There’s nothing I love more than a big, bloody red steak (rare, Peter Luger), accompanied by some variation on a potato (thick, buttery fries), and a good red wine (rioja, Lopez de Heredia’s Viña Tondonia), followed by a glass of very old scotch (Ardbeg, neat). If I ever have the luxury of planning my last meal, that is what I will want to eat. So it’s not obvious that it would be possible or easy for me to switch to veganism (or mostly veganism, but more about that in a minute). But I did, and so far, it hasn’t been terribly difficult. I feel better than I have in a long time.
A few months ago, I read Mark Bittman’s VB6: Eat Vegan Before Six to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health. I’m a fan of Bittman’s food writing in the New York Times and the clean, healthy recipes he publishes. There’s a summer salad I love comprised of tomatoes, cilantro, corn, bacon, and Thai chilies that I refer to as “Mark Bittman salad.”
The premise of the book is simple: If you switch to a vegan diet—no meat or animal products—during the day, it will improve your health even if you eat whatever you want for dinner. By eating vegan before six o’clock in the evening, you’ll shift to a primarily plant-based diet, which is far healthier than the animal protein-heavy, sugar-heavy, processed food-heavy, standard American diet.
This seems like common sense—and it is—but there are a couple of aspects that make it simpler and easier to follow that your average program for diet modification. The first is that there’s no calorie counting. If you’re eating more vegetables and learning how to satiate yourself with clean (free of artificial preservatives, ripening agents, etc.), plant-based, whole foods, your calorie count is probably going to come down anyway.
The second is that you’re not forced to exercise inhuman levels of willpower all the time. After six, you can eat pretty much anything you want. This assumes, of course, that you’re not going to go nuts and have lard encased in transfats for dinner. But if you’re thinking about switching to a diet like this in the first place, Bittman gives you credit for not going to great lengths to undermine it via technicality. He also assumes that you’re smart enough to understand the difference between fries and a soda, both of which are technically vegan, and a salad of fresh vegetables, and that you’re not going to be willfully disingenuous about what falls within the parameters of the diet.
The diet also allows for periodic “cheats.” Milk in your coffee here and there? A slice of toast with olive oil for breakfast? All fine, in moderation. (And no willful disingenuousness about what constitutes moderation, either.)
When I spoke to Bittman a few weeks after I read the book, we talked about the genesis of the program and its pitfalls. He began the diet in 2007 after his doctor told him he should switch to a vegan one to improve his blood sugar and cholesterol counts. He was forty pounds overweight and pre-diabetic, and he had sleep apnea. Bittman wasn’t happy to hear this—as you might imagine, a restricted diet isn’t good news for a food writer—but his doctor encouraged him to come up with a variation on a vegan diet that would work for him. “I think because I saw it as a kind of challenge,” he told me. “It was kind of fun and I had no intention of doing it forever. It was like a game.” After six weeks, he’d lost fifteen pounds, and he kept slimming down. When he’d lost thirty-five pounds, his blood numbers had normalized. “It was clear that this was having a positive effect, and that’s when I decided to commit to it,” he said.
The diet is designed to be flexible enough for most people and easy to adopt. You don’t have to give up your favorite not-so-healthy foods entirely; you simply relegate them to the portions and frequencies they deserve. “The whole goal is to move your diet towards more plants and away from animal products and processed foods,” said Bittman. “I would never say to somebody, ‘Don’t eat ketchup, ever.’ I’d say, ‘Recognize that ketchup has a ton of corn syrup unless you’re making it yourself.’ Make a judgment. But when you eat a tablespoon of ketchup it’s not going to kill you. It’s palpably not the same thing as a bottle of Snapple or a Snickers bar.”
For me, a change had been coming for a while. I was out of shape and eating a lot of crap (complex carbs, processed snacks, and so on)—easy to do when you have a heavy work schedule and frequently eat on the run and in restaurants. Most of my socializing took place over drinks, which meant I didn’t pay much attention to how much alcohol I was consuming. I had put on about twelve pounds in the last twelve months. That might not sound like a lot, but at my size (I’m 5’1”), it’s noticeable. I felt heavier, more sluggish.
Unfortunately for me, when I put on weight, it settles around my belly, so the extent to which I’d put on weight was driven home to me when one day a stranger in the office elevator asked me when I was due. (NB: Never ask a stranger when she’s due unless she’s wearing a shirt with a downward pointing arrow that says BABY ON BOARD.)
It didn’t help that when I got engaged a few months later, people asked me if I was pregnant. I couldn’t parse whether the parties involved thought I might have a bun in the oven because it looked like I did, or for some other reason. Surely my fiancé and I did not seem like the kind of people who might undergo a radical conversion to the sort of conservatism that dictates that pregnancy is always remedied by marriage. (In my native Alabama, people really do get hitched because one half of the couple is knocked up, but in liberal yuppie Brooklyn? No way.)
But mostly, it wasn’t even the accusations of secret pregnancy. I just felt exhausted and terrible all the time. By 3 p.m. I was drained of energy, and my brain was so fried you’d think I had just used it to solve the Reimann hypothesis, when in reality, I had probably just spent the last thirty minutes doing basic arithmetic in order to reconcile a monthly editorial budget. Using my fingers.
Initially, I attributed all of this to aging, but eventually I had to admit that it was my fault. I ate terrible food all the time. I didn’t get enough sleep. I drank too much. I didn’t exercise.
But I knew I couldn’t change all of those things at once. I don’t have superhuman stores of willpower, and I have a reasonably good idea of what my own limitations are. So I’ve been doing it incrementally. And VB6 was an important part of that. I didn’t have to obsess over food, counting calories and weighing everything I ate, and the program didn’t require around-the-clock levels of self-control. (Or self-denial, which is what absolutist diets tend to feel like to me.) But it has also had some ancillary benefits that I didn’t anticipate:
1. I often opt for vegan or vegetarian at dinner, even though I don’t have to. I’ve become an amateur connoisseur of seasonal vegetables and appreciate a good salad in a way that I used to a good steak.
2. It’s easier to exercise willpower in other areas. We have a finite amount of willpower, but willpower is like a muscle. You can build it up. Eating vegan before six is relatively easy now, and it has allowed me to introduce new healthy habits. I began running a couple of months ago, and both healthier eating itself, and having already solidified that habit, made it easier to make running a habit as well.
3. I drink less than I did, in part because I don’t want to undermine the positive effects of healthier eating, and I don’t want to undermine the running, either. (One hard run with a hangover is an incentive not to have hangovers in the future.)
4. Bittman says this doesn’t happen—or didn’t happen with him, at least—but it’s made my taste in food change. I don’t know if my palate has actually changed, or if I just imagine that it has, but I crave healthier foods more and heavy food (fried or fatty things) and junk food less. This is not to say that I don’t occasionally need to have pizza or a good burger, but it happens infrequently. I like things that are spicy, garlicky, or vinegar-y, and it probably helps that vegetables can easily be prepared to have any of those taste profiles.
I’m not an absolutist about VB6, either. When I cheat, my cheats are pretty consistent: I like skim milk in my coffee. On the weekend, I like eggs for brunch, and in the company of others, a spicy bloody mary. If I have a particularly hard workout—the kind where I need protein immediately afterward for muscle recovery—I’ll use chocolate milk or a (usually non-vegan) protein drink. But for the most part, it’s all veggies and fruits.
There are hard-core vegans who criticize VB6 because it’s not absolute: If you’re not a vegan all the time, you’re not a vegan. If your rationale for veganism is that you don’t approve of eating meat or animal products because you don’t think it’s ethical, then no, you cannot be a part-time vegan.
But I think of it as a literal descriptor of what’s being eaten, regardless of orientation regarding consumption of meat and animal products. The point is to make your diet healthier via plant-based eating, even if it’s incremental and not perfect.
The results for me have been good: better sleeping and noticeably more energy, and I can even sort of see my abs again. I’m not exactly Lolo Jones, but running three miles in the morning doesn’t kill me, and I no longer think of 3 p.m. as “zombie hour.” It’s worth making it all more than just an experiment or a game. It’s a sustainable and better lifestyle.