|Number of Pages
David Katz, Mark Bittman
About the author (2020)
Review of How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered by Mark Bittman and David L Katz
Reviewed by George Jacobs of HealthPartners.sg
A Good Book
Let me begin by making two points about this book – How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered by Mark Bittman and David L Katz. First, I like the book because it has concise, easy-to-understand answers to so many of the questions asked by vegans (like me), vegan curious (people considering moving toward vegan), and others who are also keen to better understand the links between food, on one hand, and health, environment, and kindness toward our fellow animals, on the other hand. As I listened to the audiobook version of How to Eat, I found myself wishing I could memorize some of their answers.
Not a 100% Vegan Book
Second, readers of this review should know that the book’s authors do not advocate that we eat 100% plant-based as the only way to go. The authors do, however, say that plant-based eating can be fine, and they do advocate what they call “plant-predominant” diets. They suggest that humans thrive on diets that are based on whole foods, minimally processed, mostly (or all) plants, and plain water.
Indeed, several other recent books support vegan at the same time they also support other options that greatly minimize animal-based foods. Examples of such books include the Blue Zones books based on the diet and lifestyles found in small parts of the world with large percentages of people who live to 100 and beyond.
Along similar lines, the books of Michael Pollan, including In Defense of Food, advocate that we eat “Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” When Pollan says “food,” he means whole food, not processed food; he means potatoes not potato chips.
In 2009, Jonathan Safron Foer wrote Eating Animals, a detailed indictment of the horrors of industrial animal agriculture. In 2019, he published We Are The Weather, which explains the great damage that the production of animal-based foods cause to the environment – https://healthpartners.sg/review-we-are-the-weather-by-jonathan-safran-foer/. Nevertheless, in that same 2019 book, Foer suggests people might want to try Vegan Before 6 diets, in which they eat vegan for breakfast and lunch but possibly eat animal foods for dinner.
The Book’s Authors
Vegan Before 6 (VB6) is based on a book of the same title by one of the two authors of How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered, the book being reviewed here: Mark Bittman. Bittman is a former New York Times food writer who has written over 30 food books, including How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
Bittman’s co-author is David L Katz, MD, a physician, president of True Health Initiative, founding director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, past-president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, and founder/CEO of Diet ID, Inc. His views on controlling Covid-19 have been published in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/opinion/coronavirus-pandemic-social-distancing.html
One of Bittman and Katz’s goals seems to be to encourage us to stress less about what we eat. The authors state the only humans and the nonhuman animals whom we feed are confused about what to eat. The book recommends a combination of science and common sense. It makes reference to research, but at the same time, the authors appreciate that there is still much that the scientists do not know. Thus, they are not shy about admitting there are some questions they cannot yet answer. Furthermore, doubt is reasonable. The authors quote the philosopher Bertrand Russell, “The whole thing wrong with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so sure and wiser people so full of doubts.”
Vegan Is Good; Big Food Is Bad
The book has much good to say about properly planned whole food vegan diets, in particular, the benefits of 100% plant-based eating for the environment and for our fellow animals. “Incalculable” is the word the authors use to describe the harm suffered by the animals whom are used for food. Furthermore, the book rebuts claims about the alleged health inadequacies of vegan diets.
While the authors praise vegans, they come down hard on food companies, whom they accuse of producing food not for people but for profits. Thanks to chemicals, such as fertilizers and herbicides, Big Food grows huge quantities, but huge quantities of what? They are not growing food; they are growing commodities for sale. It’s no wonder people suffer from obesity, diabetes, and more, because what they are being sold is “actually closer to the dictionary definition of poison than the dictionary definition of food.”
The big food companies take advantage of our cravings. We crave salt from our origins in the sea. Our craving for sweet is due in part to mother’s milk being sweet. Fats we crave because fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient. Big Food uses these cravings, combined with lots of artificial ingredients thanks to advances in food science and the billions they spend on advertising to make eating bad food something that is tasty, fun, quick, convenient, effortless, and culturally normative.
As you can see, the authors might mince veggies but they don’t mince words about veggies and other foods: “our culture gives us junk food, gives us junk food for thought about junk food and then invites us to blame ourselves for not being as healthy and thin as we’re all supposed to be. The goal of the food industry is to get us to eat badly.”
Instead of blaming overweight people for not taking individual responsibility, perhaps we should talk about our collective responsibility to make healthy food an easier option. Bittman and Katz maintain that we can change our taste buds, especially with some help from the larger society. Once we escape the clutches of Big Food, we can adjust our taste buds for a lifetime of great eating.
Instead of What?
When addressing questions about what to eat, How to Eat often reminds us to ask “Instead of what?” For instance, is a high-tech plant-based burger, such as a Beyond Burger, good to eat? The authors will answer, “If you are eating a Beyond Burger instead of a Big Mac, yes it’s good, but if the Beyond Burger is instead of a whole food, plant-based meal made by a friend or family member, maybe the Beyond Burger isn’t the best choice.”
A recurrent theme in How To Eat is to avoid short-term fad diets and instead find eating and lifestyle patterns that can last us for a lifetime. Therefore, what is called the Mediterranean Diet, and is recommended by the authors as a good option, is actually a lifelong, culture-embedded eating pattern. The Mediterranean eating pattern is not a “diet – die it” but a “live it,” a lifestyle, for example, also including exercise and social support.
Relax and Eat Beans
If you are looking for universally true answers, you will not find many in How to Eat. Instead, the authors stress flexibility. For example, what is the most important meal of the day? is it good to snack? what about fasting? and Should we avoid gluten? In each case, it depends, and the book explains the factors you need to know about to make the right choice at this time for you and your loved ones.
On the question of which one food contributes the most to human health, planetary health, and the health of our fellow animals, How to Eat does have a resoundingly clear answer: beans. Yet, even here flexibility is the watchword. If for some reason you don’t want to eat beans, you can still be healthy and still help the planet and the other animals. So, relax, please. Just remember to love food that loves you back, which is WFPB. And, if you want to take supplements, they should supplement an already good diet, not substitute for a good diet.
In addition to reading or listening to How to Eat, you can read a newspaper interview with Mark and David at https://www.grubstreet.com/2018/03/ultimate-conversation-on-healthy-eating-and-nutrition.html. And, you can listen to an interview with the authors and read the interview transcript at https://lifehacker.com/how-to-eat-with-mark-bittman-and-dr-david-l-katz-1842132996