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How Mark Bittman saved the world and lost his belly

Gourmets are often able to cite a personal epiphany, a moment of insight that irrevocably changed the way they looked at food. Often such stories involve France or Italy, an overachieving carafe of vin ordinaire and a budding romance.

In Mark Bittman's case, the mind-bending moment came two years ago, long after he had become a famous cook, when a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report titled Livestock's Long Shadow landed on his desk.

Mr. Bittman, the popular New York Times food columnist and author of several bestsellers, including How to Cook Everything, fixated on a statistic. Global livestock production accounts for one-fifth of all greenhouse-gas emissions - more than transportation.

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"The global-warming thing was a catalyst," Mr. Bittman said by phone last week from Oregon, where he was travelling on business.

Like many people, Mr. Bittman had read about the ugly underbelly of animal and fish farming, its negative impact on food quality and human health. But now the planet itself seemed imperilled by meat.

The report also dovetailed with unsettling personal news. Mr. Bittman's cholesterol had risen above normal. So had his blood sugar, an ominous sign for a 57-year-old carrying extra pounds and a family history of diabetes. He had developed sleep apnea, too, a disruption in nighttime breathing often associated with blocked airflow. Decades of carnivorous indulgence had taken their toll.

He resolved to take action - by eating fewer animal products and more vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Not exactly an earth-shattering prescription, but Mr. Bittman says the UN report suddenly turned what had been an option into an imperative. "It's not sustainable to raise all the meat we raise now," he said. "No matter which way you raise it, it's not sustainable."

Devotees of his weekly column, The Minimalist, can read about his epiphany in Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, a new book that might be described as part diet plan, part lifestyle manifesto and - the author being the author - part cookbook.

Showing a flare for concise writing and investigative reporting honed as a news journalist in his early years, he delivers a litany of haunting statistics in the first half of the book. For example, because of such inputs as petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, transport and drugs, "according to one estimate," Mr. Bittman writes, "a typical steer consumes the equivalent of 135 gallons of gasoline in his lifetime, enough for even some gas guzzlers to drive more than halfway from New York to Los Angeles."

It's much more efficient for humans to get their calories from plants than animals, he concludes.

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Readers not persuaded by the ecological imperative might find a couple of other reasons in Food Matters for cutting back on crown roast and beefing up on broccoli. For one, animal welfare.

"It would be hard for most people to see the way that cows and pigs and chickens are treated," he says. "Why do dogs get such special treatment? They're not smarter than pigs."

As for human health, Mr. Bittman says scientists and nutritionists can split hairs over data in support of one ingredient or another, but one central truth is pretty uncontroversial: Eating less meat and refined carbohydrates, such as sugar and white flour, and consuming more plants is a good thing, certainly for the vast majority of carnivorous North Americans.

What's also clear is that "Big Food," as he calls the industrial food peddlers, often co-opt the latest magic bullets and nutritional buzzwords to pawn off otherwise nutritionally questionable food. A conspicuous example: "multigrain" cereals that are little more than a "box full of small cookies" with oat bran added. Smart eaters should take it all with a proverbial grain of salt.

"I'm here in Portland, [Ore.] and it's a running joke - all they're talking about is hemp," Mr. Bittman said. "So, what? Now you have to eat hemp seeds because your diet doesn't have any hemp in it? Last year it was flax seeds. Ten years ago it was oat bran. That's exactly what the big food companies want."

He says Food Matters, part of which is likely to resonate with fans of Michael Pollan's 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma, purposely steers clear of weight-loss deadlines and the burdensome calorie-counting of standard diets. Nor does Mr. Bittman intend ever to become a full-fledged vegetarian. The point of the book, he says, is to preach the gospel of a diet free of junk food and light on meat, to get people to become, as he whimsically puts it, "less-meatarians." Those who follow the plan, he says, will almost certainly lose excess weight and keep it off.

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We eat far too much flesh anyway, Mr. Bittman argues, a sad consequence of grotesque overproduction facilitated by the post-war rise of factory farms, with their "confined-feeding" operations.

Each year, globally, 60 billion animals are raised and slaughtered for food. Ten billion - or 17 per cent - are in the United States, a country with less than 5 per cent of the world's population. Mr. Bittman says there is not enough pasture land available on which all those animals can graze naturally.

It's on this point that Mr. Bittman's message diverges sharply from that of New Age chefs espousing Arcadian diets based on foodie buzzwords such as "grass-fed," "organic" and "free-range." Theirs is, in the end, an elitist gospel, he says.

In his own case, Mr. Bittman managed to reduce meat, dairy and fish consumption to one-third of what it was a couple of years ago. He also cut out virtually all refined carbohydrates, though he often makes exceptions when there's good white bread available at dinner.

Result: He lost more than 35 pounds within four months and is back to normal cholesterol and blood-sugar levels. His sleep apnea, too, disappeared.

He dubs his personal regimen "vegan until 6." From morning till dusk, he eats no animal products, junk food or simple carbohydrates (with the exception of milk or cream and sugar in his coffee). At dinner, anything goes - meat, bread, dessert, wine.

Is he afraid of alienating part of his core audience, the gourmets who breathlessly await his recipes each Wednesday in the New York Times?

"I'm going to do great recipes for the rest of my life," he said. "I'm sure there'll be people who feel I've left my senses behind. ... But many fans are happy I'm moving in this direction."

Bittman in person

Mark Bittman will appear in

conversation with CBC Radio host Matt Galloway tomorrow

in Toronto at 7 p.m. at the

University of Toronto's Hart House, East Common Room,

7 Hart House Circle. The event

is free.

Bittman bites

On flavoured yogurt

"I still have friends who think yogurt is health food and I'm, like, 'Would you please go read the label?' So much yogurt is highly processed milk with jam in it."

On the oil dependence

of cattle farming

"A typical family-of-four steak dinner is the rough equivalent, energy-wise, of driving around in a sport-utility vehicle for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home."

On the advantage

of eating plants

"It takes 2.2 calories of fossil fuel to yield one calorie of food energy from corn; that same calorie of food energy from beef requires you to burn 40 calories of fossil fuel."

On the virtue of embracing a bit of hunger

"The three things people are most neurotic about are food, sex and sleep. Very few people, every time they want to have sex, go have sex. Almost no one goes to sleep every time they get tired. But people think 'I'm hungry' and they go get food right away."

Beppi Crosariol

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