Matters of fact & taste

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

"If I told you that a simple lifestyle choice could help you lose weight, reduce your risk of many long-term or chronic diseases, save you real money and help stop global warming, I imagine you'd be intrigued," writes Mark Bittman in the introduction to Food Matters, his just-released new book. Bittman's right, I was intrigued (he had me at "real money").

Bittman then proceeds thusly: "If I also told you that this change would be easier and more pleasant than any diet you've ever tried, would take less time and effort than your exercise routine, and would require no sacrifice, I would think you'd want to read more." Right again, don't you think?

Written in a clear (if relatively artless) style, and implementing charts, graphs and burst-out facts in the margins of its short pages, the engaging and easy-to-scan Food Matters matter-of-factly lays out its argument that you can simultaneously boost your own health along with that of the planet. The crux of this convincing dictum is what Bittman wryly refers to as "sane eating" and it makes a lot of sense.

Which isn't surprising, considering the source. For three decades, Bittman has been researching and writing about food, as he puts it, "from every possible angle." Fans of Bittman's no-nonsense recipe-included weekly column in the New York Times can attest to the guy's breezy way with his expertise, as can frequent consultants to his excellent earlier books such as How To Cook Everything. I include myself in those camps.

The 300 pages of Food Matters are broken up into two parts. In the first, Bittman describes his shock at learning that global livestock production causes more damaging greenhouse gases than even transportation. The bitter multiple whammy of course is that we Americans eat too much expensive and calorie-dense meat, and this has helped lead to one-quarter of us having some form of cardiovascular disease, as well as our country's dismal rating in longevity -we're next to last among industrialized nations. Citing our own government's complicity, Bittman writes that U.S. policy has encouraged ever more meat production for at least 35 years.

But too much meat is not the only problem. No, Bittman also implicates the environment-befouling industrial factories that produce and package the absurd amount of junk food our culture seems addicted to. Noting that seven percent of all calories consumed in the U.S. come via nutrient-free sodapops and yet nearly a quarter of Americans are diabetic or pre-diabetic, Bittman once again asserts that our government isn't up to speed. In fact he contends it refuses to address how harmful sugar really is, and he also stresses that the USDA has "consistently favored individual and corporate profits over public health."

From this polluted pool of unhealthy trends, Bittman fishes out his gleaming, simple guideline to "sane eating," which is this: "Eat less meat and junk food, eat more vegetables and whole grains." If that sounds too easy to believe or too hard to achieve, Food Matters in effect exists to convince readers otherwise, and it does a strong job of it.

Of course this isn't all fresh turf, and Bittman duly acknowledges fellow writers like Michael Pollan. He also tends to be a tad redundant in making his persuasive case. But after making it, and describing how his own health problems dissolved (as did 35 pounds of fat) after he followed his own advice, he drastically shifts gears.

Part two, which makes up the bulk of the book, is devoted to lifestyle suggestions, menu planning, and, especially, tons of healthy and easy-to-follow recipes which promise lots of intriguing flavors and textures with a reasonable amount of meat. What's key here is that Bittman's alluring and all-over-the-map dishes demonstrate that you don't have to follow a restrictive, repetitive and bland diet to reach the aims of Food Matters; you need only concentrate on whole, real ingredients prepared cleverly.

I found Food Matters to be an excellent little read, a real keeper for its many practical yet flavorful and colorful dishes; for me it works best as a sort of user's manual companion to groundbreaking books, such as those by Michael Pollan.