I have been thinking a lot about diet in the last couple of years, partly as a result of writing for this blog, partly because I have had a sedentary job for nearly two decades and it is wreaking havoc on my aging body. I do lots of things right, I exercise by walking up 20 flights of stairs at work nearly every day, I stand up at my desk until the afternoon instead of sitting, I walk my dogs twice a day, covering around 2 miles with them. I trot with my younger dog early in the morning in a third walk. I lift small weights in the office. I pretty much only eat meat socially. But I have a hard time resisting the brownies people bring in to work and a hard time not drinking too much wine with dinner and a hard time not taking thirds of mashed potatoes (I love them, I really love them). I have very little will power, it turns out. I have dutifully tried Weight Watchers, Medifast (briefly, ugh), calorie counting, low carb, low fat, things that seem to work for other people. I have basically given up dieting because my oldish age combined with my Czech body type make it a more than uphill struggle. So imagine my surprise when I found a food system that allows me to resist the brownies and turn tactfully away from left over mashed potatoes for breakfast.
Mark Bittman, genius that he is, invented a way of eating he calls Vegan Before 6, or VB6, that actually works for me. His doctor told him he should consider becoming a vegan because he was overweight and developing signs of all of the bad things that come with being overweight and unconditioned as you hit the neighborhood of 60. As a food critic for the New York Times and a cook book writer, becoming a vegan would be instant career death, so he decided he would just be a vegan until dinner time and then eat whatever he wanted. He wrote a book about it, of course, since that is what he does, but you don’t need to buy the book to put this plan into action, although it does have some good recipes in it and some thoughtful meal planning.
For me VB6 provided a plan to eat simply, ethically, with purpose, while warding off temptation. There is magic in saying to your self, I can’t eat those brownies, it isn’t six yet. Maybe I am exceptionally concrete, but this works for me. Bittman said he lost 15 pounds in the first month, but my weight loss in this last month of being vegan before six has been minimal since it is not that big a switch for me and maybe again because of the curse of the eastern European dumpling body type. I don’t actually care, mostly I just want to keep from gaining weight at this point.
So this is the diet: until dinner time eat mostly fruits and vegetables with whole grains and nuts in moderation. Tofu, yes, tempeh, yes. Soda, no. Alcohol, no. White flour, no. Sugar and its friends and relations, no. Processed food, no, including granola bars and the like. Even if the processed food is vegan, chuck it for unprocessed foods. His rule of thumb is to eat nothing packaged that has more than five ingredients in the “nutrition facts.” Lose the cheese, lose the eggs, lose the chicken on your salad, make your own oil and vinegar dressing. At dinner eat flexibly, including the things that you avoid during the day, but try to keep it healthy-ish. I find it to be a functional mantra and sort of interesting. And after a very brief breaking-in period, it is a reasonably easy way to eat that keeps with my basic ground rule in eating and in life itself: Do no harm. And when I went to Atlanta to visit my kid, I ignored it and had cheese grits and biscuits for breakfast, then went back to daytime veganism when I came home without major regrets. It is not hard, it is not weird, it is good for the local food movement. And it keeps me and my lack of will power in line.
This is what I eat more or less:
Breakfast; peanut butter on dense, real whole wheat or rye bread and a cut up orange. (I am a conservative breakfast eater and tend to eat the same thing for months on end. I will probably switch to oatmeal when I get sick of this.)
Lunch; either a salad from the truck by my office or I bring something like a thermos of fruit smoothie made with silken tofu instead of yogurt, or maybe some beans and brown rice, or vegetable casserole or soup from home.
Snacks; fruit, perhaps a cup of unsweetened almond milk or a handful of tamari almonds or some really strong ginger tea.
Dinner; whatever in moderation, but really whatever. If you want to lose weight, avoid alcohol and McDonald’s. But you can go out with friends and not drive them crazy with your food aversions, a good thing.
One of the delicious recipes Bittman has posted on the web is for eggplant unparmesan. Here it is. Try it, it is good:
Mark Bittman’s Eggplant Un-Parmesan
- 2 1/2 pounds of eggplants, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch thick slices
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 2 28-ounce cans of tomatoes with their juice
- 1 cup chopped basil leaves
- 1 cup whole wheat breadcrumbs
- salt and pepper
Heat oven to 450 degrees and position two racks with a few inches between them. Arrange the eggplant slices on two cookies trays, brush the top of each one with olive oil, sprinkle on salt and pepper. Bake for 15 minutes until eggplant slices begin to turn brown. Turn the slices over and bake for around 10 more minutes. Remove from oven and reduce heat to 400 degrees.
In the meantime, put two tablespoons of oil in a large skillet, heat over medium heat. When it is hot, add the onion and a little more salt and cook for about five minutes. Add garlic and cook for another minute, add tomatoes and their juice and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes fall apart and sauce thickens, around 25 minutes.
Cover the bottom of a 9 by 13 baking pan with some tomato sauce. Place a layer of eggplant slices on the sauce, top with some basil and repeat until the eggplant is all used up. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and a little salt and lots of pepper. Extra sauce can be reserved for the table or saved for later.
Bake for 20 minutes until bread crumbs are browned, let it rest for 10 minutes and serve, garnished with a little extra basil if you like.