|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
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
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
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
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.
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