Keep it vegan until six, then eat whatever you want. No calorie counting and no banned foods; lose weight and get healthy, with a side-bonus of supporting a more sustainable food system. Sounds pretty good, right? Mark Bittman has been building toward this diet for years, and has now released his manifesto, VB6. I read the book. I tried the diet. Here's what happened.
Before we launch into this discussion, I just want to take a time out. Diet, nutrition, weight, and healthy eating — these are all socially loaded and very personal topics. The opinions I share here are just that: opinions. I strongly believe that there is no one-size-fits-all diet, even this one, and what works for me (or doesn't) might not work for you or the guy standing next to you.
I've been sitting on this review for quite a while now, partly because I wanted to give the diet a fair shake and partly because I just wasn't sure how to talk about it. In the end, I decided that this was a conversation I wanted to have with you and the best way to get it started was to just be honest and totally open. I'm a little nervous — this is out of my comfort zone! — but I'll do my best to tell you about my experience and what I learned from it as openly and fairly as I can.
About the VB6 Diet
This diet concept sounds pretty simple, right? Eat a vegan diet until 6:00 p.m., then eat as you would normally in the evening. In reality, this diet both is and is not quite that easy.
The basic idea is to fill your diet with a huge proportion of fruits and vegetables. Almost all fruits and veggies are in Bittman's "Unlimited Foods" category. Round out your daily meals with beans, nuts, and whole grains (which are in the "Flexible Foods" category), and then consider meat and dairy to be "Treats." The only foods that are really off-limits are processed foods and junk foods, though Bittman fully supports the occasional indulgence in a favorite candy bar or a bag of chips. While there are guidelines for how food should be eaten, nothing is truly banned here.
The principle behind this dietary approach is twofold: First, to support healthy food choices and an overall healthy lifestyle without radically changing your diet or throwing away all the food you love. Second, to support sustainable environmental and social practices through the choices we make, like the impact of our health on national healthcare costs and the environmental impact of a meat-heavy diet. Bittman goes into all of these principles in great detail in the book, including basic nutrition, the effect of diet on diabetes and heart disease, and how changing your diet in this way affects the environment.
Bittman also takes time to emphasize again and again that he's not talking about a quick "fad diet" to lose a few pounds; he's talking about a shift in lifestyle and a sustainable, ongoing, long-term approach to the food we're eating. The result of this shift is primarily to make you a healthier person — this can mean losing weight if you're overweight, but it can also mean maintaining your weight if you're already in the zone or just maintaining an overall healthier lifestyle.
I'm really only touching on Bittman's main points here. If you're interested in the details, I recommend reading his book:
A Bit About Me and My Pre-VB6 Diet
I consider myself to be fairly average on the whole. I am in my 30's and am fairly fit. I got into the habit of running a few years ago, and now I run between 15 and 20 miles a week. I am not overweight, but I still always feel like I could stand to lose a few pounds. I went through a phase of doing Weight Watchers a few years after college, and while I don't actually mind all the counting involved, it's also hard to maintain that strict Weight Watchers diet indefinitely. In recent years, I'll go back on Weight Watchers for a few weeks to get myself back into a comfortable weight zone and then return to normal eating.
I was already eating pretty close to a VB6 diet even before I started. It wasn't entirely conscious on my part, but I primarily ate vegetarian during the day and then normally (i.e., with some meat) at night. Over the past several years, as my awareness about the meat industry has grown, I've eased away from most commercial meats and focused instead on buying smaller quantities of better-quality meats, which usually means using meat as an accent ingredient in a dish rather than the main focus (like, pasta with a link or two of chopped sausage in the sauce instead of steaks for dinner). I also have gradually moved away from processed foods and only eat them now as special treats.
Sounds a lot like the VB6 diet already, huh? This is a big reason why I thought I'd give it a try — it wasn't that radical of a shift for me, so why not?
What really appealed to me about the VB6 diet was (and is) its promise of simplicity. As I've gotten further into my 30's, I've noticed that my body isn't quite the same as it used to be (ahem!) and I don't shed the pounds as easily as I once did. It really really frustrated me that as someone who cares about food, understands basic nutrition, eats what is unarguably a healthy diet, and who regularly exercises, I was still gaining weight. It was a slow gain, to be sure, but the numbers on the scale certainly weren't going down. I am just as affected as anyone else by how I look and how I think I should look according to our social norms, and as much as I tried to remind myself that I was healthy and looked "Fine! Just fine!" ... well, it was tough.
My biggest hope was that by following the VB6 diet, my weight would stop creeping upwards and settle wherever it is naturally supposed to settle. I hoped that if this diet did that, I would stop mentally counting calories every time I eat an avocado or crave a cookie, and just enjoy what I was eating. That sounds so sad to say out loud, especially given my love for food and my career as a food writer! But, my friends, it is the truth. Our relationship with food is complicated, and I am certainly no exception.
Concerns I Had Going into the VB6 Diet
I am the type of person who likes to know the rules and the limits going into something. This is why Weight Watchers has always appealed to me — it is totally cut and dry, and I always know exactly where I stand at the end of the day.
The VB6 diet is much more ... touchy-feely. This lack of strict rules is partly what attracted me to it in the first place, but it also made me worried. Bittman breaks foods into the categories I mentioned before: "Unlimited Foods" like fruits and vegetables; "Flexible Foods" like nuts, grains, and beans; and "Treats" like meat, eggs, and milk. I get the unlimited foods and I understand the treats, but it was that "Flexible Food" category that made me confused.
Bittman says to eat these foods sparingly during the day, but it's ok to give yourself more latitude at night. In his examples of daily meals, he mentions that if you had a serving of whole grains for breakfast, you should skip them at lunch. He doesn't talk a lot about portion sizes or how to balance the amount of these flexible foods in your daily diet. I understand that I shouldn't just eat rice and toast all day without a good helping of fruits and vegetables, but without knowing the limits, it was hard for me to tell if I was being too strict or too lenient with my food choices, or what that might mean for my overall diet and weight.
Bittman also seems to rely a lot on the VB6-er's natural instincts and cravings, and how we can expect them to change as we stick with the VB6 diet. He says, "Some nights you'll probably find yourself skipping animal foods all together once you become comfortable eating VB6-style." This is an idea he repeats many times throughout the book, and as a former vegetarian who never stopped craving meat despite reassurances that I would, reading these words filled me with dread and suspicion. We'll see, Mr. Bittman, we'll see ...
Make-Ahead Chopped Kale Salad with Farro and Chickpeas
What I Ate
As you might expect from someone who loves rules, I tend to eat the same thing every day for breakfast and lunch, and then I'll switch it up for dinner. Here's what my typical day of eating looked like:
Breakfast - Fruit, rolled oats, and almond milk: I ate this muesli-style over the summer (in other words, cold and unheated), but now that the weather is cooling, I'll probably cook this in the microwave for a few minutes to make actual oatmeal.
Lunch - Chopped kale salad with nuts, grains, and chickpeas: I usually pick up two heads of kale (Tuscan or dino, if I can find it) and prep this salad at the beginning of the week. I slice the kale into ribbons and rub them with oil and vinegar. I add about 2 cups of cooked grains (farro and wheat berries have been my favorite) and a can of drained beans (usually chickpeas!). I'll add a few almonds or walnuts to my salad just before eating.
Snacks: This was mostly fruit for me, and I made sure to have plenty on hand. Right now, I have plums and pluots on the counter and apples in the fridge. I also like eggplant dip with baby carrots or raw cucumbers. Granola and popcorn are other standby snacks when I need something a little more substantial to tide me over or a late-night nosh.
Dinner: Just as the VB6 diet states, this was anything and everything. Our typical weeknight rotation is frittata, pizza, and pasta with tomato sauce. We usually load these with veggies along with some kind of meat, like a few slices of bacon or some sausage. We rarely eat large pieces of meat on their own at my house, but I'll eat burgers and pork chops when I'm out at a restaurant.
Drinks: I drink a lot of water during the day and usually have kombucha with lunch. In the evenings, I often have a beer or a glass of wine (or two!).
There were a few things that I noticed right away. The biggest, and maybe the most significant, is that I had fewer hunger swings. My husband and all my friends know that around dinner time, watch out for Hangry Emma. I was justifiably worried that this might be even worse when eating fewer carbs and protein-rich foods.
Instead, I found the opposite to be true. My oatmeal breakfast kept me satisfied until lunch, which in turn kept me pretty satisfied until dinner. I usually get a little peckish in the late afternoon, but these past few months, I've found that a piece or two of fruit was enough to tide me over to dinner. No more hangry. Partly this is because I gave myself permission to snack from the "unlimited" fruits and vegetables as much as I needed to stay satisfied (which wasn't as much food as you may think). But partly ... I honestly don't know. I ate snacks before — often the very same fruit — but somehow it seemed less satisfying.
Eating out was much harder than I expected. The vegan options at many restaurants are not great and usually weren't very satisfying (and now you have my sympathies, vegan friends). It was hard to justify spending money on a meal that I knew I wouldn't enjoy and also knowing I'd just be hungry an hour later. After struggling with this for a bit, I finally decided that when I ate out, I would aim towards a vegetarian meal and compensate by either not eating any meat or other "treats" that day or finishing out the day with vegan foods.
I also realized a few months into the diet that I was eating significantly less yogurt, bread, and eggs. This surprised me. These were constant figures in my pre-VB6 diet and not huge offenders in terms of an overall healthy diet, especially since I usually made my own whole-grain bread. But one day, I realized that I hadn't baked bread or made yogurt in weeks, and we hadn't had eggs on the shopping list for a while. This is probably because these foods were a part of my daytime diet, which had obviously changed, but not huge in my nighttime diet, which didn't.
The new staples of my diet are definitely plant- and grain-based. There's the kale for the salad, of course, but I also tend to have more veggies in my drawer than before. I also buy more fruit than it seems possible I would eat — but I do. Grains were an occasional thing for me before, and while I still treat them with the respect their "Flexible Food" status deserves, I've been enjoying integrating them into my meals.
Oh, and my worries that I didn't understand the "Flexible Food" category well enough? Well, Bittman's intention for this category still confuses me, but I feel like I've developed my own way of treating these foods and feel comfortable with their balance in my diet.
What Didn't Happen
I'm sure you're wondering, so I'll go ahead and tell you: No, I didn't lose any weight. BUT, and this is a big "but," I didn't gain any weight either. I hardly dared weigh myself for the first several weeks, but once I started weighing myself regularly, I found that my weight has stayed pretty darn constant over at least the past month or two. Would I still like to shed a few pounds and have less jiggle? Well, sure. But I'm starting to accept that maybe this is the weight that's actually healthy for me. Maybe I really am "just fine."
And no, I never really found myself "skipping animal foods." My dinners have stayed pretty much the same while I've been following VB6 as they were before. I didn't eat a ton of meat to begin with, so maybe that's part of it. But I didn't suddenly develop a reluctance to eat bacon or decide that tempeh would be better in my lasagna than ground beef. In fact, come dinner time, I largely forgot about VB6 and just prepared recipes and ate foods that sounded good to me.
Final Thoughts & Going Forward
While following the VB6 diet didn't result in radical changes for me in either my health or my body, I can definitely say that it changed my relationship with the food I eat on a very personal level. Around the time when I realized my weight was staying steady, I started trusting myself a lot more — trusting my instincts about what was good and healthy for me to eat.
This is huge for me. Over the years (decades, really) I have become so accustomed of thinking of ingredients in terms of calories and of foods in terms of "good" or "bad" that I feel like I really lost all sense of the food itself and its real effect on my body. I had no concept of what I should really be eating. I lost my food instinct, if I ever had one. I feel like following Bittman's VB6, as touchy-feely as it still seems to me, has given me a simple framework for finding that instinct again.
It's still the beginning. Right now, this way of eating feels sustainable and like it's leading me in a good direction, so I'll keep doing it. This new relationship with food still feels a little precarious and tentative to me — but if my biggest takeaway from VB6 is getting one step closer to feeling more comfortable with my body and confident in my chioces, then I will call it a success.
Have any of you tried Mark Bittman's VB6 diet? What are you thoughts or reactions? What questions do you have?
(Image credits: Emma Christensen; Anjali Prasertong)