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).