Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Book Review: VB6 by Mark Bittman

Congratulations to Ketki on winning four boxes of cereal from Attune Foods in last week's giveaway! And so many thanks to everyone who participated, as well as Attune for providing its awesome products. I had been thinking about maybe someday trying to figure out how to do a giveaway for a long time, and the positive response to this one was a huge milestone for this little blog.

As a token of my appreciation, allow me to save you $26 plus tax:

You may know Mark Bittman as the author of cookbooks like How to Cook Everything, the exploration of the American food system Food Matters, or various food-related opinion pieces for the New York Times. He recently came out with another book, this one with the Shakespeareanly long title VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health...For Good.

There is some really solid advice in here that will come in handy when facing the challenges posed by Corn Free July, as well as reasons for choosing diets like these that focus on home cooking of whole foods. But overall I think the book suffers from a lack of focus and some slightly arrogant assumptions about the reader, which are always a huge pet peeve of mine.

The basic premise of VB6 is that you eat healthfully and conscientiously for most of the day; not just by abstaining from animal products, but also from overly processed grains, junk food, anything like that, and then in the evening, the portion of the day that tends to be the most social, you reward yourself a little. After keeping with the diet, your cravings will change, and you'll find yourself not wanting to gorge on steak and dessert after 6, choosing foods like these that Bittman calls "treats" in natural moderation.

I think this is a good idea. I love his theory that diets don't work because they focus too much on deprivation. His flexible approach to his regimen also allows for adjusting of the timing. For example, if you get invited to an afternoon cookout and just can't pass up a hot dog, you can eat vegan for dinner instead and not feel like you've failed or cheated.

The other hugely helpful and informative part of the book, for me at least, was his idea of "building blocks," or foods you prepare ahead of time so that eating a healthy diet will be just as convenient as going to the drive-through. The later sections of the book have excellent suggestions about pre-chopping vegetables and keeping them in water or air-tight containers so that they'll last longer and involve less preparation time. The same goes for beans and whole grains: Bittman suggests making a large batch to freeze for the week and season differently with each meal so they don't get boring. With just a week left until Corn Free July, this is a great tip, and I've already started getting myself in the habit of chopping vegetables right when I get back from shopping before putting them away.

There's also some interesting science involved, if you're into that kind of thing. I was especially fascinated by the discussion of how not all calories function the same way in our bodies, and how the body reacts differently to different kinds of sugars. (The glucose vs. fructose issue, and a breakdown of why HFCS is particularly nasty.) Bittman also points out that sugars are absorbed differently by themselves or when in the company of fiber. He does a good job of explaining why, for example, fruit juice isn't as good for you as a whole fruit.

The approach of the book had some serious flaws though. Bittman's slightly arrogant, presumptuous tone adds pizzazz to recipes and shorter articles, but after 200 pages, it gets old. The "diet book trying not to be a diet book" style in which VB6 was written also doesn't quite work. Toward the beginning, Bittman makes some very good points up front about how the Standard American Diet (aka SAD. Get it?) is unsustainable for the environment, and how the extra money you spend on high quality food will save you money on health care costs in the long run. He even gets some information in there about how the Standard American Diet is inextricably linked with unnecessary animal cruelty, a topic which is usually at the center of any discussion about veganism.

But all this is packed into one or two paragraphs. Maybe I'm reading into this too much, but it felt a little bit like he was saying, "OK now that we got the boring stuff out of the way, let's all admit that you're really only interested in a healthy diet because you want to look pretty." Some of his tips include things like snacking beforehand and then just getting a salad if you're going out to lunch with coworkers. This seems like the kind of lonely, unsustainable approach taken by mainstream diets. We shouldn't punish ourselves for wanting to be healthy or ecologically responsible, or feel good about how we look. Eating is a communal activity. We should encourage our friends and colleagues to enjoy healthy food with us, instead of acting like an outsider.

The other thing that I just couldn't get past was that the title of the book- and the diet- falls into the popular trend of hiding behind the use of an acronym because the words it stands for don't quite apply. KFC is, SAD-ly, the first example of this that comes to mind. What with all the rule-bending to fit your lifestyle, Bittman says he may as well have called it VA6, or VB8, or whatever works best. Also, he condones the use of things like Worcestershire sauce and honey before six, which aren't technically vegan, saying that they're lesser evils than, say, white flour, which is unhealthy, but has nothing to do with animal products.

So...maybe he just should have called the diet, "Unprocessed and featuring minimal amounts of animal products except when you don't feel like it."

Which, let's face it, has already been phrased more elegantly in the mantra, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

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