Mark Bittman is probably the worst speaker I have every seen give a TED talk, so it should come as no surprise that he's a nutritionist--usually the most boring and moralizing of health care professionals. If you can manage to sit through this, go ahead, but the point I want to make is actually below.
In essence, this is the same talk you've been getting from your hippie health care teacher since grade school. Yet, his message is not as bad as it could be. In nursing, your nutrition class probably taught you all about the "science" behind the government's nutrition recommendations. It's a bunch of hogwash. Amazing how they criticized critics of the former food pyramid, then changed it recently, isn't it?
The fundamental problem with the teaching of nutrition in America today is that it starts with the analogy of the body as an engine, and food as a fuel source. However, this is the wrong analogy to make, especially in a culture where people get almost no activity in the course of making a living. A better analogy is that the body is a machine and food is the parts and upkeep. What's the difference between these?
Body as engine says, you are designed to "burn" carbs, so carbs should be the core of your diet and then there are these other weird things like proteins, minerals and vitamins--we don't know what they all do exactly, but you have to get a minimum of X amount or you'll get sick. Body as machine says, you break down, so you have to fix yourself periodically by replacing the parts that have fallen off. The parts that fall off are proteins, minerals and vitamins.
No matter what kind of "diet" you eat, the real core of your diet is protein, minerals and vitamins. You can live very well without carbs, but you can't live healthy lives without these other things (plus, you need some fats...). That is the fundamental reality of food. The only question is, where do you get your parts from and how many parts?
Mark Bittman wants us to cut out meat and only eat enough to keep from getting sick--back to the old engine analogy. Of course, he says, this is better for us, but is it? Recently, bonobos (the good, peace-loving, matriarchal doppelgangers to chimpanzees) were seen to be eating monkeys. Yes, that's right--not only meateaters, but cannibals as well. Primates are designed to eat meat. (The anthropological record bears this out, too, although I don't have time to go into it here.) And not as a back-up system.
There two fundamental problems that Mark Bittman misses. One is the monism problem--the assumption that if we "ate right" the earth would be in balance is not scientific. The second is that we are eating from the wrong places. Now, Bittman criticizes fast food, but I don't think he sees that fast food is really the core of the problem, not meat-eating. And I'm not talking about McDonalds only, but the grill at your hospital cafeteria, too.
What is the issue? Well, simply that fast food promotes eating only certain cuts of meat and at greater frequency of eating. It's true that ground beef could have hooves in it for all we know, but the point is that a "hamburger" is equivalent in the mind to a "soft steak" not to the "other cow parts," which means that when we eat animals, we've gotten in the habit of expecting only the steak and not extracting enough calories from them. Bittman wants us to eat half as much steak, but the problem is that we're not nibbling on the knuckles, like bonobos. If we got rid of fast food and went back to whole animal consumption (which largely happened in traditional culinary arts), we would reduce the total amount of food we eat, I believe, through less frequent and less savory meals. It might not be enough to save the planet, but that's a different matter. Let's not confuse things with smarmy ideas.