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Back To Basics: Good For You, Good For The Earth

If you eat like a vegan until dinnertime, you can protect your health and help save the planet; how we eat — and certainly what we eat — has a real impact on both our bodies and the Earth. That's something to think about on Earth Day.

As a cook and food writer, I've spent the better part of my adult life thinking about food. But it was only when my doctor told me I had to lose weight and lower my cholesterol and blood sugar levels — or face dire health consequences — that I began to seriously confront my own diet. And it was around this same time that a friend sent me a U.N. study showing that 18 percent of greenhouse gases come from industrialized livestock production.

So I changed my diet, then wrote a book about it. I've increased the amount of plants that I eat and reduced the amount of animal products and processed foods. During the day, I eat only plants — vegetables and fruits mostly, but beans and whole grains, too. At night, I revert to a more indulgent pattern and let myself eat the food I love most (like the recipes below) — but with a little restraint. It's that simple, and it's been dubbed VB6 — Vegan Before 6.

It's just one model of a new way of eating, but it makes sense on many levels. For one, by eating more plants, fewer animals and less processed food, I've lost 30 pounds and my cholesterol and blood sugar levels are normal again. Reducing your intake of animal products and processed food will do that.

I'm also able to enjoy a bit of self-satisfaction knowing that, by an infinitesimal amount, I'm reducing the pace of global warming. And, in the midst of the current economic environment, I'm saving money by buying more "real" food and less meat and packaged junk.

There is no doubt that food production is contributing to global warming and the environmental crises we're facing. Additionally, our national health crises can be attributed to diet.

Think about how our ancient ancestors ate — the nuts-and-berries thing. Back then, it was a struggle to get enough calories to survive. Meat was a feast food, sugar was a luxury and fat was a treasure.

However, as we learned to convert plant energy into high-calorie foods, we found ourselves on the other end of the spectrum: Instead of struggling to get enough calories, now we're struggling under the weight of too many.

Consider this: The U.S. produces 10 billion animals a year just for food, animals that contribute one-fifth of all greenhouse gases and clog our arteries. Plus, we pay more for the food that's bad for us than we do for the vegetables, fruits and grains that are good for us.

Now, I may not be the crunchiest guy around, but it's clear to me that the key to helping reduce global warming and avoiding the lifestyle diseases that plague many of us (myself included) is the same key to saving money on food: Go to the source. Eat more plants, fewer animals and less processed food.

Think about changing your diet from the currently typical American one to the one I hope will become "typical" in the not-too-distant future. I bet you'll find that, like me, you'll get healthier. You'll lose weight, and you'll probably spend less money for more (and better) food. Plus, you can walk around with a smug smile on your face knowing you're doing something good for the Earth.

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Mark Bittman