Book Review: Real Food

>> Monday, April 20, 2009

Real Food: What to Eat and Why
by Nina Planck

Rating: ***


Nina Planck's advice about eating could be summarized with the simple statement: "Eat traditional foods."

As a manager of farmers markets in London, DC, and New York City, Planck had the opportunity to compare meat, milk, fruit, and vegetables from small farms using traditional farming methods to foods from industrial farms. Her experience led her to determine that a diet of "real food" is healthy (including raw milk, red meat, lard, and other foods commonly deemed unhealthy) while asserting that modern, industrial food is the true culprit for many of our modern health problems, particularly obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

To support her assertion, Planck presents a well-researched comparison of the nutritional values of traditional versus modern foods. Her research illustrates why butter is better than margarine, why pastured meat contains more vitamins than industrial meat, and why we should not be afraid of the incredible edible egg.

Beyond the nutritional analyses, Real Food is a fascinating look at the history of the food industry, charting how we moved from farm-fresh foods to the processed food industry we know today. Two examples that stuck with me:

  • Butter from pastured cows is naturally yellow. When margarine was first invented in the late 19th century, the margarine makers tried to compete with the dairy industry by dying the margarine yellow. "With the help of friendly politicians, dairy farmers put a stop to yellow dye, and five states with dairy muscle even forced margarine makers to dye it pink, apparently intending to make it look ridiculous. Undeterred, margarine makers responded by selling the white blocks with a packet of yellow dye to mix in at home. This, presumably, would fool the family - if not the cook."
  • Describing how eggs became taboo, Planck relates, "In 1968 food scientists met to sort out a safe amount of cholesterol to consume. Some were opposed to the very idea, while others firmly believed dietary cholesterol had a significant effect on blood cholesterol, and after much haggling they reached a compromise. The average intake of cholesterol was about 580 milligrams per liter of blood. Halving that, they settled on 300 milligrams - a political solution." Eggs contain 270-something milligrams.
Planck's overall conclusion is that we should return to eating the foods our grandparents ate: "Unlike industrial food, real food is fundamentally conservative. It is the food you already know: roast chicken, tomato salad with olive oil, creamed spinach, sourdough bread, peach ice cream. To me, that's a relief. When you rule out industrial foods altogether, it does simplify things a bit."

My Opinion:

A friend of mine recommended this book to me but then added as an afterthought, "As I'm typing, I'm remembering that she is an ex-vegetarian, and thinks that meat is important, so I don't know that you'd agree with her on everything." I think that statement, although written by a friend before I even read the book, could summarize how I feel about Real Food.

Planck was a vegetarian/vegan in her late teens and early twenties. She states that during her vegetarian years, she gained weight and generally felt unhealthy. When she started eating meat again, she lost weight and felt better. That experience led her down a path of nutritional research, culminating in her philosophy of eating.

I think her experience is valid, but I've also been a vegetarian for 11 years, have been able to maintain a healthy weight through three pregnancies, and have never felt unhealthy. Additionally, because of her assertion that vegetable oil (as a modern innovation) rather than saturated fats is one of the true culprits causing obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, you would have to conclude that vegetarians and especially vegans would have higher rates of those diseases because they would use more vegetable oil, less butter, and no animal fats. But how many fat vegetarians do you know?

Because much of her ideas were premised on her experience with vegetarianism, I read the rest of the book doubtfully. I completely agree that pasture-raised meat and eggs are better than industrial, that we should eat lots of fruits and veggies, and that we shouldn't be afraid of butter. But about other things, I'm not so sure. Raw milk, for instance. Or lard.

I also think that Planck's insistence that real foods don't cause heart disease could lead people to feel like they can eat as much meat and potatoes (slathered in butter and cream) as they want. But personally, I think that the biggest cause of obesity is simple overeating, and we have to remember that the traditional diet was combined with traditional hard work that kept people slim and fit. A meat and potatoes diet combined with sitting on your butt all day is not going to prevent obesity.

Since finishing this book, I find myself every now and then thinking about some of Planck's ideas. But whether or not it will change anything about the way I eat remains to be seen.

Next up on my reading list...In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan


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