consuming foods filled with other junk to compensate for less fat. With a day-by-day meal plan for 4 weeks and 77 configurable recipes, Bittman's book is here to help readers start making food matter in their lives. It's a new year, so why not start by making food matter in our lives?

Mark Bittman's future appearances include:
January 14 at 7 p.m., University Bookstore, 4326 University Way N.E, Seattle.
Powell's Books at 7:30 p.m., 1005 W. Burnside, Portland, Oregon.
January 24 at 6:30 p.m., Whole Foods Market in the Bowery, New York.
Free Library of Philadelphia at 7:30 p.m., 1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia.