The US might be the birthplace of the Quadruple Bypass Burger (available with 20 slices of bacon), but it's also home to the Meatless Monday movement and some of the most passionate promoters of plant based diets. There's Michael 'eat food; mostly plants' Pollan and former President Bill Clinton whose own bypass (a real one, not a burger) was the nudge he needed to eat less fried chicken.
Now there's another high profile name to add to the list: Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer - and meat lover - whose new book offers a semi-vegetarian approach for anyone who's not prepared to forgo animal foods entirely, but does want the health benefits of eating more vegetables and grains.
Like Bill Clinton, Bittman's decision to overhaul his diet was prompted by bad news about his health. Six year ago he was 15 kilos overweight, his cholesterol was going north and his blood sugar levels were edging towards type 2 diabetes. While other doctors might have prescribed medication, Bittman's doctor prescribed a vegan diet - all the plant food you can eat, but no meat, no fish, no eggs, no dairy.
Knowing that he couldn't sustain this way of eating full time, Bittman came up with a compromise: he'd go vegan for breakfast and lunch but include animal foods for dinner. After a month of eating this way he'd lost six kilos; after two months his cholesterol and blood sugar levels had dropped to normal levels, and his sleep apnoea had disappeared. Within four months he'd lost 15 kilos.
"I would say the whole thing was far easier than I thought it would be," he says. "It was a game at first, and maybe that was a good thing - 'can I do this?' Well, yes, I could and now that it's been six years, it's obviously sustainable.
He's turned this experience into a book, Eat Vegan Before 6, to be published here in August. Its way of eating goes something like this: for daytime meals you eat all plants - vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts and legumes and avoid refined carbs - but for dinner you can ease up and include meat, dairy, eggs, or fish and refined carbs like pasta and rice.
A typical breakfast might be oats or muesli with non-dairy milk and fruit; lunch could be some combination of legumes and vegetables like bean soup, a lentil salad or wholegrain bread sandwich. For a snack there's fruit or nuts. Although animal foods are okay at dinner, he encourages generous helpings of vegetables and no pigging-out on processed food.
Bittman believes this approach gives structure but with built-in flexibility to accommodate eating out and travel and, yes, cravings - part of what makes VB6 sustainable, he says, is that it's flexible enough to allow for caving in from time to time.
It also means that if you're at a friend's place for lunch and there's meat on the menu, you just opt for plant foods at dinner instead.
"It's about doing your best to nourish yourself with real, wholesome foods most of the time and not beating yourself up when you don't," Bittman says.
He's a man who likes his pork and beef as much as anyone but recognises that diets big on meat and processed food come at a cost to human health, the environment and the welfare of animals raised in factory farm conditions.
The solution he says is to reduce our demand for cheap meat and highly processed food by moving away from what he calls the 'meat-as-main-mentality' and to get the habit of building meals around plants.
Will this ever become a mainstream way of eating? Definitely, says Bittman who predicts that in 50 years time we'll be eating very differently.
"Nothing else is sustainable," he says.
Eat Vegan Before 6 will be published in in August.
- FFX Aus