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Mark Bittman offers personal and policy solutions for unhealthy eating at Isthmus Green Day

Bittman: 'What we need is acknowledgement that food is nourishment, and nourishment sustains us, rather than making us ill.'
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To say food writer Mark Bittman has a fan following in Madison is an understatement.

His talk at the Isthmus Green Day expo at Monona Terrace drew about 1,000 people, many armed with his cookbooks, all hanging on to his every word.

Bittman won Madison hearts, extolling the virtues of locally produced food and poking fun at corn producers in Iowa and Gov. Scott Walker.

"On a non-personal level, we have to look to the example of pink slime and Scott Walker and [ask]...how do we regain the power that's rightfully ours? What's government's role? Can corporations be made to behave?" (Pink slime is a meat additive processed with ammonia that's often used as a filler in ground beef and other beef products.)

"I'm a big time fan," said audience member Nathan Marwell about Bittman. "I like his approach, making it easier for people to live healthier lives."

Bittman's approach to promoting healthy eating is simple: tax junk food and subsidize nutritious, healthy food. But, thanks to the influence of large corporations, our approach to food has been the exact opposite, Bittman said.

"In the last couple of decades, around a trillion dollars, give or take, has been spent on getting us to make the wrong choices in food," Bittman said. "[The government] supports the production of processed food as opposed to real food, as evidenced by the subsidies to agribusiness, compared to those subsidies to ... fruits and vegetables."

To underscore the severity of the situation, Bittman fired off some alarming statistics. More than half of Americans are overweight or obese. On average, only 10% of our calories come from unprocessed fruits and vegetables (the rest come from junk food and industrially produced animal products). One in four meals contains an unprocessed vegetable. It would be one in five, but the lettuce and tomatoes on cheeseburgers count. And on the political side, the renewal of the Farm Bill, still pending, gives eight times as many subsidies to commodity crops as to fruits and vegetables.

To reverse the trend towards increasingly unhealthy eating, Bittman suggested a two-pronged solution -- one policy-based and one personal.

"What we need is acknowledgement that food is nourishment, and nourishment sustains us, rather than making us ill," Bittman said. "If [junk food] makes you ill, it should not only not be subsidized, it should be disincentivized."

On the policy side, he suggested that the government actively discourage soda and junk food, and prevent children from purchasing them. Food stamps should not pay for them, and they should be taxed in the same way as cigarettes, Bittman said.

He also suggested consumers take the food movement into their own hands, boycotting unhealthy products like industrially produced meat and dairy. He praised the recent nation-wide boycott of pink slime.

"We can make change by making noise... and we can make noise without leaving our desktops," Bittman said. "And if we make enough noise, we can persuade and pressure corporations to do the right thing more often. We might even get the government to do its job."

On the personal side, Bittman recounted his own lessons in eating better. In 2007, he suffered from a host of problems generally associated with middle age -- he was 40 pounds overweight, with high cholesterol and high blood sugar. He also had bad knees and sleep apnea.

Then one of his "unconventional" doctors suggested he become a vegan.

Taking his suggestion, Bittman became a "part-time vegan," refraining from any animal products until dinnertime. Then he allowed himself anything he desired. In three months, he lost 35 pounds, his cholesterol and blood sugar returned to normal, his sleep apnea disappeared and his knees improved.

But Bittman assured the crowd he was not proposing a mass conversion to veganism.

"What really matters is that we move from the cheeseburger end of the [eating] spectrum to the salad end," Bittman said. "You never have to become a person who eats raw salads morning, noon and night. All that really matters, diet-wise, is that we eat more plants, and more real food based on plants and less industrially produced animal products, and way less hyper-processed junk."

Bittman ended the event with questions and a book signing. Fans waited in a line that spanned the length of the room, clutching well thumbed-through copies of Bittman's books. A Room of One's Own bookstore had more copies of his books on hand.

"I think his goals are pretty practical and realistic," said Haley Gregg, a self-professed fan. "[Veganism] is hard, especially when people love food and love eating. I thought his talk with great... but he's preaching to the choir!"

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