Mark Bittman’s diet advice is minimal and frugal: eat real food and more plants. As the first-ever op-ed food columnist for The New York Times, he’s paid to provide thoughts on various topics related to chowing down. But his job goes well beyond recipes and healthy eating strategies. Bittman recognizes powerful, systemic concerns that affect our world. From climate change to GMOs to organic foods, he’s got an opinion on nearly everything.
Two weeks ago, a friend invited me to see Bittman speak. I didn’t know what he’d preach about. I didn’t know what his style would be like. I hadn’t ever read his columns. I didn’t even read the flyer. All I knew was that he wrote recipes and cared about climate change.
We settled into our balcony seats, and the lights lowered. Eventually, a balding man with tiny spectacles walked onto the stage — a sheet of papers in tow. Bittman gulped from a bottle of water and placed his speech on the podium. I was initially disappointed — expecting him to speak extemporaneously. That ruffled attitude dissipated, as his spoken words were potent.
He explained that we are living at a time of great peace and prosperity. But our tragic irony is that amidst this wealth, we are not providing adequate care for the disenfranchised parts of society. We can produce faster than ever, but we can’t reliably provide clean water and air for everyone. And when these basic elements to sustain life are threatened, only the wealthy can afford to move and buy water filters.
Children are constantly being exposed to toxic advertisements for sugar-laden fizzy beverages that rot their teeth, spike insulin levels, create excess adipose tissue, increase incidence of cancer, and lead to various other medical complications. Bittman makes it clear that we are doing our children and future generations a disservice by advertising these unhealthy drinks and providing vending machines in K-12 schools.
We aren’t educating children to be critical consumers in school; rather, we are schooling them to insert dollar bills into the coffers of multinational corporations. Their reward is a carbonated gurgle that makes them temporarily feel good. The sugar targets evolutionary epicenters for life, but is overabundant in today’s processed world.
Food is just the tip of the melting iceberg for Bittman. Our way of life is being threatened by climate change. As global temperatures increase, crop yields will be threatened, waters will rise, and food scarcity issues will worsen. The research is abundantly clear, and yet, we haven’t taken any action. He seems to understand that sugar, corporations, and schools all play a part in affecting our food decisions. But even greater, that climate change complicates everything.
Bittman is controversial in his views. He takes firm sides and argues his points until others relent. I’d take greater issue with his debate-style personality, but I agree with him too frequently to care. He’s right, and people need to listen up.
While a polemicist and op-ed columnist, Bittman is not a pessimist. He recognizes these problems and provides solutions — however grandiose they might seem. The following are five takeaways from his talk:
1. Eliminate empty calories
We need to reduce empty calories from our diet. We need to stop eating treats and sweets in such great abundance, and eliminate sugary drinks (they’re awful for us). And we need to start eating nutritious foods. As a frugal blogger, this is vital to saving money, too. Junk food is junk, and not worth our money (or time working to afford them).
2. Support government research
Research on nutritional needs and diets is complex and onerous. For average readers, it’s entirely inaccessible. What are the researchers suggesting, should I have more or less salt? Are all high-fat diets bad? How much sugar do we need? All of these questions get answered in various ways by esteemed PhDs. But some research is better than others. Bittman emphasizes that we need to support government-funded — not industry-funded — studies. By removing corporations (or eclipsing their findings), we can find out how we should really take action.
3. GMOs aren’t that important
Despite being the popular object of vitriol, GMOs aren’t that bad. They aren’t linked to cancer or other health concerns. They aren’t dangerous. Meanwhile, this hatred of an acronym distracts us from real concerns such as antibiotics. They’re in chickens, cows, and lots of other livestock. Antibiotics leech into water sources, are ingested, and spawn radical bugs that cannot be killed. They’re awful and need to be done away with.
4. Transparency is vital for choice
Industrial agriculture companies constantly fight against labeling foods to enhance greater transparency. From calories of meals to GMO-free designations, they fight labeling because it cuts into profits. When people are made aware of what they’re ingesting, they make wiser choices and buy other products. To be able to “choose” healthier options, people must know what they’re buying first.
5. Local influences global
What Bittman excels at is framing food in a systemic perspective. Food is about socioeconomic status, race, culture, geographic location, and much more. It’s not just what’s for dinner. The choices we make today are influenced by the advertisements of yesteryears. One of the greatest changes we can make today is supporting more local options. Buy nearby crops, go to farmers markets, and support your neighbors. These choices will reduce climate change, likely be healthier, and make for more vibrant communities. Additionally, the hope is that local change affects national and international policy. We have to start small and build out.
I highly recommend you check out Mark Bittman’s recent book, How to Cook Everything Fast, for fun, frugal recipes that don’t take long to make!