Not so long ago, the admonishment to "Eat your greens!" generally focused on lettuce, maybe spinach. And that's about as adventurous as it got.
Today, it's hard to flip through food magazines or watch television shows without seeing someone sauteing chard, roasting kale, wilting mustard greens or swooning over watercress. You even can get collards and kale washed, chopped and bagged at big box stores and niche grocers like Trader Joe's.
It's a change for the better, says New York Times' food and opinion columnist Mark Bittman. And it's happening because more people are listening to messages about what is good for them to eat.
"That is a big change. All the talk about these things has had some kind of impact and that's a great thing," he says. "They're being sold because there's noise being made about them and there's noise because they're good things for us to be eating," he says. "And some people are listening."
Greens were one of Bittman's early obsessions as a gardener. Today, they still feature prominently in his recipes and in his overall approach to food. In fact, he just reissued his 1995 book, "Leafy Greens" (Wiley, 2012).
Several years ago, Bittman began including more plants and fewer animal products in his diet. The result? He dropped more than 30 pounds, published the responsible eating manifesto "Food Matters," and began writing about food policy and its impact on our health. Today, his fresh, unfussy recipes share space with columns that advocate a healthful, environmentally friendly plant-heavy diet.
Most Americans fall somewhere on a spectrum that runs from pure vegans who eschew all animal products to folks who live Morgan Spurlock's famous 30-day fast-food only diet.
"For better personal and planetary health, the idea is for all of us to move away from the Morgan Spurlock end toward the vegan end," says Bittman, whose next book, "VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00" (due out March 2013), encourages people to eat vegan for the first two meals of the day. "I don't think that means we have to become vegans. But I do think we need to move toward eating a greater portion of plants."
But Bittman thinks real change needs to come at the political rather than personal level. He urges the revamping of the government subsidies that supports commodity crops, a system many say artificially lowers the cost of many of the unhealthiest processed foods. He also favors regulations that discourage eating junk food, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban from city restaurants sodas and sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces.
"In 50 years, I won't be alive, but people who are will say, 'Ha, ha! Remember when you could buy soda for a dollar anywhere you wanted?'" he says. "That's not going to be the case."