Eating Better -- For Yourself and for the Planet

How a food lover can eat healthily and be environmentally responsible.
  • Transcript


Question: Can you be a food lover and a healthy eater?


Mark Bittman:  I think if you are a true food lover, you are a healthy eater.  Well, first of all, the term foodie is completely ridiculous because for someone to -- when you meet somebody and they say, "I really love to eat," I think the appropriate answer is who doesn’t?  So, I mean look around.  Who do you know who is not a food lover?  Everybody's a food lover.

The question is do you eat responsibly?  Do you eat for your own benefit?  Do you eat for your planets benefit and do you eat the best food possible?  If the answer to all of those things is yes then you're eating well.  If you're eating, if your style of eating is bad for your body, if your style of eating is bad for the planet then you are not really eating good food.  You're eating lousy food and there's plenty -- as we know, there's plenty of lousy food around.


Question: What is the most environmentally responsible way to eat?


Mark Bittman:  The principled way to eat, if you were going to say, "I want to eat entirely for my own benefit, I want to eat entirely for the benefit of the planet, I want to eat in the most responsible way possible to minimize my carbon footprint, to minimize my impact overall, to minimize my effect on animals," you would be a vegan.  That's the bottom line.


Veganism is the most principled way to eat that there is.  From the perspective of your own body, from the perspective of the planet, from the perspective of animals, very few people are going to be vegans.  Let's be real.


So what's next?  I mean, if on the one hand you have vegans and on the other hand you have people who eat whatever they feel like eating, there's a middle ground.  The problem with the way most Americans eat right now is that we are about as far from veganism as we could be.  So a vegan would get 100 percent of his or her calories from plants. 


Most Americans get 90 percent of their calories from processed food, junk food, and animal products.  So, the goal, I think, is to move in the direction of eating more unprocessed plant food than we do now and everybody's got a different starting place.  If you eat 20 cheeseburgers a week, or the equivalent, you might look at eating 15 cheeseburgers a week or the equivalent.  If you're eating 15, you might look at eating 10 and so on, and I think if people think about what's best for their body, what's best for the planet, the answer is eating unprocessed plant food and then think about how can I eat more of that stuff at the expense of meat, which was the question, but also at the expense of processed food and junk food.


Question: What are some of the main things you can do to eat healthily?


Mark Bittman: The idea is to eat as many unprocessed plants as you can. What are plants?  Plants are vegetables, fruits, legumes, which means beans, nuts and seeds; what am I leaving out?  I think that's about it.  So the idea is to eat as many unprocessed plants as you possibly can and to eat those instead of eating processed foods, junk foods, and animal products. 


Well, it works for me -- what's worked for me for just about three years now, what works for me is to eat a very, very strict diet of plants only and unprocessed plants only from the time I wake up in the morning until dinner time.  So from the time I wake up until roughly dark I eat a lot of fruit, I eat a lot of vegetables, I eat some whole grains and sometimes I have some beans and that's pretty much it.  And then at night I eat whatever I want and that’s, which includes meat, which includes wine and which includes pasta and bread and stuff like that. 


That's a huge change for me.  I think that if you think of your diet as a seesaw with the animal products, the processed or the junk food on the heavy side as it is for most people and the unprocessed plants on the light side as it is for most people, I think for me my seesaw went from looking something like this to looking something like this.  I think to the extent other people can eat that way they will have a lesser impact on the planet, improve their health, probably lose weight, feel better.

Question: Why did you decide to change the way you ate?


Mark Bittman:  Well I think I decided to change the way I ate because of some of the things we've been talking about here.  One is that I recognize that one of the highest contributors to greenhouse gases and global warming is the industrial production of livestock.  So I decided okay that was one good reason to eat less meat.  The other good reason to eat less meat is that I was in my mid-50s and my health wasn't what it used to be.  So I was overweight, I had bad knees, I had sleep apnea, had high cholesterol, I had high blood sugar or borderline high blood sugar, I think that's enough.


So I decided to change my diet and it's so obvious to everyone who pays any attention to nutrition at all that if you want to be healthier the way to do that is as I've already said is to eat fewer animal products and eat less processed and junk food.  So I started to do that and it worked.  I lost 35 pounds; gained five of them back but hey.  Sleep apnea went away, I slept better, my knees bothered me much less, in fact, they ran the New York marathon last year.  My cholesterol is back to normal and my blood sugar is back to normal.


So it all worked and it's not a coincidence.  I mean no one would say it was a coincidence.


Question: Are there any foods you avoid because of health reasons?


Mark Bittman:  Actually not.  There's some things I don’t like.  But I think that it's important to recognize that there is no sort of single, I mean, arsenic and cyanide aside, there's not really a single ingredient that's going to outright kill you.  There's actually some evidence that a single can of soda can trigger diabetes, but there's not a lot of evidence about that.  In general, one ingredient, one little kind of food, one meal, one day, even one week.  That's not what's determinant of your overall health or of your impact on the planet.  What determines is your overall diet and if it's moving in the right direction, which for most Americans is towards plants and away from animal products and processed foods, than I think hip, hip, hooray.  That's the way to go.