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Originally published Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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'Vegan before 6': Foodie Mark Bittman pushes a part-time meat-free diet

An interview with food writer Mark Bittman: The prolific New York Times columnist is known for the book "How to Cook Everything." But it's Bittman's "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian" (2007) and "Food Matters" (2008) that make his case for shifting our diets away from meat and processed foods to mostly plant-based foods. His latest brainstorm: Eating no animal products prior to 6 p.m. daily.

Special to The Washington Post

Voluptuous veggies

VEGETABLES deliver nutrients without a lot of calories. Dawn Jackson Blatner of the American Dietetic Association shares tips on incorporating her five favorites in your diet:

Artichokes: They're in season, and they have more antioxidants than any other vegetable, Blatner says. You can steam them or buy them canned in water. Rinse and drain, then use in an omelet, purée for a sandwich spread, or mix with white beans, tomatoes, basil and whole-grain pasta for dinner.

Kale: This leafy green contains vitamins A, C and E, plus iron and vitamin K (good for your blood) and calcium and magnesium (for bone health). Sauté with garlic in olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Carrots: Sick of baby carrots? Buy whole ones and shred them for a stir-fry or pita stuffing. Try mixing shredded carrots with raisins and light honey-mustard dressing. Like all orange vegetables, carrots are rich in antioxidants.

Red bell peppers: Sweet and brimming with vitamin C (more than in an orange!), these add color to salads and veggie trays. You can also stuff and bake them or use them in stir-fries.

Black beans: Yes, they count as vegetables, Blatner says. They're high in fiber and antioxidants (in their dark skins). Rinse and drain canned beans to remove 40 percent of the sodium. Use in taco salads, wrap in tortillas for bean burritos (add scrambled egg for a breakfast burrito), or purée to make a dip.

Jennifer LaRue Huget, Special to The Washington Post

Do you eat enough vegetables? Me neither.

Americans over age 2 should eat at least three servings of vegetables and at least two servings of fruit a day, according to the federal government. But only 27 percent of adults consume that many vegetables, with a third getting their fill of fruit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year.

Don't feel too bad if you don't fall into either of those groups. Fresh produce can be expensive (though frozen and canned varieties are budget-friendly, convenient and nutritious). Too many Americans live in "food deserts" with little or no access to fresh or whole foods, where 7-Elevens outnumber grocery stores.

And some people simply prefer meat, or doughnuts, or cheese and crackers — or, let's face it, just about anything — to broccoli, carrots and the like.

So what's a vegetable-starved population to do? We could follow the example of Mark Bittman, one of the strongest advocates for finding your inner vegetable fan. The prolific food writer and columnist for The New York Times is known for the book "How to Cook Everything." But it's Bittman's "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian" (2007) and "Food Matters" (2008) that make his case for shifting our diets away from meat and processed foods to mostly plant-based foods.

Still largely an omnivore as he completed his vegetarian cookbook, Bittman says he didn't make the big change in his diet until he (a) saw statistics about the environmental impact of large-scale livestock production; and (b) recognized, as he turned 57, that he had high cholesterol, high blood sugar, sleep apnea, bad knees and 35 extra pounds. "My doctor said, 'I think you should become a vegan,' " Bittman says, referring to a diet that includes no animal products.

"That's when I decided to try the 'vegan before 6' thing," he says. "It worked for me."

"Vegan before 6" entails eating a vegan diet every day until 6 p.m. After that, Bittman enjoys whatever he wants to eat in whatever portions suit him.

"In three months, I lost 35 pounds," he says, adding that he gained five of those back. "My cholesterol went down and stayed down. My blood sugar went down and stayed down. My knees pretty much got better," and his sleep apnea vanished. "It solved everything."

Dawn Jackson Blatner, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, approves of the vegan-before-6 idea. But like full-time vegans and vegetarians, part-timers need to be aware of getting enough of certain nutrients, she says. Among these are Vitamin B12 (found mostly in meats), protein, iron and zinc (all of which are in beans), calcium and vitamin D (mostly in dairy products, and in fortified soy and almond milks), and omega-3 fats (in fish, flax seed and walnuts).

Blatner also cautions that while Bittman lost weight through his new way of eating, it's easy for vegans and vegetarians to consume too many calories. "You can do it wrong," she says. "You could overeat olive oil, nuts and seeds, or over-portion peanut butter, so you'd eat too many calories."

On the other hand, vegan and vegetarian diets provide more opportunities to prepare your own food rather than buy it prepackaged, which generally leads to a more healthful diet.

As Bittman puts it: "You fix your diet by eating more plants. Everything else will take care of itself. ... It takes a little thought, but not a lot."

Drawing on years of experience in his cramped New York apartment kitchen, Bittman says he follows his intuition when cooking. That leads to some unexpected uses of vegetables. For instance, a recent post on his Bitten blog recounts his decision to cook oatmeal with celery: "Creamy oatmeal, crunchy celery, super flavor. A new fave." Who knew?

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