Bittman encourages others to eat healthy
By Rita Papazian
Posted: 01/16/2009

As the snow-encrusted landscape that blanketed the area Sunday morning gave way beneath the warming sunny skies, food guru Mark Bittman urged an audience of more than 400 people to rethink their eating habits and, like the frozen snow, break away from the hold that animal products, refined carbohydrates and junk foods have had on them.

In an informative, entertaining and at times eye-opening talk, Bittman, who writes the "The Minimalist" column for The New York Times each week, espoused the message presented in his latest book, "Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating." He said "eating fewer animals and less junk food and super-refined carbohydrates" can improve people's health as well as the planet's, as well as change livestock production and lower the cost of a household's food budget.

Author of How to Cook Everything," Bittman's talk was part of WSHU's live lecture series "Join the Conversation," which puts noted speakers together with public radio listeners for engaging, thought-provoking discussions.

Bittman did not disappoint. He had his audience from his first statistic culled from a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Called Livestock's Long Shadow, the report noted that "global  livestock production is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gases. When Bittman read this statistic two years ago, he became concerned about animal production, the way animals are raised, the quality of meat and the impact on people's diets. He concluded that simple diet changes could not only improve health but "help stop global warming."

At the same time, Bittman, 59, had noticed the impact his own eating habits had had on his health. He had gained weight 50-plus pounds since college; had sleep apnea and high cholesterol, and his knees were giving out.

In his book, he writes, "I could see the writing on the wall: Industrial meat production had gone beyond distasteful and alienating right through to disgusting and dangerous; traditional, natural ingredients were becoming more and more rare; and respectable scientific studies were all pointing in the same general directions."

Bittman's message is to eat more vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. He advises that people can do this without "suffering or giving up all the foods you love."

He told his audience that recently when he talked to Matt Lauer on the "Today" show about how simple changes in eating habits can improve the health of humans and the planet, Lauer said, '"This is too good to be true,'" Bittman said. "Yes, it is too good to be true, but it's true."

Bittman said individuals eat 3 pounds of food a day. Of this, 2 pounds are animal products, a half pound is junk food and the remaining is fruit and vegetables. He wants people to change the equation and suggests visualizing a seesaw. On one side is a pile of animal products and junk foods and the other is the fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. The goal is to bring balance to one's eating habits.

"You don't have to eat only fruit and vegetables to be better; only more fruit and vegetables to be better. You can eat meat, cheese, processed food; just eat less. Increase in increments." In order to change eating habits, he suggests people begin as slowly as once a week substitute a bowl of oatmeal for bacon and eggs.

"Figure out a way to bring better stuff home and cook it simply. Shift the balance of food," said Bittman, who told audience members that he did not want to tell them how to change their eating habits, but just do something to wean away from the amount of animal products and junk food they were consuming.

He follows the healthy eating path until "the sun goes down." In his book, he writes that he started eating a diet that was nearly "vegan until six." Until dinnertime, he ate almost no animal products at all. "At dinner I always had, sometimes a sizable meal including animal products, bread, dessert, wine, you name it, and sometimes a salad and a bowl of soup whatever I wanted."

Two years into his new way of eating, Bittman has lost 35 pounds; the high cholesterol has gone down and his apnea disappeared. He admits he now has "this self-righteous smug about me."

Throughout his book and in his talk, Bittman emphasizes that he is not advocating a new diet, but "a change in focus, away from the 20th-century style of gorging and back to something saner, more traditional, and less manufactured."

Bittman, who is host and star of three public television series and a regular guest on the "Today" show, is not a vegan; he does eat meat, only less of it than in the past.

"Food Matters" offers tips on sane shopping, pantry stocking and restaurant menu navigation. He lays out a month's worth of meal plans and supplies more than 75 recipes. He offers basic advice in steaming vegetables to cooking beans, tomato sauce and soups.

His books offer the simple approach to getting back to home cooking. This is the message that continues to resonate with Bittman followers. One of his fans is Isabel Senes, 34, of West Haven. A journalist and mother of two boys, 7 months and 3 years old, Senes asked Bittman how a young mother can balance his advice with making sure young children are getting the proper nutrients. He suggested that parents feed their children the same food they are eating. Citing his own past experience as a young father raising two children, who would balk at what their parents were eating, he suggested to Senes that instead of reaching for the yogurt as a substitute, that she select other healthy foods, such as rice and beans or carrot sticks.

Senes, who attended the talk with her husband, Chris Treat, as fifth-grade teacher in Trumbull, said they are introducing their children to good foods with their weekly trips to the winter farmers' market in New Haven. Senes, who grew up in an immigrant household with her Polish mother and her Spanish father, is familiar with the importance of good, simple, home-cooked meals. "We had a different food experience. We didn't have processed food." She wants her son to know that "food doesn't come from a package."

Fairfielder Carrie Makeover agrees that Bittman offers a "really sensible approach" to cooking. She praised Bittman for offering information that not only reduces a person's weight but the food budget as well. She said she serves a lot of soups and salads. "You look in the fridge. You don't say, 'What do I want to eat?' but, 'What needs to be eaten?' If you have that mindset, you can do anything with soup."

Rabbi Daniel Satlow of Congregation Beth El and his wife, Sara, attended Bittman's talk with their 1-year old son Henry. Satlow said he and his wife are "concerned with the ethical and conscious eating."

"He's very much a pragmatist, not an idealist," Sara said of Bittman, who emphasized to his audience that his book "is not about ignoring the troubles of the world when getting back to the kitchen; it's about the troubles of the world and getting back to the cooking."