The Locavore’s Bookshelf: Real Food

Reading Nina Planck’s Real Food: What to Eat and Why was an exercise in both elation and frustration.

On the one hand, I was thrilled to read my own intuitive (and educated) trust in whole, natural foods ably articulated by a facile writer who makes a good case that a lot of conventional nutritional wisdom is not only not wise, but often, patently false.

On the other hand, I was also often frustrated by Planck’s tendency to overlook or undervalue regular exercise as a component to good health, as well as her inexplicable moments where she either forgot to cite a source for her fact, or she simply presents her opinion as fact.

Generally, I think that Real Food is a well-written and engaging look at -why- a diet based on natural, whole, traditional foods is healther for us than the industrially processed foods and fast foods that have proliferated like mushrooms after a rainstorm in the American diet since World War II. Parts of it are really entertaining and fun to read, especially when Planck talks about growing up on a vegetable farm in rural Virginia; much of her experience parallels my own in helping out on my grandparents’ farm in West Virginia. Her descriptions of how her family ate closely resembled my childhood meals to the point that I felt that some passages could have been written by myself or one of my cousins.

And, when Planck martials up her facts and has them lined up like little soldiers at attention, her arguments hit the target with a resounding and satisfying thud. Her chapters on fats and cholesterol are among the most convincingly written in the book, and rightfully so, for it is in those pages that she skewers the popular nutritional wisdom that saturated animal fats are evil, cholesterol is the enemy and margarine and Crisco are health foods that will save humanity from the horrors of butter and lard. When going up against such “known” nutritional and health claims as these, it behooves Planck to get her facts straight up and cite each and every study she possibly can which support her opinions.

And she does a damned fine job of it, too.

But other chapters are not so carefully written.

For example, when she talks about the wholesome nature of milk in the human diet, she mentions how healthy the Masai of East Africa are, when their diets are high in saturated animal fats from grassfed beef, beef blood and milk, which makes up the majority of their caloric intake.

She postulates that it is because of the chemical differences in the composition of the fats that come from raising cattle on grass that is the primary cause of the extremely good health of the Masai.

That may be; I am well aware of the evidence to support the position that beef and milk from grass-fed animals is significantly different and arguably much healthier for humans to consume than the meat and milk from cows fed grains, antibiotics and animal by-products. (Which is a nice way to say ground up feathers, chicken shit, blood and bones.)

However, the first thing that leapt to mind when she mentioned the Masai was this: the average tribal cow-herder such as a Masai male, gets more exercise in a -single day- than most American male desk jockeys get in a week or even a month. And, as far as I am concerned, that fact cannot be over-emphasized. Human beings evolved to move around and be active, not to be sedentary couch potatoes, and I suspect that it is just as much the activity level of the average Masai that is the cause of their lack of heart disease as it is the quality of their traditional diet.

To be fair, she does mention physical activity levels, as well as genetic factors when she talks about the seeming paradox that many traditional peoples seem to be able to eat diets that consist sometimes, of up to 56% of their calories coming from saturated fat, and yet they still have low incidences of obesity and heart disease. But, although these factors are mentioned, they are given shorter shrift than I think is necessary; her points about nutrition and diet are still valid. I just think that she damages her points by seeming to ignore the simple fact that a lot of the obesity problems in the US seem to be related to recent reductions in overall activity level among most Americans.

All in all, it is a good book; it is interesting, useful and well-written. Its flaws, while they bothered me, are really minor in the grand scheme of things. The message, while it was perhaps not stated perfectly, is still extremely valuable: eating a diet consisting of processed industrial foods, including trans-fats from margarine and partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening, too much sugar and refined flour is really not good for anyone.

Whereas, eating a varied diet consisting of whole foods such as seasonal (preferably locally grown) fruits and vegetables, wild caught fish and seafood, whole grains, legumes, whole milk, butter, cheese, fermented foods, olive oil, lard, pastured meats and eggs, and minimally refined sugars, is much better for humans.

While I don’t agree with every statement that Planck makes, I have to say that I do agree with her overall premise.

Real foods are good foods.

Eat them, and be not only healthy, but happy, because they taste really good–much better than the processed industrial foods that litter up the majority of our grocery store aisles.


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  1. For some reason, I’ve always been a firm believer in the virtues of animal fats. Butter, sour cream, cheese, chicken skin, lard (God help me)… I can’t quite talk my husband into buying whole milk, he was raised on skim, but I can at least get 2% — milk fat is good! I’ll use margarine and shortening for baking, since it does make a difference in texture, but otherwise it’s natural fats all the way.

    Might be cause I come from a dairy farming family, of course. 🙂

    Comment by Sibyl — August 1, 2006 #

  2. Barbara, have you read Sunday’s New York Times cover article about how much healthier we are than a century ago? It’s here:

    I find it a fascinating but troubling article. They’re arguing that not only are we living longer but we are in fact healthier than our ancestors of just four or so generations ago. But I can’t shake the feeling that something is missing in their data. I’d love to see you comment on this, if you have time.

    And thanks for the book review. I’m hoping to find time to read this book later in the year. (Along with the 250 other books I’m hoping to find time to read later in the year, sigh.)

    Comment by Kristi — August 1, 2006 #

  3. Sibyl–I am the exact opposite–I refuse to use margarine or vegetable shortening in my baking because I think that the natural fats–lard and butter– make a positive difference in both flavor and texture! I grew up with my mother insisting on margarine for every day, and who used Crisco for cooking–but when I took over the baking, I put my foot down and insisted on butter.

    Her mother used margarine–probably because Grandpa was frugal and it was cheaper, but she also used home-rendered lard for baking, and it showed. Her piecrusts were to die for.

    But my Dad’s mom, Gram–she swore by butter. She told me that the only time in her life she ate margarine was during WWII, and after the rationing was done, she -refused- to ever eat it again or serve it to anyone in her family. She swore up and down, all through my childhood that there was something wrong with it, that it wasn’t natural and she didn’t give a rat’s hind end what doctors said about it being “healthier,” she didn’t believe them, because there just had to be something wrong with a fat that was liquid at room temperature, being monkeyed with to make it solid.

    Turns out she was right. The first whiff of the dangers of transfats came out publicly in the early 1990’s–and really, it wasn’t very public–I read them in medical journals, because I was a pre-vet/pre-med student at the time. I remember telling Gram the next time I saw her what I had read, and she got a triumphant gleam in her eye and said, “Mark my words–they will find out more about that, and the more they find out, the worse margarine and Crisco will look.”

    Her intuition was correct.

    I just wish I could get my parents off of Crisco, margarine, industrial baked goods, non-dairy creamer and all those other trans-fat laden foods. But–they don’t listen to me….

    Kristi–I read that article on Sunday, and I have been thinking on it since then. I do intend to comment at length on it. One thing I was struck by was the way the data was collected–very ingenious, I must say.

    You have to keep in mind that this story talks about broad trends–and the trend has been for many generations, that each generation lives a bit longer, and a bit healthier than the last, at least in the US. There are many good reasons for this that are not necessarily directly related to medicine per se. One of which is nutrition–as the food supply becomes cheaper and more secure, and people have adequate nutrition, particularly during getstation and in childhood, you end up with a generation of healthier people. I do think that the researcher who has found that the period of fetal gestation to two years old is probably the most critical one for human health is on to something very big. I also think that pre-natal care for women, emphasizing healthy eating patterns, has also helped–if you have healthy mothers, you generally get healthy babies, and the healthier the baby and child–usually, the healthier the adult.

    Now, when I say that they are looking at broad trends, what I think may be troubling you is the fact that we are seeing many “newer” illnesses these days that did not exist or were not recongized four generations back. We have a lot of degenerative diseases that are probably linked to industrial pollution of the environment and the food supply. We are seeing a rise in autism and neural-tube and brain deformities in infants, which causes developmental issues–if not outright death. These bits of data are not entering into these scientist’s equations, because these trends are not -broad enough- yet.

    One thing that popped into my head as I read that article was another article I read recently that stated that the current generation of children who are growing up obese and often with Type II diabetes, are likely to be the first generation of children to live a shorter, less healthy lifespan than their parents….that is another bit of information that was not included in the article.

    Remember, the industrialization of the American food supply did not really start in earnest until after WWII. The widespread use of pesticides–neural toxins each and every one–and of chemical fertilizer, which were leftovers from the manufacture of munitons and explosives for the war effort, did not happen until after WWII, and chemical companies needed to switch over to a peacetime economy. They had stockpiles of chemical weapons and needed something to do with them, and so they turned their gaze to agriculture.

    Not surprisingly, the rise of the fast food restaurant and the practice of food processing and marketing did not really take off until after WWII, when women entered the workforce in the US in droves, and so convenience foods were seen as a godsend to the woman who both worked and kept the home.

    When you look at it that way–you can see that the period of the industrialization of food has been a very short one in American, and human history, and we have no idea what the long-term consequences of it can be.

    I suspect that this is what is niggling at your brain, Kristi. Because I know it is something that niggled at mine when I read the article. (Which I found quite fascinating, and generally, probably quite accurate as well…it is just that we will probably start seeing a downturn in health and lifespan among humans due to “overnutrition” or the over-availability of lower-quality industrial foodstuffs.)

    Comment by Barbara — August 1, 2006 #

  4. Sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for the insight!

    Comment by Erica — August 1, 2006 #

  5. I concur with your comments on exercise, Barbara. My recent “get healthy” efforts have taught me that one has to address both diet and physical activity – it doesn’t work if you only do one or the other!

    Comment by Hadar — August 1, 2006 #

  6. While the good effects of industrialization have largely been confined to the industrialized nations, the ill effects have travelled far. Developing countries not only have to contend with cheaper food stuff (grain and other ‘value-added’ products)that kills (this is not figurative, hundreds of farmers kill themselves all over rural India)the small time farmer, makes it even more difficult to grow ‘organically’ in the face of cheap fertilizers and pestisides (guess who is supplying…) and lopsided World Bank ‘help’. All this only make the matter more complex. To top this, we now have to fend off Monsanto that is undertaking field trials for brinjal and corn, amongst other crops, in India. Local varieties are threatened, local livlihoods are at peril. And to this, if we also add the fact that sizable portions of the population are uneducated (and undernourished) you can see which part of the world, North or South, is going to be eating GM foods.

    Some of you may be aware of the stand India and Brazil took at the recently failed WTO talks – it was the industrial nations wanting the ‘third world’ (I don’t like this term, as if it is in some universe far far away) to (further) open their markets to their subsidized farm goods and let the local farmers (many of whome are already at the brink of commiting suicide) compete with industrial scale farming. No wonder the talks failed, because this ‘other world’ is waking up to its size and figuring out ways to trade amongst themselves on their terms. How long they can hold out…depends…

    Comment by Anita — August 2, 2006 #

  7. I just found your site today (and should really pull myself away from your archives and go back to work!) and when I read this article I think I actually said, “exactly!” out loud when I read your point about the exercise. It was a very curious blank in her book, and one that I found pretty upsetting.

    As well, she didn’t really factor in the fact that if you live in -30 temperature for much of the year as the Inuit do, you NEED a high level of body fat so you don’t like, freeze to death. And that living in extreme cold takes a lot of energy. Or that hunter gathers move around constantly. I found I kept coming back to that, and I think it made me cast more doubt on the book than was fair. I did really like it though, and I’m pretty much convinced never to buy margarine again (not that I use almost any, but still!)

    Comment by Morgan — April 11, 2007 #

  8. […] (for a good review of Nina’s book from someone who’s actually finished it, check out this post from Tigers and Strawberries.) […]

    Pingback by I like Nina. I do. « The Cleaner Plate Club — May 22, 2007 #

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