In their book How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered, Mark Bittman and David L. Katz share their clear, no-nonsense perspective on food and diet, answering questions covering everything from basic nutrients to superfoods to fad diets. They sat down with S&H to talk about the standard American diet.
Mark Bittman is the author of the How to Cook Everything series, the award-winning Food Matters, and the New York Times No. 1 bestseller, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00. David L. Katz, MD is the founding director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and is one of the nation’s top nutrition experts. In their new book How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered, Bittman and Katz share their clear, no-nonsense perspective on food and diet, answering questions covering everything from basic nutrients to superfoods to fad diets.
S&H: Do you think mainstream medicine puts enough focus on nutrition/food?
Mark Bittman and David L. Katz: Of course not. Diet is the leading cause of premature death and disease in the U.S. today, so it really deserves to be treated as a ‘vital sign,’ something addressed in every clinical encounter.
However, let’s be clear: Diet is more of a cultural matter than a clinical one. Where people do benefit from the world’s best diets, it is not because of doctors, but because of cultural norms.
So medicine should place a greater emphasis on diet. But that emphasis should be a combination of raising patient awareness and offering good guidance, along with working for culture change. Junk should NOT be a food group.
You talk in the book about how your taste buds can be rehabbed. If someone is on a standard American diet, where would you recommend starting? Sugar? Salt?
Sugar, for sure, for two reasons. One, it’s in everything, and most of us get WAY more of it than we need for food to taste good. Two, sugar stimulates appetite—that’s WHY the food industry puts it in everything—and is a source of calories in its own right. It’s very easy, really, to find alternative breads, spreads, snacks, and sauces without high levels of added sugar, and each time you do that, you help dial down the amount of sugar you tend to prefer.
The same can and should be done with salt—but salt stimulates appetite less than sugar, and salt does not add calories. So we would say sugar first; salt second.
Why is being on a trendy diet—keto or Palm Beach or whatever—so important to so many Americans?
In response to the way you worded that, we think the answer is: fashion. People always like to adopt what is in fashion, and that is true of diet fads as well.
As for why so many people go no diets year after year… It’s because we have yet to grow up and give nutrition the respect it warrants. Diet affects every aspect of life and health and should be about lifelong practices—not weight loss over the next 6 weeks. Until we start thinking about how we eat as a key aspect of lifestyle, for a lifetime, and keep thinking that the only thing that matters is how many pounds we can lose in how many minutes, we will keep getting diet wrong.
How can a consumer read online stuff and not fall for clickbait? What should they be looking for in solid nutritional advice?
If it sounds too good to be true, it is. If it wasn’t food in the day of your grandparents and their grandparents, it probably isn’t food now, either. It really isn’t complicated—you just have to decide not to be gullible. Alas, desperation tends to breed gullibility.
You talk about food choices as important not only for the individual but also for the planet. Tell us about why you included that…
How could we NOT include it? If we are talking about diet for health, or pleasure—there won’t be any of either if we don’t have a viable planet to call our own. The health of people and planet are not two separate things—it is just one thing.
Did you two disagree on anything while you were writing, and if so, how did you resolve it?
Pretty minor, and not because we are so easy-going! We are both opinionated and can be, well … curmudgeonly. And stubborn.
But we both agree that food should be a source of pleasure and health; it should be good for people and planet, for those who eat it and those who produce it. Once there’s agreement about such fundamentals, most of the rest is really sensible interpretation of the scientific evidence, which is very abundant and, directionally. very consistent. It leaves you little to argue over
If someone came up to you at a cocktail party and said, ‘What’s the one thing I can do to improve my health?’ What would you tell them?
Treat diet with respect. Grown-ups treat most things that truly matter—education, career, financial management, safety of our children—with respect. We don’t flit around from one magical promise or fad to the next. But with diet and health, we do. A ‘get rich quick scheme’ is the stuff of sitcoms; a ‘get thin quick scheme’ is just another day in America. Let’s fix that. Diet is the No. 1 cause of premature death and chronic disease in the U.S. today—really. If we don’t take that seriously, what is serious? Give the matter respect, treat it like a grown-up, stop shopping for pixie dust and magical promises, and it will be a new (and better) day.
Look for a review of How to Eat in our March/April print issue.