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Food writer extols virtues of 'eating more plants'

Do you eat enough vegetables? Neither do I.

Americans older than 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 eat that many vegetables, and only a third get that much 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 (although 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 effect 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. 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, in flaxseed and walnuts).

Blatner also cautions that although 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.

Bittman says: "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?

But it's just that playful, curious, almost careless approach that Bittman would have us emulate as we experiment with vegetables. I'm, er, game. How about you?