Earlier this week I had a chance to interview Mark Bittman, author of the new Food Matters Cookbook. Mark is the author or a number of successful cook books including “How to Cook Everything” and “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”.
Given that I’ve made a personal journey towards eating healthier foods over the past 8 years or so, I wanted to talk to Mark about his new book and get his thoughts on marrying the love of good food with the desire to live a long, healthy life. He turned out to be a very funny and enjoyable person to talk to. I hope you enjoy it!
JOHN: Thanks for your time Mark. I began a personal journey towards eating about 8 years ago when I read Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Eat to Live. It was a great book on nutrition, but didn’t give many clues about how to make nutritious food taste good. Is your new book Food Matters and attempt to fill this gap?
MARK: I think Fuhrman cares mostly about the nature of food rather than about how good it tastes. I hear he eats raw broccoli straight out of the freezer. If it’s green he eats it. He doesn’t care what it tastes like. He’s not just mostly vegan, but mostly greens. He thinks that beans and grains have too much caloric density for their nutritional density. I mean he’s a guy who eats a head of romaine every day. That’s a lot of romaine.
That said, I think we both agree that there is a lot to learn from him.
JOHN: Why did you choose to write Food matters?
MARK: There are two parts to that answer. Over a period of 20 years, it became clear to me that the food system was broken and the quality of all food was declining, but that the quality of meat was declining fastest. Also, about 6 years ago it became clear that the human race needed to eat more of a Chinese, Colin Campbell* style diet, not a western diet. The key to that was going to be less meatarianism and more of a plant based diet. As a result of that I wrote how to cook everything vegetarian, I read Fuhrman and a UN report about the relationship between industrial livestock production and global warming. Then my doctor told me when I turned 57 that I had some of the typical middle-aged things going on – overweight, high cholesterol, etc. – and that becoming vegan would fix it all. I told him I couldn’t become completely vegan and that‘s when I began doing my vegan before 6 thing.
The original Food Matters was a summary of all that, and while I think that vegan before six works for me, I don’t push it as a solution for everyone. I do, though, believe that there is almost no one in this country who wouldn’t benefit from eating more plant based foods and less of everything else, and that is direction I’ve gone in. And Food Matters cookbook, which is my latest book, is a practical guide towards how to do that.
JOHN: Did you have a book called Vegan Before Six or is that just a title you give to only eating meat at dinner?
MARK: It’s just a phrase. The two books are Food Matters and the Food Matters Cookbook. Food Matters is more of a manifesto with 75 recipes. Food Matters Cookbook has 500 recipes and is more of a how to book. Let’s remember that we all eat vegan food all the time: Green salad is vegan, spaghetti with tomato sauce is vegan, fruit salad is vegan. We just need to expand those choices, and to make them more often, to eat more plants and less meat every day. During the day I try to stay the strictest vegan possible…no processed foods of any kind, no white bread, white rice, white pasta. Mostly unprocessed vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. There are days when I’m less strict, and days when I’m vegetarian or vegan for dinner too. It’s not always just before six.
There’s another thing I’d like to address too. There’s such a thing as social meat eating just like social drinking. There are times when you are cooking or eating alone and you can do exactly what you think makes sense. Then when you are with other people it kind of breaks down very quickly, or it can anyway; meat-eating is social, as is over-eaitng. Certainly it takes more discipline.
JOHN: Do you have a family Mark?
I have a wife but my kids are grown.
JOHN: I ask because I have 4 kids between 3 and 12 years old, and my wife cooks most frequently during the week and has to cook food that will appeal to our entire family. When I first read Eat to Live, I tried to be pretty strict. But my kids wouldn’t eat a lot of it. Some changes have been kept. We eat mostly brown rice (we mix it 60/40 with white rice). We eat a lot more vegetables and legumes (beans and lentils). We also eat healthier pasta (whole wheat or Barilla plus). But we’re back to eating quite a bit of fish, chicken and beef at dinner time.
MARK: Well I’m not going to give you advice about your family. But you can probably get away with a vegan pasta once or twice a week and a vegan stir fry once or twice a week, but I’m not sure if you can get away with it seven times a week!
JOHN: Right. Sometimes we’ll change the ingredients for the kids or for me…substituting tofu for me vs. chicken for the kids for example. Back to the book. How did you come up with the 500 recipes in the book. What’s your methodology for collectcing them? Have you tasted most or all of them?
MARK They have a variety of origins, but most of them are recreated classics in a less meatarian style, and I’ve tested all of them. I’m excited about them and think they are really great.
JOHN: In the book do you make a point of recommending organic vs. regular fruits and vegetables?
MARK: I think the right answer is that if you can afford to buy organic, then do. But if not, it’s much better to eat lots of regular fruits and vegetables than to eat mainly meat.
JOHN: Does that apply to organic meats as well.
MARK: You know, here’s the thing about meat. If you want to eat grass fed meat, that’s OK. But we kill 10 billion animals a year in the United States. You are not going to do that sustainably no matter how hard you try. If you want to eat better meat, that’s great if you can afford to of course. But you still have to eat less. It’s got to be less.
JOHN: What’s your thought about red meat vs. pork, vs. chicken vs. fish
Fish is a complicated issue , but the ranking is that chicken is better than pork, which is better than beef. This is true from a sustainability conversion ratio, and also for the health aspects. But I would say that you should not start eating chicken seven times a week, though chicken is probably better than beef. For health reasons I don’t trusty any of them: They are all raised industrially and I think that’s pretty bad. I would say for personal health reasons just eat less of all of them and don’t worry too much about which one you eat. What I mean is, don’t eat chicken thinking that it’s health food. Eat small amounts of whatever tastes best to you.
JOHN: What’s your take on tofu and other vegetable based meat substitutes?
I don’t consider tofu a meat substitute; it’s a real food. What I consider a meat substitute is when you take tofu and process the heck out of it and turn it into something you call tofurky or tofu pups . And I’m not anti that brand…but all the fake sausage and chicken. To me that’s all utter junk. My crusade is not anti-meat, it’s less meat, but it is anti-processed food. As my friend Marian Nestle says “Organic junk food is still junk food.” You have to look at things individually. Just because something is vegan or organic doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
JOHN: What’s your opinion on eating raw vegetables vs. cooked vegetables? I often blanch my spinach a bit. It tastes better to me and I can eat a lot more of it that way.
MARK: I think it’s whatever makes you happy. Some vegetables release nutrients when cooked and others retain them better when raw. In order to make this whole thing as simple as possible so people can get it without a whole lot of trouble, I say just eat plants. There are people who say white potatoes are bad. I say just eat plants. Don’t start trying to distinguish between them. Just eat more plants. This is where I start to part with Fuhrman. Don’t say this plant is better than that plant, because you just confuse the issue and make it harder for people.
JOHN: Are there any tips for making this easy that you would recommend?
MARK: I eat some whole wheat pasta, sure. Canned beans are also a convenience, but I personally don’t find it that hard to cook beans. But mostly I would say find a couple of meals a week where you can start to substitute a non-meat, non-processed food meal for a meal in which you would eat meat or processed foods. The core message is not about buying some specific food, but getting vegetables and whole grains into your diet on a regular basis at the expense of processed junk and animal products.
For more information on the Food Matters Cookbook and Mark’s other books, please click here: http://content.markbittman.com/books
*Colin Cambell wrote the China Study, a great book comparing the health impact of different diets in China.