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Author and food activist Nina Planck was raised on a family farm in Virginia, where she learned to appreciate "real," traditional foods. She worked as a reporter for TIME Magazine[…]

A conversation with the founder of London Farmers’ Markets and author of “Real Food: What to Eat and Why.”

Question: How did your upbringing affectrnyour ideas about food?rnrnrnrn

Nina Planck: rnMyrnmother raised us on real food and she was a fan of Adelle Davis who was thernpioneering slightly out of the mainstream nutritionist, but a laywoman, rightrnand so then a lot of people attacked her for not knowing enough, who came outrnof California.  In the ‘60s andrn‘70s she had a pretty big following and Adelle Davis had very simple principlesrnall of which have been pretty much borne out by the subsequent science, wholernfood, B vitamins, real meat, real milk, traditional fats.  She has a few clunkers that don’trnsurvive the test of time, which you come across in her books, but on the wholerneverything she said proved to be true and so my mother raised us on whole wheatrnbread and the proverbial blackstrap molasses.  We made granola once a week.  The children had an assignment to make granola.  We also ate all the meats.  It was not a vegan, hippie commune, ourrnlittle farm, so we had very traditional simple American meals like fried chicken,rnmeatloaf.  I remember a food Irnregarded as one of our super frugal meals was macaroni with tuna and creamrnsauce, which I loved.  My motherrnused to dip her toast in the bacon fat and nothing was off limits except whiternsugar and white flour.  Those wouldrnhave been my mother’s standards and she used to say no matter how little moneyrnwe have we’ll always have real maple syrup, real olive oil and realrnbutter.  We also had a cow andrnchickens in addition to the vegetables we were growing on our vegetable farm,rnso we drank raw milk.  We didn’trnmake any cheese or dairy products. rnThat would have been more homesteady than we were and we were reallyrnbusy as commercial vegetable farmers, but we did have fresh eggs and fresh milkrnand then what we couldn’t raise ourselves we bought or bartered for at thernfarmers markets and in the dead of winter we shopped at the supermarkets.

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Question: What is "real food?"

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Nina Planck: My concept of "real food"rnwas grounded in my mother’s lessons for us, which were that it should bernwhole.  It should bernnutritional.  It should bernsimple.  It shouldn’t be processed,rna small number of ingredients.  Andrnthen I sort of went off track and in my teens and twenties became a vegan and arnvegetarian and tried low fat diets and low saturated fat diets and lowrncholesterol diets and the reason I did that was not so much a thumb in the facernof my mother, although perhaps we’re all acting against our parents in somernways, but more because it was the conventional wisdom of the time in the late ‘80srnand the early 1990s that less fat was good.  Less saturated fat was good.  Less animal fat, less cholesterol, more plant foods, so Irnassumed that if all those things were true that a nonfat vegan diet wasrnprobably the best of all and that’s what I tried. And things went alongrnfine.  No one would have called mernsick, but on vegan and low fat diets in fact, my health suffered and I was 25rnpounds heavier than I am now and I had a host of minor complaints and no onernreally would have ever called me ill or certainly they wouldn’t have suspectedrnmy perfect diet because I was not a junk food vegan or vegetarian.  I ate brown rice and beans.  I ate olive oil.  I ate fruits and vegetables.  I just didn’t eat many traditionalrnfoods, how I now understand it.

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So what broughtrnme back to real food was a wonderful serendipity.  I was living in London and I had started the first Americanrnstyle farmers' markets in London in 1999 and when I grew up in the Washington D.C.rnarea at the farmers markets there were the vegetable people like and the fruitrnguys and then there was the plant lady and the honey man and the baker, atrnfarmers' markets.  When I started myrnfirst little farmers' market in London I had farmers even at my first little marketrnwith only 16 producers selling grass-fed and pastured beef and lamb and porkrnand chicken.  They were selling rawrnmilk cheeses and cream and sausages and meat pies and fish and all sorts ofrnwonderful things.  So then I got arnbook contract and that was to write the farmers' market cookbook and I had justrnbeen dabbling around with eggs and with fish and I was no longer vegan and nornlonger a vegetarian, but I wasn’t eating… rnI was not yet a carnivore or an omnivore even, and so I didn’t want tornwrite a vegetarian or even a fish-and-eggs farmers’ market cookbook.  I felt I had to honor all the foodrnproducers at the markets and all the eaters as well, so I looked around and Irnsaw the farmers of these wonderful traditional foods – the meat, the eggs, therndairy, the fats – were healthy and happy people and seemed to enjoy their foodrnand the eaters were healthy and happy people and certainly enjoyed all thosernfoods and I began to wonder whether I shouldn’t try these foods. So for myrncookbook I tried every food at our markets and wrote recipes and ate all thernrecipes. And it was along the way that I slowly became an omnivore again. Andrnwith each food I ate, with each fat, with each rich thing, with each red meat,rnwith each forbidden and taboo thing, with each item that the cardiologists werernbanning in the U.S. – and in Britain as well – my health improved quiterndramatically.  I lost 25rnpounds.  I didn’t have to exercisernas much.  I used to run six miles,rnsix times a week.  I had colds andrnflu in flu season.  My nails andrnhair and skin were dry.  Myrndigestion was terrible.  All ofrnthose problems melted away when I became an omnivore again.

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Question: Can eating more lard and butterrnreally make you healthier?

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Nina Planck: It’s about the traditional foodsrnversus the industrial foods and therein lies the tale I put in real foodrnbecause when I started to eat all these foods I wondered will I feel great andrnI’m thriving, but perhaps the nutritionists and the cardiologists are right andrnsoon my arteries will be clogged like a drain and I’ll be dead at 32. So Irnwanted to do some homework on real food.  So I set out to find out whether itrnwas true.  Is it true that theserntraditional foods, these meats and these fats are responsible for what theyrncall the "diseases of civilization" – and those are generally the three diet-related diseases that are crippling Americans right now – and they are obesity,rndiabetes and heart disease. rnThey’re known as the "diseases of civilization," but I came to find thatrnthat was a misnomer.  They arerntruly the diseases on industrialization because the ancient Greeks and othersrnwere certainly civilized and they did not suffer from these diseases.  We began to suffer from these threerndiseases around the time we started to convert traditional foods intornindustrial foods, so one-by-one I looked at each food and once again I foundrnthat wherever you come from, whatever part of the world, whether it’s therntropics where coconut oil is the norm, or its northern climes where you’rerneating a lot of reindeer meat or seal blubber, or it’s the Scottish Islandsrnwhere you have hardly any access to fruits and vegetables – wherever you look at traditional dietsrnyou find a little list of traditional and what I came to call real foods andrnyou do not find the diseases of industrialization.  All the foods are good, but I did look at each food and werncan talk about them.  I looked atrnsaturated fat in particular.  Irnlooked at cholesterol in particular. rnI looked at red meat, which is accused of causing cancer. And then Irnlooked at the substitutes for these traditional foods that we’ve now added tornour diet: the industrial foods, soybean oil, corn oil, refined flour, refinedrnsugar, trans-fats, which are artificial man-made saturated fats and in eachrninstance I found that these industrial foods were responsible for obesity,rndiabetes and heart disease. And other conditions too, but these are the threernthat people are most concerned with. And just add these three conditions arerndefinitely diet related.  Itrndoesn’t mean the diet is their only cause.  They are famously multi-factorial conditions.

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Question: Why do most of us eat foods thatrnaren't good for us?

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Nina Planck: rnWellrnwe start with what traditional foods are and here is some principles:One is that they’re whole. They haven’t been broken down intorntheir component parts or reassembled. And they haven’t had things added to themrnor removed, so they’re not engineered to be high in one thing or low inrnanother, so real food is…  Low-carbrnbread is not real food.Orangernjuice with added vitamin A and vitamin D is not real food.  So that’s the firstrnprinciple.  

The second is thatrntraditional foods spoil and a good rule of thumb is to eat foods that do spoil,rnbut eat them before they do.  Therernare a few wonderful traditional foods that don’t spoil.  Honey is one that lasts forever.  Sorndoes wine.  These are some of therngreatest foods on earth, but they are unusual.  Traditional foods spoil. And traditional foods work as whole foods,rnso their component parts are all created by God or nature, as you prefer, tornwork together.  So in egg for example the complete nutritional package is thernyolk and the white, not one or the other. rnThe same is true of milk, which is a highly complex food.  You require, for example, the saturatedrnfats in particular in milk to absorb the calcium, so it’s no good for yourrnbones to drink skim milk. 

So if wernlook at those basic principles of traditional foods we begin to understandrnindustrial foods, because what they’ve done with industrial foods is they’verncreated foods that never spoil – and who does that serve but distributors andrnretailers? – and they’ve created foods which have had parts removed, which arernoften the valuable parts, so for example, when they remove the bran and thernfiber from a whole grain and make white flour, the vitamin E, which is very valuable goes to industrialrndairy cattle because without vitamin E in their diets, which they would getrnfrom grass, they would suffer poor health.  And the fiber goes off to places thatrnneed… places, people and animals that need fiber. So they remove things ofrnvalue.  Industrial salt, veryrnsimilar, comes with dozens and dozens of trace elements.  They remove those and they’re quiternuseful for the chemical industry, leaving you with stripped-down salt, whichrnthey have to re-iodize. So that is one important principle, shelf life and alsornremoving valuable items. But then by reengineering them and enhancing them – andrnI put that in quotation marks – they then add value to them again, but reallyrnonly to the food manufacturer. So by putting vitamins A and D in orange juicernthey try to persuade the consumer that it’s a more nutritious product when inrnfact God or nature, again as you prefer, never put vitamin A and D in orangernjuice because it doesn’t belong there and the product isn’t enhanced by itrnbecause vitamin A and D are fat-soluble, so a little bit of synthetic vitamin Arnand D in a glass of orange juice doesn’t do anything for your body.  You have to consume some fat to absorbrnthose vitamins. If we look at animalrnproduction we also see that it’s just cheaper to feed animals on industrialrnanimal food and produce an industrial animal than it is to feed them on arntraditional diet.  We’re nowrnlearning just how frugal and sensible in ecological and financial terms it isrnto raise animals on a traditional diet, but the industrial model of animalrnproduction at the moment is very much to make the food… fatten them quickly andrnmake the food as cheap as possible and use as many drugs as possible to get thernanimal to market as quickly as possible. rnThis is short-termism in the worst way for the animal, for the ecologyrnand for human health, but that is their thinking. 

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Question: Did our ancestors really eatrnbetter than we do today?

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Nina Planck: rnYes.  Well it’s a great blessing that we canrnbuy foods from all over the globe and 12 months a year.  I feel grateful that I don’t have tornown a mango plantation to get a mango when I want one and I have somewhatrnsimplified the history of the human diet here as you can imagine.  We look to traditional cultures for thernfoods they ate for many hundreds or thousands or even millions of years if werngo back to our human forebears, but that doesn’t mean that every family orrnvillage ate that way at every moment in history.  What I’ve assembled is a list of real or traditional foodsrnthat are largely whole and unadulterated and produced and processed andrnprepared in the same way they once were and I found that those foods are allrnhealthy.  In practice each culturernin each region had a quite… a limited diet and what is interesting if you lookrnat the very limited diets is that they’re able to find all the nutrients thatrnhumans require from 0 to 100, including reproduction over many generations fromrnthose limited foods.  So you asked,rnfor example, the people who don’t have a green grocer or a farmers' marketrnnearby.  They’re in northern climesrnand they have very little access to fresh vegetables or, say, citrus.  Where do they get their vitamin C?  Well they get it from the lichen thatrnis digested in reindeer stomachs. rnThey get it from preserving little arctic wildflowers in seal oil.  There is a source in each of theserntraditional cultures for every nutrient the human needs and I want to stressrnthe importance of the intergenerational nutrition because it may be that you orrnI could thrive on a vegan diet for a time, but eventually there is no way tornsustain human life and reproduction over many generations without foods of thernsea and without foods of animal origin. rnThere just isn’t any way. rnWe were not created as herbivores. rnWe were created as omnivores and there are number of nutrients fromrnvitamin B12 to vitamins A and D, which are found only in foods of animal originrnto long chain omega-3 fats that you simply cannot get from leaves no matterrnwhat the vegan sites will tell you.

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Question: Why is it better to eat locallyrngrown foods?

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Nina Planck: rnWellrnmy main reason for eating local food is that local food tastes better.  There are lots of side benefits to you,rnthe ecology and the farmer from eating local food. But the fact remains thatrnsome foods don’t travel well. rnPeaches are one.  Fresh milkrnthat hasn’t been homogenized and hasn’t been ultra-pasteurized is another.  Again, these are foods that spoil.  In the case of the peach it must bernpicked ripe for the sugars even to be developed and for it to taste good and arnripe peach bruises.  In the case ofrnmilk it’s because milk is a highly perishable food and it either has to be maderninto cheese or yogurt.  Cheese hasrnbeen called milk’s leap into immortality. rnOr it has to be consumed or fed to the pigs.  So we find the beautiful thing about preserving foods inrntraditional cultures is that when you preserve foods in traditional manner… inrna traditional manner, the nutrients and the flavor are enhanced and when thernindustrial food guys go about preserving foods they remove perishable nutrientsrnand reduce the flavor only to prolong the shelf life. So if we come back tornlocal foods for a minute we should eat the foods that spoil and perish locallyrnbecause they’ll taste better and be in peak condition and then we should bernpreserving them in a traditional manner, so that we have, say, pickles and tomatornsauce from our region in the dead of winter.  And there a great tradition ofrnpreserving the local harvest is fermentation of all kinds and you do find thatrncultured, fermented,soured,rnpickled foods are common across all cultures because they had to eat in thernwintertime. 

Now if you want to eatrnlocal food for reasons other than your own health and pleasure, there arernmany…  If you eat the view you’rernable to preserve the view.  If yourneat heritage breeds, which don’t thrive in industrial production methods thenrnyou preserve the biodiversity and genetics of all these rare animals, yes, byrneating them.  The same goes for therndiversity of crops from fruit and vegetable farmers. And we of course reducernfood miles and our carbon footprint by eating locally.

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Question: Is eating "real food"rnenvironmentally responsible?

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Nina Planck: rnEatingrnreal food is absolutely environmentally responsible, if by real food we look tornfoods of animal origin – that is meat, dairy and eggs – to traditional methods ofrnproduction. So the argument which was most forcefully made by Francis MoorernLappe in "Diet for a Small Planet" that meat production isrnenvironmentally destructive and even socially unjust was sound insofar as itrnwent because it was a critique of industrial meat production.  If we look to traditional methods ofrnproduction, which we call grass farming in a very simple definition that isrnraising animals for meat on grass and raising…  Those are beef, dairy, cattle and lamb and raising chicken andrnpigs on pasture, but with supplemental feed because they’re omnivores too.  If we look to those methods we findrnthat those are not only environmentally sound, but enhance thernenvironment.  They make use ofrnun-farmable land.  They can evenrnenhance riparian areas.  Those arernwetlands.  And certainly there arernno unpleasant and costly byproducts from raising animals that way and I’ll justrncite one example, cattle manure is a major environmental waste product.  It is housed in what are called manurernlagoons.  They’re basically hugerncesspools near industrial cattle and hog operations.  There are so-called environmental grants in order to creaternimpermeable pools.  That is cementrnfloors for these pools to keep this waste product from leaching intorngroundwater.  This is what passesrnfor environmental legislation, right? rnWe give you a grant to keep a waste product out of the groundwater.  Much simpler to let the cattle walkrnaround on grass and feed themselves rather than put them in a feedlot and stuffrnthem on grain where you have to remove the manure because in this way thernspread the manure around themselves on grass and pasture that needs it.  Wendell Barry described – you know ourrngreat agronomy philosopher – described industrial cattle and hog operations asrnneatly dividing one solution into two problems, so the solution would be letrnthe animals feed themselves on grass and spread their manure themselves withrntheir own four hooves, rather than pooling their manure so that we then have twornproblems.  One, ground that needsrnnitrogen fertilizer and two, a manure cesspool that needs… that becomes a toxicrnwaste dump.

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Question: Why are you such a big fan ofrndairy?

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Nina Planck: rnI’m arngreat fan of dairy products for humans, in general. But dairy is a very complexrnfood socially and nutritionally and culturally and so it requires a littlernbit…  that statement requires arnlittle bit of unpacking.  Many,rnmany cultures thrive on dairy products of all kinds.  The best dairy products are traditional, so they come fromrngrass-fed cows.  The milk isrnun-homogenized.  The milk isrnideally unpasteurized or raw because there are many heat-sensitive nutrients inrnmilk and then those dairy products are often prepared in traditional ways, sornusually fermented or cultured, made into cheese or yogurt or butter, which isrnreally just removing everything but the fat, ghee, which is truly everythingrnbut the fat.  So we start there.  The best dairy is traditional and isrnoften prepared in a way that makes it more digestible for people who are notrnaccustomed to consuming fresh dairy products in adulthood. 

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So it has beenrnsuggested that many people are lactose-intolerant.  This isn’t really accurate.  What we’re actually describing is in adulthood we stoprnproducing lactase, the enzyme which helps us breakdown fresh milk.  We’re all born producing lots and lotsrnof lactase because we are mammals and we’re breast-fed traditionally.  So in arnfew cultures the adults carryon producing this enzyme, which allows them torndigest fresh milk, but particularly if they lived in hot cultures they weren’trnable to keep fresh milk from spoiling hence, the production of yogurt and otherrnthings to keep fresh milk around for more than a day or two. So if you have a lookrnyou can find actually the ability to continue to produce lactase in adulthoodrnhas arisen as a genetic capacity, as a competence of the human body in multiplernplaces in human history, so lots of people can produce the lactase to digestrnfresh milk and a number of those genetic mutations, for that is what they are,rnhave occurred in Africa as well. rnSo the idea that I’m Asian or I’m African, of African or Asian origin,rnand I can’t digest milk is simply untrue. rnThat said, there are cultures who thrive without dairy products altogether.  There are some in Asia. And it is quite possibly to feed a human beautifully without consuming anyrndairy products. So the question is where to get the nutrients dairy productsrncontain.In the historic,rntraditional fairly recent American diet dairy products are just flat-out one ofrnthe best sources of fat-soluble vitamins A and D and of calcium.  They’re a beautiful, beautiful,rnbeautiful balanced recipe for protein, fat and carbohydrates, which is one ofrnthe reasons I love milk for children and pregnant women and nursingrnmothers.  And you can, if you needrnto, get these nutrients somewhere else, so the place to get them if you don’trnthrive on or care for dairy products in bone broth for the calcium and otherrnminerals, so chicken soup, beef broth, veal stock. And the vitamins A and Drnyou’ll get from seafood and pork products, egg yolks too.

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Question: Is it really safe to drink raw,rnunpasteurized milk?

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Nina Planck: rnWellrnthe first thing to understand about the FDA is that the USDA and FDA and otherrngovernment institutions are very critical of traditional foods.  Without actually applying objectivernstandards to how those traditional foods might be prepared in a safe andrnhealthy and hygienic manner and so all their numbers on raw milk arerndubious.  There are a number ofrnfood borne contaminants and illnesses, which are pose a much, much greater riskrnto you and me statistically than the consumption of raw milk.  

That said, if you choose to consumerntraditional foods such as raw fish, which I eat, or raw milk, which I drink andrnmy whole family drinks – including our children – you need to be absolutely surernof the source and find someone who cares a great deal about traditional methodsrnof production and hygiene.  So whyrndo we drink raw milk even though there is a small chance we’ll get sick?  Well I find first after doing all myrnresearch that I trust the traditional food chain more than I trust thernindustrial food chain.  There are arnnumber or risks from eating industrial food and I try to minimize and avoidrnthose risks too.  We drink raw milkrnsimply because it’s got more good food in it, so there are a couple of heat-sensitive nutrients in raw milk, which are of interest.  One is heat-sensitive vitamins.  Some of the B vitamins are damaged byrnpasteurization.  Another is thatrnthe fats are rather delicate in milk. rnThe omega-3 fats are sensitive to heat and there will be omega-3 fats inrngrass-fed milk and so it’s nice to preserve those.  Another is enzymes, which help you digest the otherrnnutrients in milk, so here are some enzymes which are deactivated or otherwisernsomehow limited after pasteurization. rnLipase, which helps you digest lipids or fats. Phosphatase, which helpsrnyou absorb calcium, a key nutrient in milk, which is why raw milk contains morernavailable calcium. And our old friend lactase, the enzyme that helps you digestrnlactose, the basic carbohydrate in milk and there are tons of milk sugars, butrnlactose is the big one, is damaged by pasteurization. So I have met not a fewrnpeople who say they were doubled over from gut pain when they drank milk andrnconcluded they were so-called lactose-intolerant, who drank fresh, clean, raw milkrnwithout any trouble.  Well, itrncontains plenty of lactase.

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Question: What's so great about organicrneggs?

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Nina Planck: rnTherernis a lot to understand about real eggs and industrial eggs and there is a vastrndifference between them. That said, I want my bumper sticker to be that eggsrnare real food and everyone should eat real food because they are also a greatrnfood.  A whole fresh egg – that isrnthe yolk, the white inside the shell – they’re a great frugal real food. So ifrnyou’re anywhere near the poverty line eat eggs anyway wherever you can findrnthem, just don’t eat some kind of fake egg or re-engineered and reassembled egg. 

So now what is the best egg?  An industrial egg comes from arnchicken.  She is in a little cagernwith some other chickens. There are… rnI have been on chicken farms where the farmer was boasting the he putrnonly three hens in a cage, which actually permits nine.  The chickens were still on top of eachrnother.  She never goesrnoutdoors.  Artificial light tellsrnher little ovaries when to lay an egg and she is fed chickenfeed that mayrncontain other animal parts.  It mayrncontain plate waste or parts of pigs or cattle or other chicken. And that isrnbecause the chicken is an omnivore. rnShe can’t live on grass and plants alone.  She needs some protein.  She needs some bugs. rnShe needs some corn and other grain and her eggs are – in addition torncausing suffering to the laying hen herself – her eggs lack the rich vitamin Arnthat she would get from eating the beta-carotene in grass and they lack thernomega-3 fats, which she would get from eating worms and bugs if she werernactually running around. 

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So, then we havernorganic eggs, which are typically fed vegetarian feed.  That is a good thing because they’rernnot eating other ground up animals. rnIt’s a bad thing because chickens really do want to be outside and ifrnthey had been outside a little they would have eaten a worm.  They wouldn’t be strictlyrnvegetarian.  You might find a freernrange on the label with or without the term organic.  She’ll be eating organic feed, so there are no pesticides inrnher feed, which is a good thing. rnIf you see the term "free-range" this merely means that she is not cagedrnand there is a wide range of actual practices, which attach to the label "free-range." So "free-range" is better, but not necessarily great.  It doesn’t mean necessarily that sherngoes outside and so the happiest hen with the healthiest eggs for you is a so-called "pastured hen" and it means that she goes outside and in the dead of thernwinter they can send them outside too. rnThere is not a lot to eat out there in say upstate New York, which is myrnregion in the dead of winter.  Irnknow farmers who throw alfalfa sprouts and other things over the side, so theirrnchickens are getting some greenery. rnScratching in the dirt is what chickens love most of all and they’ll dornit even in the snow, so look for the term "pastured" if you can.

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Question: Why are real foods better forrnfertility, pregnancy and nursing?

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Nina Planck: rnWell,rnwhen I got pregnant I knew I would be eating real and traditional foods, and Irnwanted also to look at the conventional thinking on pre-natal diets. And I foundrnit to be riddled with myths and misunderstandings, so I went back to my booksrnand traditional cultures and started to look at what they fed young men andrnwomen who were newly married and were expected to reproduce forthwith, and wernfind a couple of things in traditional cultures and these were backed up byrnresearchI found that are at oddsrnwith our attitudes toward feeding expectant parents and pregnant women.  And one is that without question everyrntraditional culture recognized that this was a period, the period from zero – Irncall that conception – to age two of heightened nutritional needs and they tookrngreat care about feeding young women, young men, pregnant women, nursing womenrnand children very well, much more care than we take. And they took care withrnwhat I call the fertility diet, so the period before conception.  And what principles do we findrnthere?  One is that these were notrnvegan diets – even in largely vegetarian tribes who did consume some dairy and/or eggs or bugs or something, but not meat – you find a lot of attention paid torngetting men and women who would be mothers and fathers foods of animalrnorigin.  So it’s very much anrnomnivore’s diet if you want to get pregnant and have healthy children. 

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The second isrnthat all of these fertility diets and pregnancy diets included foods of thernsea, even for landlocked tribes, which I found quite interesting, so tribes whornwere say up in the mountains or who were largely farming tribes would tradernwith other peoples who had access to foods of the sea and it turns there arernjust some vital nutrients in the sea. rnIodine is one.  The longrnchain omega-3 fats are another that you just must have for conception and for arnhealthy pregnancy. 

And, finally, Irnfound that there were a few misconceptions about feeding baby’s first foods. Andrnthis dates back to some industrial food marketing in our country, so the babyrnfood niche has been largely filled by cereals. But it turns out that cerealsrnare not the ideal first food for babies. rnThey lack amylase, which is a big starch-digesting enzyme until aboutrnage one.  A baby’s diet is somewhatrniron-poor because breast milk is by design iron-poor and grains interfere withrniron absorption.  Cereals basicallyrndon’t provide a lot of high quality fat and protein. So even though we’ve beenrnfeeding babies cereal out of jars for a long time the better foods are highrnquality fats, proteins and of course any digestible fruits and vegetables.  Avocados and bananas are time-honored.

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Question: Why do women in our culturernbreastfeed for less time than elsewhere in the world?

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Nina Planck: rnTherngood news is that breastfeeding has made a big comeback since rates were reallyrnlow in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  La LechernLeague and other groups have brought breastfeeding back. So it’s now wellrnunderstood by even the women on the street that breast milk is better than anyrnkind of formula no matter good the formulas are getting – and they are gettingrnbetter. So that is the good news. rnWomen could breastfeed longer. rnThe American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a minimum of six monthsrnexclusive breast milk. That is no water or any other food for a full six monthsrn– and ideally for a full year.  Therernare a number of advantages to extended breastfeeding.  Your definition of "extended" varies widely.  There are very…  There are women very committed tornnursing their toddlers.  I nursedrnour boy until he was two and he has had some since and he is now three, so somernof the benefits are that if you continue to breastfeed while you introducerncomplimentary real foods you provide a kind of nutritional baseline.  The period when your baby is beginningrnto experiment with foods – and at the moment I have twins who are eight monthsrnold, so I know just what this is like – is characterized by highly erraticrnconsumption patterns and highly uneven nutrition, so breast milk provides arnfoundation during that period. rn

Breast milk is also very important to the growing child because it notrnonly provides complete nutrition and provides a number of antibodies and reallyrnenhances immunity in multiple ways, but it develops and matures the digestiverntract and the immune system. So it has effects... it affects the whole developing child.  Two of the three systems, which arernimmature at birth, immunity and digestion, are greatly enhanced by breast milkrnand the third organ that is immature at birth is the brain.  There is a huge growth in the brain inrnwhat is called the fourth trimester of the first three months of the baby’srnlife and in fact, in the first year and it’s the DHA that is derived from fishrnoil in a mother’s breast milk that really enhances brain and eye health in yourrngrowing child.

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Question: What types of "realrnfoods" are best for women who are nursing?

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Nina Planck: rnIrnalso looked into the nursing diet and I found that it is not very different inrnprinciple or practice than the fertility diet or the prenatal diet, so foodsrnshould be traditional and nutrient dense and it should be an omnivore’s dietrnwith high quality fats including fish oil.  That much is pretty simple.  Across traditional cultures I looked for nursing foods andrnthen looked for the science to justify their inclusion in the nursing diet andrnwhat you find without fail are diets high in fluids because the nursing womanrnis easily dehydrated and chicken soup and fish soup are highly popular.  Those would be very high qualityrncalcium and mineral sources.  Yournfind beer on the nursing diet, which I expect is for its traces of vitamin B12,rnwhich is important and you do find fish on the nursing diet. 

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The good newsrnabout breast milk is that it’s quite a stable recipe, so whatever the motherrneats breast milk will be quite steady. rnThe mammary glands are very effective at producing what the baby needs, even if they have to ransack the mother’s own stores to get it.  However, we find a direct correlationrnbetween the fats in breast milk and the fatty tissue in the mother, that is herrnfat stores in her own body and in her diet. So if you look at a mother’s breastrnmilk and her consumption of trans-fats, for example – those are from artificially hydrogenated vegetable oils andrnthey cause heart disease and a number or bad things – you will see trans fats in her breast milk and herrndiet.  You will see trans fatrnconsumption across the whole population corresponding with trans fat quantitiesrnin the diet and the same is true of all the fats including the good fats, so wernfind that women who don’t eat enough fish or seafood don’t have enough DHA inrnthe breast milk.  The breast milkrnin particular of vegan mothers is very low in DHA, so it’s quite important tornhave a good supply of high-quality clean fish oil in your diet when you’rernbreastfeeding. 

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Question: What food issues are you mostrnconcerned about right now?

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Nina Planck: rnWell,rnI’m very concerned about the traditional foods versus imitation foods.  I still find people asking me about soyrnbutter that doesn’t contain trans-fats because now they know trans-fats arernbad.  They’re still asking me aboutrnsubstitute foods and imitations and engineered foods and foods with added thisrnor removed that and what I want them to understand is that the wholerntraditional foods are best.  Evenrnif they can’t afford the best quality version of beef or eggs or milk theyrnought to be consuming beef or eggs or milk instead of ersatz foods.

And I’m alsornconcerned about a plant based diet for pregnant mothers and for youngrnchildren.  There is a trend in manyrnurban areas for young children to be vegetarians and I gather from parents andrnfrom journalists that it’s the children who are requesting to be vegetariansrnand this is presented as charming. rnOnce Johnny finds out that the chicken breast comes from a chicken herncan’t bear to eat his friend the chicken. rnWell our son Julian who is three helps me take apart chickens regularly.  He completely understands that hisrnfriends the farm animals are also the foods we eat.  We are omnivores and nature created us as omnivores.  I think there are a lot of things fivernyear-olds might want.  They mightrnwant junk.  They might want junkrntelevision.  They might want to bernvegetarians.  But it’s not a good timernfor a person to be a vegetarian. rnIf, in adulthood, you’ve been well fed in your mother’s womb and at herrnbreast and in your growing years you want to experiment with a high qualityrnvegetarian diet – or even a very carefully planned vegan diet – I think that isrnacceptable, but I don’t think it’s right for children to be raised asrnvegetarians even if they ask. 

Therngood news also is that there are now ethically sound and ecologically soundrnways to be an omnivore, and so I would urge you, if you are conscientious aboutrnthese matters, to find the farmers who care for animals and care for plants andrncare for the environment and shop from them.

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Question: What is your ideal meal?

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Nina Planck: rnWellrnmy real food luxury would be a raw milk butler.  He would just bring raw dairy products including fresh rawrnmilk to our house.  Once a dayrnwould be fine, every other day I could live with. But we go to some time,rntrouble and expense to get fresh raw milk in our household.  And then a real food meal: I just lovernroast chicken and when I came off the vegetarian wagon I really, really enjoyedrnwhat they call in England the parson’s nose.  It’s the chicken tail and it is just this fatty littlernthing.  It’s delicious.  So I love a fresh green salad with highrnquality greens that have been raised in real rich soil and have realrnflavor.  We love good olivernoil.  I’m happy to spend money onrnit.  Gosh, I love good blue cheese.  I love homemade ice cream and I love tornmake pannacotta with raw cream, which I haven’t done for ages.  You can actually just use the littlernbit of gelatin and it’s a whole raw pannacotta.  I call it pannacrutta. rnThat recipe is on my Web site somewhere and I love a glass of wine and Irnlove chocolate. So those are a few things.

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Question: What foods are your guiltyrnpleasures?

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Nina Planck: rnMyrnguilty pleasure is to eat a big salad with nuts and cheese and meat day afterrnday after day, and not to make chicken broth and not to find some good roastrnbeef, so my guilty pleasure is sort of what I call "girl food" or "single girlrnfood."  But there is a man at home and there are children at home and so I can’trnjust feed them salads with blue cheese and walnuts day after day.  My industrial food guilty pleasure isrndefinitely white sugar.  We havernnot eliminated white sugar from our household or our diet, but I always preferrnwhole, unadulterated sugar, so whole unrefined cane sugar or maple syrup orrnhoney are definitely my sweeteners of choice, but the dark chocolate we eat – andrnby dark I mean 70% or higher – always contains a little bit of sugar, preferablyrnorganic, so I have not eliminated sugar from my diet and there are dishes thatrnare just not improved by maple syrup. rnYou know if you want a lemon meringue pie it just doesn’t taste rightrnsweetened with anything other than sugar and I love a little dessert.  I used to indulge in nonfat frozenrnyogurt and also in the sort of imitation crab you get at salad bars, but I nowrnrealize that those are lowest form of reconstituted fishmeal and the lowestrnform of dairy, if in fact there is any dairy in it, so I just don’t even botherrnnow and I don’t even miss those guilty pleasures

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Question: Is it hard for you to findrn"real food" in restaurants?

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Nina Planck: rnIrnmake some exceptions for eating out, although I don’t really write them down onrna note card, but while I would never ever buy farmed salmon and we havernbeautiful wild Alaskan salmon in the freezer, in the cupboard all the time I dornsometimes find myself eating farmed salmon at weddings or on airplanes, thatrnsort of thing.  One of my pleasuresrnof the moment after our three young children are in bed is to walk down thernstreet and for 20 minutes have a dozen oysters and one glass of sparkling winernat the local joint.  Oysters, by thernway, are great food for men and women who would like to be mothers and fathers.

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Question: What are a few things people canrndo to eat healthier?

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Nina Planck: rnIfrnyou want to change your diet the quickest way is to think about a couple ofrnthings you can eliminate and a couple of things you can add.  I gather from the latest studies onrnweight loss diets that most people try to do too much and I expect that is therncase with real food too.  So do yournknow how they refer to marijuana as a gateway drug to harder drugs like heroin?  Well I find that real milk is a gatewayrnfood to other real foods, so one thing you might do is just raise the standardsrnof your dairy consumption a little bit. So if milk is a staple in yourrnhousehold buy whole milk, not skim milk. rnBuy organic milk and not industrial milk.  Buy local, regional, grass-fed, un-homogenized milk.  And ifrnyou can, buy raw milk.  Buy betterrnquality dairy products.  Eliminaternany fake foods.  That is an easyrnone to remove.  If there is fakernbutter in your fridge, throw it away. rnClear out your pantry of anything that is ersatz, imitation or fake,rnanything that has been injected, engineered, reengineered.  You might consider eliminatingrnindustrial corn from your diet altogether – so that would be corn syrup, cornrnoil and all its friends actually, the yellow grain and seed oil, safflower oil,rnsunflower oil, soybean oil.  Theyrnare not good for you for a host of reasons we haven’t had time to discussrntoday.  You could eliminate corn-fed beef, which would be industrial beef and eat only better beef and you couldrneliminate corn syrup from your diet. rnThese would be quick ways to start.  And I would also just add if you have children in your housernit’s a great time to get motivated to do these things. 

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Above all, bernan omnivore.  Eat things inrnmoderation and eat the best quality food you can find and afford. And eat thernfoods that suit your body, your cuisine, your culture and your history. Andrndon’t worry if the guy next to you loves lamb and you don’t.  If beef is your thing, make it yourrnthing and don’t look over your shoulder. rnDon’t ask your mother what to eat. rnDon’t ask the USDA.  Don’trnask the guy next to you.  Learn howrnto eat for yourself and you’ll be liberated.

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