Vegan Before Six: Did Mark Bittman Help or Harm Vegan Efforts?

In my examiner column last week I wrote about Mark Bittman’s decision to add small amounts of meat to his Vegan Before Six plan while training for a marathon. If you don’t follow Bittman, he is a celebrity chef who devised a plan to eat vegan meals before 6:00 p.m. and then whatever he wanted for dinner. He wanted to reduce his cholesterol and weight without entirely giving up his favorite foods.

As I’ve stated here more than once, I don’t like the health argument for vegan diet (not to mention the fact that there is no health argument whatsoever for vegan lifestyle) and Bittman’s VB6 program is a perfect illustration of why I don’t like it. His plan has been perfectly effective in achieving his health goals without actually being vegan. (He lost weight and lowered his cholesterol.) And the minute he had an excuse (a nutritionist told him he wasn’t getting enough protein) he gave the whole thing up.

From what I’ve read on his blog, Bittman has been very serious about trying to reduce his intake of animal food, but he absolutely does not get it about ethical veganism. So did his experiment with “semi-veganism” do more harm than good for vegan activism? My gut reaction is that it did. He gave added credence to the widespread belief that vegan diets are inferior and to the tiresome belief that it’s hard to get enough protein on a vegan diet. I am thinking it would have been a much better thing if Mark Bittman had never gone vegan before six.

But as always with these issues, the true impact is not perfectly clear. Did Bittman’s flexitarian approach convince more people to sample some of his great vegan recipes? People who might not seek out vegan food unless a celebrity chef with a New York Times blog tells them to? Did it cause some little shift in the way some people view vegan meals?

The truth is, we just don’t know.

My best guess is that we will move toward a vegan society through some interplay of many different efforts—including vegan activism, economic hits to the animal agricultural industry, and a positive focus on plant foods, aimed at mainstream people. I don’t know which of these factors will be most important or if all are important. My training is in the physical and social sciences and we science types can be annoyingly agnostic in our approach to the world. Until you show me hard data, my mind stays open to all the possibilities. As we set out to veganize the world, it is probably smart to keep in mind that we don’t have all the answers about the best approaches.

Because of that—and although I’m very displeased with Mark Bittman overall—I can’t quite make up my mind whether he has helped or harmed vegan efforts.

10 Responses to Vegan Before Six: Did Mark Bittman Help or Harm Vegan Efforts?

  1. seamaiden July 30, 2009 at 11:30 am #

    Interesting post, very thought provoking. I also find the protein whine rather annoying- after all, can't one just adjust the vegan diet to have more protein, rather than giving the whole thing up?

    However, on the other hand, I'm a blogger for the gluten-free community and am for anything that encourages people to try more vegetarian/vegetable centered dishes. Every vegetarian or vegan meal on the table seems to me to be a step forward, even if those trying them are not willing to commit to a full vegetarian or vegan diet yet. Many people are very stuck in a meat-centric diet and just don't know how to cook with vegetables or realize how good (and accessible) a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet can be. It's too bad Bittman doesn't get the ethical argument but hopefully people won't just be exposed to one representative of the vegan diet and will hear the ethical argument later from another source.

    -Sea of the book of yum

  2. Eric July 30, 2009 at 1:51 pm #

    I'm only sexist/racist/ablist/homophobic/speciest after 6. Oh, and it's for my health, not because it's the just thing to do.

    I hate to be snarky, but that is how Bittman translates to me.

  3. Anonymous July 31, 2009 at 10:17 am #

    What about his profession? We would not even be having this discussion if the animals he were cutting up and presenting for people to eat were dogs,cats,or humans.
    No, I don't think he or vegetarians represent "a step forward" any more than racists,or sexists,etc. do if they only hate/murder the young or neonates of one race/sex.

  4. Ginny Messina July 31, 2009 at 10:44 am #

    Well, I'm not defending Mark Bittman and his attitude about vegan diet in any way. Just kind of musing about whether these flexitarian approaches end up helping in any way–even when they aren't aimed at ethical veganism.

    We can't expect that we are simply going to educate the world into veganism, one person at a time without also pursuing some cultural and social environment change. The more people are exposed to the idea that plant foods are good, the more ready they might be to hear an animal rights message. So in that respect, I thought that VB6 might have done some small smidgeon of good. But that may have been cancelled out by the whole ridiculous protein thing. As I noted, I don't really know the answer to that, but can only speculate.

    Thanks for your comments.

  5. PSpende August 13, 2009 at 12:09 am #

    Mark Bittman's "Rethinking the Meat Guzzler" published in the New York Times January 27, 2008 was one of the best-written pieces I have ever read on the environmental aspects of moving to a plant-based diet. It has greatly helped me and others move some of the mainstream environmental groups to at least acknowledge the huge impact that meat production has on global warming, land use, tropical forest destruction, and other important environmental issues. And when Mark came to Portland and talked at Powell's Books, he drew a standing room only crowd including many people who were not vegetarian,and all these people heard about the damage that meat does to us all and how they should cut back. So I might not like everything Mark Bittman says and certainly am disappointed that he would increase meat intake for training for a marathon, but Mark starts with a different set of values than you and me. To see him move in the vegan direction and bring a lot of folks with him and make it so we can better speak our ideas in the mainstream press has got to be viewed as positive.

    Peter Spendelow, Northwest VEG

  6. Anonymous August 13, 2009 at 5:22 am #

    In my opinion, anyone who can convince Americans to reduce their meat intake is a good thing regardless of the reason. In my converations with people, they have no problem eating cows, pigs chickens and cheese but they might listen to the health and envromental arugments. Eating less meat, is better than eating more meat. Let's face it, most people simply don't have the conviction and discipline to go vegan. My friends and family are always telling me that I'm unique to have such resolve. Blittman does make some good points for eating less meat. I'll take anything to reduce American's consumption of animals.

  7. Danita August 13, 2009 at 5:57 am #

    I'm going to take it as an overall positive, in spite of all the caveats mentioned. 3 steps forward and 2 steps back is still 1 step forward. Just getting more mainstream omnivores educated to what the word "vegan" means is a big plus.

    And there's a good chance Bittman will evolve some more – let's be patient (but vigilant!) – he's way ahead of some others in the "foodie" world. It's inevitable that he will be exposed to sound nutrition advice on vegan protein sources and vegan athletes who compete at a much higher level than MB. He's too bright and in the limelight to have his education stop at this point- whether he actively seeks it out or not.

    I need to stay positive to keep on keeping on. Moaning and groaning about every set back and suspiciously eyeing everyone that makes a small step towards compassion – as if it will always be self-serving and/or only be temporary doesn't work for me. Where's the compassion in that for humans struggling to find their way?

  8. Anonymous August 13, 2009 at 6:12 am #

    While the conviction to choose compassion is the motivating force behind the vegan lifestyle and we would like everyone to agree and act upon that moral imperative,
    the effect of that goal—not eating animals and adding to the proliferation of their suffering— is more important than the underlying objective. So let's use whatever 'reasons' are available to get people to stop supporting eating animals (then we can argue about the motivation).

  9. Don August 13, 2009 at 6:17 am #

    I think that Mark is just taking it one step at a time, even if the steps are somewhat erratic. The claim that he just doesn't get the ethical reasons for changing how we eat is, I think, not entirely honest. Who can deny that we would feel better about ourselves if we caused less pain and suffering to others?

    What many of us really don't get is the idea that kindness to animals should be a higher priority than their own health. And who can say that it should be?

    Compassion and justice for animals is surely a powerful motivation. And I've

    always thought of it as a superior reason for going veg or vegan. But there are those who see our bodies as temples to god or to some higher
    order. Their understanding is that their own health is the natural starting point in their path toward contributing to a better world, and to spiritual fulfillment.

    Maybe they are right!

    Peace, Don Robertson

  10. bengodby September 3, 2009 at 11:17 am #

    Mark Bittman is seriously a douchebag. Broccoli has more protein by weight than meat and it won't give you a heart attack. So why isn't he pumping up on broccoli? Does a diet of cholesterol and saturated fat make you run more quickly? Or is it the screams of dying calves that he's running from?

    -bn

    P.S. That was not a pun about leg muscles.

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