Mark Bittman Talks 'Vegan Before 6'

Vegan Eating (And Cheating) With Mark Bittman
NYC food writer Mark Bittman at Enoteca Sociale, 1288 Dundas St. W. February 6, 2012 (Photo by David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
NYC food writer Mark Bittman at Enoteca Sociale, 1288 Dundas St. W. February 6, 2012 (Photo by David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Could you eat like a vegan until dinner time? That's precisely what New York Times' lead food writer, Mark Bittman, decided to do -- and then he wrote a book about it.

Bittman's latest, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health … for Good, aims to do for plant-based eating what his 1998 bestseller How To Cook Everything did for home cooking. And in a recent interview with HuffPost Healthy Living, Bittman revealed how he got his start with veganism, how he lets himself cheat and why he thinks that just about anybody could follow this diet.

Here are six things you should know about the book -- and its author:

VB6 Was, Literally, What The Doctor Ordered

I was 57, which you know, happens to everyone who is lucky enough to live to be 57 and I was 40 pounds overweight, my cholesterol was 50 points higher than it should have been and my blood sugar was high. I had a conventional doctor who wanted to do things via surgery and drugs and then I went and saw this older guy, who's not very conventional, but is very smart, who I’ve known for a long time and I said, "Here’s the numbers, what should I do?"

He said: "You should become a vegan."

And I said, "You know what I do for a living, I’m not going to become a vegan" and he said, "You’re a smart guy, figure something out."

So I thought, okay, I’m not going to become a vegan, so what can I do to have a more plant-based diet and what can I do to get the discipline I need to execute that? Because anyone can say, Oh, I’m going to eat less crap, I’m going to eat more fruits and vegetables, I’m going to eat less processed foods, less animal products, blah, blah. Anyone can say that, but how do you get it done?

So I thought, you know what? I don’t have the discipline to become a vegan. I don’t even want to become a vegan. Suppose I impose this rule that I’m vegan until dinner time? So I started to do this. And I have a very close collaborator and I told her about it and she said, “That sounds awesome, I’m going to do that too."

Why 'Before 6?' Because It's More Social

There is no science to the "before 6" part. The science is more plants; the strategy is VB6, so why dinner? The answer is: because we like to have fun at night. It’s completely pragmatic. If I say to you, I want you to eat all your protein in the morning -- all your carbs, I want you to have pasta with carbonara at 7 am, I want you to get all that stuff out of the way and then I want you to eat fruits and vegetables for the rest of the day, what happens when you go out at night with your friends? A) you’re going to have a drink, which means your willpower is already shot. And B) your friends are going to start teasing you, which means you’ll say "Ok, fine, I’ll have a hamburger." Whereas now, you’re going out with your friends and eating and drinking like normal, or you’re home with your family and eating and drinking normally. It just makes sense to me. And if I’m wrong, we’ll know it. The book will tank, people will say I’m an idiot.

It Really Worked!

My collaborator and I were pretty strict. We eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. That’s what we eat during the day. No white bread, no white rice, no animal products and no junk food.

She started calling it VB6, which I thought was very funny. And we kept doing it and it wasn’t hard. It really wasn’t difficult, because the thing is: It’s sort of like fasting -- anyone can fast for a day. On the other hand, I got to eat as much as I wanted. So sometimes I’d find myself in a really hungry place and I’d eat two bananas or three apples. And then every night, I was eating whatever I wanted for dinner. As it happened, over the months, I found that my dinners were getting more moderate. I just generally eat less than I used to.

So, after some number of weeks doing VB6, I weighed myself and I’d lost 15 pounds. And I thought, "Well that’s pretty good." I mean, 15 pounds! So, I just kept doing it. And then I waited another month or six weeks and I’d lost 30 pounds. And I thought, "this is ridiculous, this is really great." And then I lost another five pounds.

I’ve gained some of that back. So I’d lost originally 36 pounds and I’ve gained 10 of that back, but this is over six years. So, I think that now, I just eat less because my body is kind of defending this new weight, which is much lower. I mean, I was over 210 and now I’m below 190.

People Compare VB6 To 'The 5:2 Diet' For Good Reason

It’s the rules! All of these things are strategies for executing this one thing: You gotta be disciplined some of the time. We know what the science is, we have to move more toward a plant-based diet. And that’s the point, so of course I want to sell books, but whatever strategy works for you -- whether it’s VB6 or 5:2 or whatever. I happen to think this is easier because every day you get your meal that is completely satisfying to you.

Cheating Is Okay

I cheat all the time -- I didn’t cheat today. I should say: I cheat every day because I put half and half in my coffee or I start the day with a cappuccino. I’ll go out and have pizza for lunch with the office. Or if I go visit my parents, I’ll have bagels and lox with them.

There’s a lot of room for cheating involved here. I really mean this: The idea is to change the proportion of stuff in your diet. How much you change it is up to you: VB6 will change it by 60 to 70 percent, which is a LOT. But if you change it by 20 or 30 percent or you do VB6 for 6 days a week and the seventh, you don’t do it, who cares? You’re going to know if it’s working --- you’re going to know if you’re cheating too much, if nothing changes in your body and you thought it would, you’re probably cheating too much. If you do the VB6 thing, you’ll be eating fewer calories because you’ll be eating less calorie-dense food. And that means you’ll lose weight.

We Should Think Of Dieting Like We Think Of Exercise

Exercise is an important comparison because if you’re an exerciser and you go through a period of a week or two where you don’t exercise, you go back to it. You don’t say I’ve become a non-exerciser -- you just go back to it! And VB6 or any other discipline like this has to be the same thing. You can be VB6 for a month, two months or three months and then you can have a week where all hell breaks loose and things fall apart. Why would you say, I’m done? I failed? You haven’t failed -- you took a week off, big deal! It’s just not that big a deal.

I often fail to run for two weeks at a time in the winter. It doesn’t make me not a runner, it makes me someone who is not running right then. The diet thing is the same: I failed to eat VB6 say a day a week, it doesn’t mean I’m not doing it, it just means I didn’t do it.

-- As told to Meredith Melnick

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