Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Mark Bittman’s VB6 (2013)

In my family, you didn’t have to buy diet books.

It wasn’t that we weren’t shopping at Stuckey’s and Coyle’s: we did so, in bulk.

But someone else in the family was guaranteed to have bought whatever new diet book was making waves, so you could borrow their dogeared paperback.

So, I’ve read a lot of them, but I’ve never recommended one. Until now.

Clarkson Potter - Random House, 2013

Clarkson Potter – Random House, 2013

Then again, Mark Bittman’s book is only a ‘diet’ book in terms of the classic definition of the word.

This is not a temporary restrictive regimen adopted for weight loss. “There is no full-time sacrifice and there’s plenty of enjoyment.”

It hearkens to the Latin diaita, which roughly translates to ‘manner of living’.

There are three basic ideas in this “diet with a philosophy”, VB6, Vegan Before 6:00 pm: eat more plant foods, eat fewer animal products and highly processed foods, and all but eliminate junk foods.

(“I say ‘all but eliminate’ because everyone needs to break the rules occasionally.”)

That right there, that parenthetical comment he makes, reveals the element of Mark Bittman’s approach that I most appreciate.

He manages to discuss the success he has had with this new approach to the food he eats without setting himself apart.

He instructs and encourages without preaching or dictating. (Oh, how I hated the finger-wagging and holier-than-thou tone of those conventional diet books!)

“I live full-time in the world of omnivores, and I’ve never wanted to leave. But the Standard American Diet (yes, it’s SAD) got to me as it gets to almost everyone in this country.”

Having developed the pre-diabetic, pre-heart-disease symptoms typical of a middle-aged man who’d spent his life eating without discipline, Mark Bittman was given the choice to change his approach to food or begin taking permanent medications.

For a professional food critic and, well, professional eater, this was a hard decision, and it required a new approach because he knew that a conventional diet would not work.

The first chapter describes his personal experience, which is shared in a matter-of-fact manner, in the context of the SAD, with some discussion of related issues like convenience.

Before he discusses VB6 in detail, the second chapter discusses some basic biology and concepts like how fat is metabolized. This information demonstrates why many of the popular diets are designed to achieve only short-term results.

Extremely sophisticated systems are defined succinctly and the chapter is divided into smaller segments, so that readers can take in the information at a rate which suits.

“In short,VB6 does not mean eating less (in fact, your volume of food may increase) but rather shifting the balance of foods you eat,” he writes.

And who would not rather talk about shifting balance between foods than the elimination of foods one loves to eat?

The next chapter discusses the six concrete principles behind VB6, three of which are mentioned above, the remaining three as follows: Cook at home as much as possible, Consider quality over quantity, and See your weight as just one component of good health.

This approach hinges on the idea of a shift in one’s ‘manner of living’. Whereas conventional diets operate as as an imposition, the VB6 philosophy seeks to direct change from the root. For instance, rather than advising the purchase of specific diet foods, he advocates making lasting changes to the way you shop and how you stock your kitchen, to the way that you prepare and enjoy meals in your home.

Each of these principles is discussed in detail, with text-boxes for related suggestions, and the chapter ends with advice for readers to tweak the system so that it’s successful for each individual on their own terms.

(There are a lot of studies referred to in the body of the text, for instance that which revealed that children in families who share and enjoy meals together are less likely to develop eating disorders later in life, but the source details do not clutter the text, but are gathered in the notes in the back, which makes for easy reading.)

That is also the focus of the next chapter, which is designed to help you personalize your approach. He identifies six broad categories of eaters, suggests that each person is a combination of two or more kinds, and offers ideas for each type to ease the transition to this philosophy/plan.

Bip BW_footprint II

A Fainter Footprint: Fridays, this autumn

The book’s second-half is comprised of a sample 28-day plan and specific how-to advice and suggestions, as well as five chapters of recipes. Even for those who are already cooking at home regularly, the recipes are useful, for there are so many variations and options that they have an inherent appeal.

It’s this sense that each of us is an individual and will travel a slightly different route towards making change that makes me want to recommend this book loudly and widely.

Although VB6 is fuelled by the success that one man had with changing his relationship with food, the philosophy can accommodate any individual with an interest in making a positive change.

“Sometimes I even have a couple of eggs (or bacon) in the morning. It’s life, and there’s no reason to let perfection be the enemy of good.”

It might not fit the conventional expectations of a diet book, but when I find advice in a diet book that suits not only what’s on my plate, but supports the broader principles by which I want to live my life, that’s a plan I’ll commit to.

I do not want to allow perfection to be the enemy of good, not in terms of food or books or anything else I value. VB6 might not offer the perfect philosophy or plan, but it’s movement in the direction of positive and lasting change. Sign me up.

Note: This is the third of a series of posts in my new Friday Fugue, which will focus on a series of books working towards A Fainter Footprint (on the Earth). 

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10 comments to Mark Bittman’s VB6 (2013)

  • Interesting, yours is the first review I’ve seen of the book though I saw it pop up in Amazon recommendations for me a couple of months ago. I’m vegan but made the switch more to opt out of processed food and industrial supply chains than for animal welfare reasons, which can be fun to explain sometimes!

    I like the sound of Bittman’s approach, the greatest benefit I’ve found since switching is the sense of wellbeing it’s given me and the fact it’s made me a much more active and capable cook. Using the concept of ‘Before 6′ and making it lenient is a great idea – especially if the net result is that someone switches over half their diet to more veggies, fruit and good stuff like pulses and starts trying some new things. :)

    • I find it interesting that increasing numbers of people seem to be making changes based more on sources and resources than philosophical reasons, perhaps because some writers (like Bittman and Pollan) are illuminating these issues for more readers.

      Used to be that mentioning how many gallons of water are required to cultivate a pound of tomatoes versus how many gallons are required to produce a single pound of beef was an astonishing and surprising statistic, but now so many people are aware of the reason question that it’s more about nodding and acknowledging than challenging and denying.

  • I wish he would encourage people to eat vegan all the time but I understand where he is coming from and mostly vegan is better than not at all. I hope that people who give his suggestions a try are spurred to go vegan full time eventually. Changing one’s diet is hard so I am glad there are books like this that provide encouragement and help to do it the right way and for the long term.

    • I understand your position and part of me shares it, but I have also seen people who would never in a hundred years consider eating vegan read and respond to this book (primarily, I think, because Bittman is so inclusionary). I think the idea of gradual and lasting change really does appeal to a variety of eaters who want to make some changes but have been frustrated by attempts in the past and, I agree, encouragement and help is essential.

  • Interesting book. I changed my eating habits (big lunch, small dinner, no snacks after dinner, etc.) but have not made the jump to vegan.

    • All those small changes add up and, once one starts to feel better and experience benefits, it’s easier to consider making other changes. The no-snack thing is a big one; I feel like I have to re-learn that one periodically. It’s a habit I fall into very easily.

  • Thanks for the review of this book. I’m going to have to check it out. I’ve gone through many phases in my own nutritional history from omnivore to vegan, and this year I’ve been thrilled to have found a way of eating that is working so well for me. It’s very similar to Bittman’s “VB6″ as you describe it except rather than vegan, I’m focusing on eating raw about 80% of the day – fruit, vegetables, greens, nuts, seeds – and then sharing a small whole-food meal with my family in the evening. I’m feeling great! I’m going to check out his book as I’m sure he’ll have some interesting ideas to share.

    • It sounds like you have adopted part of his philosophy (and, likely more than a part, I’m guessing) naturally. (BTW, it’s nice to see you back after a long, not-exactly-book-filled, but nourishing, summer away!) Every growing season, we try to increase the amount of raw foods we eat in it, but I don’t think we’ve ever gotten past the 2/3 mark (we eat a lot of rice). If we grew our own food, I’m sure this would shift, because on market days we will eat raw foods all day: love this time of year (but hate to see it begin to wind down).

  • I’m not sure I could ever be vegan. I’m no hard core omnivore. I usually have more meatless days in a week. I eat only chicken and fish from the non-veg clan. But I could never give up on milk and egg. I do like Bittman’s VB6 rule, although most of my milk and egg are consumed way before 6pm. I would love to read this one though – I like the ideas that this book seem to have.

    • I think it’s interesting how adaptable his philosophy is. I get the feeling that he wouldn’t necessarily care whether you chose to reverse the day providing the balance was, ultimately, similar. I think one of the reasons he allows for the greater variety in the evenings is because he assumes that’s when the bulk of food in the day is consumed and when one would be most likely to indulge with friends and family and want to include richer items (particularly as a food critic, restaurant-hopping).

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