Could you replace at least half the calories that you usually get from animal based foods with calories from vegetable based foods? If you did, how do you think that would affect your health? Your grocery budget? The environment?

In his latest book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More than 75 Recipes (Simon & Schuster, $25.00), Mark Bittman convincingly argues that significantly increasing our consumption of plant based foods while decreasing our consumption of animal based foods will positively affect our health, our pocketbooks and our world. He calls it “sane conscious eating.” It’s a commonsense method of eating that has become anything but common.

This well woven book is part memoir of Bittman’s lifetime eating habits, part healthy eating and weight loss advice, and part explanation of our food systems and eating philosophies that have become much more complicated than they need to be.

Bittman has spent 30 years writing about food. All of that writing was accompanied by, obviously, lots of eating. That eating led to weight gain and a variety of weight related health problems for him. At the same time these problems were beginning to really scare him, he was writing How To Cook Everything Vegetarian. He started to understand not only the health consequences of his personal consumption of animal products, but also the environmental consequences of our culture’s high volume of animal product production and consumption.

Because of these understandings, the changes that Bittman made to his personal food choices resulted in a smaller waistline, greatly improved health, and this book.

Bittman begins the book not with his personal story but with a discussion of the industrialization of animals. “We raise and eat more animals than we need to physically sustain us,” he says. These animals are raised under cruel conditions, the method in which they are being raised makes their products less nutritious, and their production is causing “enormous damage to the earth” to the tune of “about one-fifth of all greenhouse gases” being the result of global livestock production.

He doesn’t spend all his time on the problems of animal production only. He also writes about how our “consumption of junk food and overrefined carbohydrates” are also “big contributors to environmental damage and climate change.”

Unless things change, the environmental damage will only get worse. Right now, Bittman tells us, about 60 billion animals are being raised each year for food. If our current rate of consumption continues, that number will double by the year 2050. Our earth cannot sustain that. Things look similar for the corn, wheat and soy grown not to be eaten as whole foods but to be refined into nutritionless ingredients in junk food and overrefined carbohydrates. The only way, he argues, to reduce production is for consumers to demand less.

What would a diet look like that drastically reduced meat, animal products and nutritionless junk food and carbohydrates? Bittman offers these guidelines that he believes are flexible enough for anyone.

  • Eat fewer animal products than you normally do.
  • Eat all the plants you can manage.
  • Make legumes a part of your life.
  • Whole grains beat refined carbs.
  • Snack on nuts or olives.
  • When it comes to fats, embrace olive oil.
  • Everything else is a treat, and you can have treats daily.
What this looks like specifically for Bittman is what he describes as nearly “vegan until six” in the evening. The majority of his diet before dinner comes from plant based foods and no junk food or simple carbohydrates (he makes an exception for cream and sugar in his coffee). He says this works for him, but his guidelines are flexible for others to incorporate “sane conscious eating” however it works for them.

The book also includes a pantry list, a month’s worth of sample meal plans, and more than 75 recipes for those who want to give this philosophy of eating the majority of their calories from plant based foods a try.

Food Matters is a book that stands by itself, but it’s also a perfect companion to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food that advised us to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It gives us the guidelines and the inspiration to eat those plants and return to a commonsense way of eating that needs to become more common.

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Robin Shreeves blogs daily for the MNN food channel.