Book Review Food & Exercise

Food Matters . Discussion Tonight!

Tonight, at Oglebay’s Schrader Environmental Center –

Mark Bittman’s Food Matters  .  Ecobookclub.wordpress

Like everything else that seems apparent on the outside, there is so much more beyond what meets the eye.

For the food industry, and behind the avocados and almond health benefits being toted for good fat lately, lurks a marketing plan for these foods. Yogurt sales, for example, over the last twenty years have doubled. (p34)  America is being sold more calories, and we are consuming them. Even the solid foundations of the USDA’s food pyramid can’t be trusted… the same pyramid in which, growing up and until one month ago, I based my diet off of.

What are others, at the mercy of the media, have to defend themselves with?

Bittman approaches eating food in the most basic way and offers in this book a concise history of eating versus the food industry.

The 2000 calorie diet so many people base their diet on is up 25% from 1970 when most people averaged eating 1500 calories a day. (pg44) Advice on a 2000 calorie per day diet goes hand in hand with the 1992 birth of a food pyramid. Louise Light, a nutrition expert at New York University, was consulted in its conception. (pg47-48) However, the pyramid flopped upside down against her advice, changing the recommended daily servings of (whole) grains at 4 servings to 11 max servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta, in support of people behind the production of the grain industry. I find myself wondering how such a simple system of food growth and eating has become so difficult to untangle and understand.

Bittman writes with candor in response ‘Cereal, efficiently a boxful of small cookies’ (Pg35) and it boasts a larger question for me -not only, who can be trusted? But, how do I treat these seemingly simple, but now complex systems?  The more elements that there are to a system the more difficult it becomes to service it. Think of your HVAC system or your car, and the technology intricacies it takes to maintain their performance. It is more difficult to pinpoint problems when something goes wrong because there is an influx of likely scenarios. The other problem of finding clean information is that companies who sell a product, a pharmaceutical, don’t want to lose a profit and as soon as a study is complete with unfavorable findings, a second one is funded (by the company) to disprove the first. Apparently that’s a cheaper option to losing profit. It reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’ and the powers of influence society’s views on items have on their success or failure.

Society doesn’t need any more stimulation or confusion, but by defense, and by design, there will always be conflicting information, because it is making someone money.

Bittman brings up a question that makes me think. He asks, ‘Who sees meals with home-cooked breads, desserts, and soups for example?’ (pg 46) He is right of course, when I bring three-ingredient beer bread to a dinner party, people can’t believe I actually made the bread in an oven!

I was in the middle of reading the chapter on the food pyramid…and the story of our food pyramid is an interesting one. It has been changed over the years. In 2005 it became more vague, and did not base the image or food suggestions on any distinct nutrition we need, such as water, protein, carbohydrates, and fats.

My husband was in the middle of The Colbert Report and consequently the new Plate diagram appeared. Type in and you will be forwarded to choose My Plate! I think this is an act to fix the misrepresented nutrition needs for us, mislead people all these years. You can download a complete history of the USDA’s food guidelines here at: ABriefHistoryOfUSDAFoodGuides and see for yourself.

This begs me to ask how I can help the education of solid principles. Those based one health, personal choices, community, fairness and consideration? What can I be inspired with, to develop my own weekly habits and promote a sustainable model for me, my family, and my community? The answer has always been for me to live as an example.

It’s neat. Two years ago I looked out my back yard and saw my neighbor’s three pine trees. Now, I see two gardens with a better bounty than my own, a rotating composter over there, and often a friendly face offering me bok choy over the fence.

What can stop our habits of seemingly simple means of preparing foods out of a freezer box, poor choices, and a neglectful attitude towards our health? Bittman responds ‘What’s stopping this, largely, is inertia, habit, a lack of good information, and a drive to maintain the status quo b the people who profit from it.’ (pg 65)

In Bittman’s view on foods, he uses a bang-for-buck method comparing calorie density versus nutrition to measure how foods are good for us. In my favorite chapters, he offers a fantastic lesson in what we should be eating: Protein, Carbs and Fat. (pg 85-92)

Protein: ‘The meat industry has tried hard to make protein synonymous with meat’ (and it’s worked.) ‘However, per calorie, cooked spinach has more than twice as much protein as a cheeseburger.’ He states too, that ‘there isn’t a point to over eating protein either. Your body will dispose of the excess. Consuming too much protein causes calcium loss, increases your need for fluids and causes your kidneys to work harder.’

Carbs, like ‘those found in whole grains and legumes (considered complex) are necessary. Fiber, in the category of carbohydrates, (useful in the digestion of food, but not a direct nutrition) helps you to feel full and satisfied after eating. Simple carbs are the ones to avoid –white flour found in commercial bread, bagels, cakes, muffins, and pizza, sugars, and processed foods including cereal. Instead, look for whole grains –oatmeal, polenta, grits, rice, wheat quinoa, barley and some whole grain breads.

For Fat! Fat is important! But, we all are getting too much of that found in processed foods, refined carbs and animal protein, and not enough of that found in plants. He talks about cholesterol here and states that ‘it is not the cholesterol that you eat that is of concern, but the type of fat you eat and how much cholesterol your liver produces in response to the type (found most in animals.) Try to eat natural occurring fats in plants (and in limited quantities animals.)

After reading these few pages on Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat, we peered into Mark Bittman’s own pantry, and his advice on the types of food never to be without. The easiest way to maintain his ‘vegan before six’ diet is to always have fresh fruit, veggies, nuts and berries on hand to hold you over until you can make your meal.  Here is what is in his cupboard:

Grains: rice, cornmeal and whole grain flours

Beans: Dry beans, all colors and kinds.

Oils:  Extra-virgin olive oil, minimally processed sunflower or peanut oil, sesame oil

Staple Veggies and Fruits: onions, garlic, spinach, peas, corn, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, celery, lemons, and limes. Can tomatoes too.

Fresh Herbs: basil, mint, dill, rosemary, thyme, and cilantro


Vinegar: sherry vinegar, balsamic, red and white wine vinegar

Soy Sauce:

Dried fruits and Nuts:

Meat, Dairy and cheese: Bacon, parmesan cheese, butter and eggs.

Baking powder, baking soda, and instant yeast


What’s in your pantry?


I read my response to reading this book, and then one by Laura Miller, who writes for, titled How to live what Michael Pollan preaches and realized how negative my review in comparison seemed. I recommend reading her response, influenced with religious associations that I found on target and clever.

The Environmental Book club At Oglebay’s Schrader Center meets tonight, the third Thursday of the month, at 7pm. In preparation for leading the book club, I am bringing the following discussion points.

What do you think about a diet that requires a regimen and planned days-worth of food, but allows relaxation or non-conscious eating after 6pm?  Does this plan help someone who would like to tackle a diet, and feel good about achieving it, all in a day?

Bittman with colleague Keri Conan devised a plan ‘Vegan till 6’ that means no animal products, no simple carbs and no junk food before 6pm everyday. What diets do we practice, and how are they compared to this, how affective are they?

Where do we find time to schedule our meal times and prep?

What do you think about the basic foods we should always have stocked in our kitchen?

How do we stock our pantries and what part of these skills have manifested as an attitude through our regular practice?

What Good Practice tips should we add to:

Preparing more than one serving at once

Cutting / peeling all veggies at once

He is described as a practical cook (Laura Miller), in some reviews of his book. What do you think?

How important is changing our diet and can we do this in part to foster community and health?

Bittman encompasses three huge promises in writing his book: weight loss, environmentalism and penny-pinching. (Laura Miller) What do we think of this?

How can we profess a true education at a local level, to combat the media’s influence of product pushers? I ask what is in it, and where does it come from?

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