Big Think Interview With Nina Planck

A conversation with the founder of London Farmers' Markets and author of "Real Food: What to Eat and Why."
  • Transcript


Question: How did your upbringing affect your ideas about food?

Nina Planck:  My mother raised us on real food and she was a fan of Adelle Davis who was the pioneering slightly out of the mainstream nutritionist, but a laywoman, right and so then a lot of people attacked her for not knowing enough, who came out of California.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s she had a pretty big following and Adelle Davis had very simple principles all of which have been pretty much borne out by the subsequent science, whole food, B vitamins, real meat, real milk, traditional fats.  She has a few clunkers that don’t survive the test of time, which you come across in her books, but on the whole everything she said proved to be true and so my mother raised us on whole wheat bread 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, our little farm, so we had very traditional simple American meals like fried chicken, meatloaf.  I remember a food I regarded as one of our super frugal meals was macaroni with tuna and cream sauce, which I loved.  My mother used to dip her toast in the bacon fat and nothing was off limits except white sugar and white flour.  Those would have been my mother’s standards and she used to say no matter how little money we have we’ll always have real maple syrup, real olive oil and real butter.  We also had a cow and chickens in addition to the vegetables we were growing on our vegetable farm, so we drank raw milk.  We didn’t make any cheese or dairy products.  That would have been more homesteady than we were and we were really busy as commercial vegetable farmers, but we did have fresh eggs and fresh milk and then what we couldn’t raise ourselves we bought or bartered for at the farmers markets and in the dead of winter we shopped at the supermarkets.

Question: What is "real food?"

Nina Planck: My concept of "real food" was grounded in my mother’s lessons for us, which were that it should be whole.  It should be nutritional.  It should be simple.  It shouldn’t be processed, a small number of ingredients.  And then I sort of went off track and in my teens and twenties became a vegan and a vegetarian and tried low fat diets and low saturated fat diets and low cholesterol diets and the reason I did that was not so much a thumb in the face of my mother, although perhaps we’re all acting against our parents in some ways, but more because it was the conventional wisdom of the time in the late ‘80s and the early 1990s that less fat was good.  Less saturated fat was good.  Less animal fat, less cholesterol, more plant foods, so I assumed that if all those things were true that a nonfat vegan diet was probably the best of all and that’s what I tried. And things went along fine.  No one would have called me sick, but on vegan and low fat diets in fact, my health suffered and I was 25 pounds heavier than I am now and I had a host of minor complaints and no one really would have ever called me ill or certainly they wouldn’t have suspected my 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 traditional foods, how I now understand it.

So what brought me back to real food was a wonderful serendipity.  I was living in London and I had started the first American style farmers' markets in London in 1999 and when I grew up in the Washington D.C. area at the farmers markets there were the vegetable people like and the fruit guys and then there was the plant lady and the honey man and the baker, at farmers' markets.  When I started my first little farmers' market in London I had farmers even at my first little market with only 16 producers selling grass-fed and pastured beef and lamb and pork and chicken.  They were selling raw milk cheeses and cream and sausages and meat pies and fish and all sorts of wonderful things.  So then I got a book contract and that was to write the farmers' market cookbook and I had just been dabbling around with eggs and with fish and I was no longer vegan and no longer a vegetarian, but I wasn’t eating…  I was not yet a carnivore or an omnivore even, and so I didn’t want to write a vegetarian or even a fish-and-eggs farmers’ market cookbook.  I felt I had to honor all the food producers at the markets and all the eaters as well, so I looked around and I saw the farmers of these wonderful traditional foods – the meat, the eggs, the dairy, the fats – were healthy and happy people and seemed to enjoy their food and the eaters were healthy and happy people and certainly enjoyed all those foods and I began to wonder whether I shouldn’t try these foods. So for my cookbook I tried every food at our markets and wrote recipes and ate all the recipes. And it was along the way that I slowly became an omnivore again. And with each food I ate, with each fat, with each rich thing, with each red meat, with each forbidden and taboo thing, with each item that the cardiologists were banning in the U.S. – and in Britain as well – my health improved quite dramatically.  I lost 25 pounds.  I didn’t have to exercise as much.  I used to run six miles, six times a week.  I had colds and flu in flu season.  My nails and hair and skin were dry.  My digestion was terrible.  All of those problems melted away when I became an omnivore again.

Question: Can eating more lard and butter really make you healthier?

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

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

Nina Planck:  Well we start with what traditional foods are and here is some principles: One is that they’re whole.  They haven’t been broken down into their component parts or reassembled. And they haven’t had things added to them or removed, so they’re not engineered to be high in one thing or low in another, so real food is…  Low-carb bread is not real food. Orange juice with added vitamin A and vitamin D is not real food.  So that’s the first principle.  

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

So if we look at those basic principles of traditional foods we begin to understand industrial foods, because what they’ve done with industrial foods is they’ve created foods that never spoil – and who does that serve but distributors and retailers? – and they’ve created foods which have had parts removed, which are often the valuable parts, so for example, when they remove the bran and the fiber from a whole grain and make white flour, the vitamin E, which is very valuable goes to industrial dairy cattle because without vitamin E in their diets, which they would get from grass, they would suffer poor health.  And the fiber goes off to places that need… places, people and animals that need fiber. So they remove things of value.  Industrial salt, very similar, comes with dozens and dozens of trace elements.  They remove those and they’re quite useful for the chemical industry, leaving you with stripped-down salt, which they have to re-iodize. So that is one important principle, shelf life and also removing valuable items. But then by reengineering them and enhancing them – and I put that in quotation marks – they then add value to them again, but really only to the food manufacturer. So by putting vitamins A and D in orange juice they try to persuade the consumer that it’s a more nutritious product when in fact God or nature, again as you prefer, never put vitamin A and D in orange juice because it doesn’t belong there and the product isn’t enhanced by it because vitamin A and D are fat-soluble, so a little bit of synthetic vitamin A and D in a glass of orange juice doesn’t do anything for your body.  You have to consume some fat to absorb those vitamins.  If we look at animal production we also see that it’s just cheaper to feed animals on industrial animal food and produce an industrial animal than it is to feed them on a traditional diet.  We’re now learning just how frugal and sensible in ecological and financial terms it is to raise animals on a traditional diet, but the industrial model of animal production at the moment is very much to make the food… fatten them quickly and make the food as cheap as possible and use as many drugs as possible to get the animal to market as quickly as possible.  This is short-termism in the worst way for the animal, for the ecology and for human health, but that is their thinking. 

Question: Did our ancestors really eat better than we do today?

Nina Planck:  Yes.  Well it’s a great blessing that we can buy foods from all over the globe and 12 months a year.  I feel grateful that I don’t have to own a mango plantation to get a mango when I want one and I have somewhat simplified the history of the human diet here as you can imagine.  We look to traditional cultures for the foods they ate for many hundreds or thousands or even millions of years if we go back to our human forebears, but that doesn’t mean that every family or village ate that way at every moment in history.  What I’ve assembled is a list of real or traditional foods that are largely whole and unadulterated and produced and processed and prepared in the same way they once were and I found that those foods are all healthy.  In practice each culture in each region had a quite… a limited diet and what is interesting if you look at the very limited diets is that they’re able to find all the nutrients that humans require from 0 to 100, including reproduction over many generations from those limited foods.  So you asked, for example, the people who don’t have a green grocer or a farmers' market nearby.  They’re in northern climes and 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 that is digested in reindeer stomachs.  They get it from preserving little arctic wildflowers in seal oil.  There is a source in each of these traditional cultures for every nutrient the human needs and I want to stress the importance of the intergenerational nutrition because it may be that you or I could thrive on a vegan diet for a time, but eventually there is no way to sustain human life and reproduction over many generations without foods of the sea and without foods of animal origin.  There just isn’t any way.  We were not created as herbivores.  We were created as omnivores and there are number of nutrients from vitamin B12 to vitamins A and D, which are found only in foods of animal origin to long chain omega-3 fats that you simply cannot get from leaves no matter what the vegan sites will tell you.

Question: Why is it better to eat locally grown foods?

Nina Planck:  Well my main reason for eating local food is that local food tastes better.  There are lots of side benefits to you, the ecology and the farmer from eating local food. But the fact remains that some foods don’t travel well.  Peaches are one.  Fresh milk that 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 be picked ripe for the sugars even to be developed and for it to taste good and a ripe peach bruises.  In the case of milk it’s because milk is a highly perishable food and it either has to be made into cheese or yogurt.  Cheese has been called milk’s leap into immortality.  Or it has to be consumed or fed to the pigs.  So we find the beautiful thing about preserving foods in traditional cultures is that when you preserve foods in traditional manner… in a traditional manner, the nutrients and the flavor are enhanced and when the industrial food guys go about preserving foods they remove perishable nutrients and reduce the flavor only to prolong the shelf life. So if we come back to local foods for a minute we should eat the foods that spoil and perish locally because they’ll taste better and be in peak condition and then we should be preserving them in a traditional manner, so that we have, say, pickles and tomato sauce from our region in the dead of winter.  And there a great tradition of preserving the local harvest is fermentation of all kinds and you do find that cultured, fermented, soured, pickled foods are common across all cultures because they had to eat in the wintertime. 

Now if you want to eat local food for reasons other than your own health and pleasure, there are many…  If you eat the view you’re able to preserve the view.  If you eat heritage breeds, which don’t thrive in industrial production methods then you preserve the biodiversity and genetics of all these rare animals, yes, by eating them.  The same goes for the diversity of crops from fruit and vegetable farmers. And we of course reduce food miles and our carbon footprint by eating locally.

Question: Is eating "real food" environmentally responsible?

Nina Planck:  Eating real food is absolutely environmentally responsible, if by real food we look to foods of animal origin – that is meat, dairy and eggs – to traditional methods of production. So the argument which was most forcefully made by Francis Moore Lappe in "Diet for a Small Planet" that meat production is environmentally destructive and even socially unjust was sound insofar as it went because it was a critique of industrial meat production.  If we look to traditional methods of production, which we call grass farming in a very simple definition that is raising animals for meat on grass and raising…  Those are beef, dairy, cattle and lamb and raising chicken and pigs on pasture, but with supplemental feed because they’re omnivores too.  If we look to those methods we find that those are not only environmentally sound, but enhance the environment.  They make use of un-farmable land.  They can even enhance riparian areas.  Those are wetlands.  And certainly there are no unpleasant and costly byproducts from raising animals that way and I’ll just cite one example, cattle manure is a major environmental waste product.  It is housed in what are called manure lagoons.  They’re basically huge cesspools near industrial cattle and hog operations.  There are so-called environmental grants in order to create impermeable pools.  That is cement floors for these pools to keep this waste product from leaching into groundwater.  This is what passes for environmental legislation, right?  We give you a grant to keep a waste product out of the groundwater.  Much simpler to let the cattle walk around on grass and feed themselves rather than put them in a feedlot and stuff them on grain where you have to remove the manure because in this way the spread the manure around themselves on grass and pasture that needs it.  Wendell Barry described – you know our great agronomy philosopher – described industrial cattle and hog operations as neatly dividing one solution into two problems, so the solution would be let the animals feed themselves on grass and spread their manure themselves with their own four hooves, rather than pooling their manure so that we then have two problems.  One, ground that needs nitrogen fertilizer and two, a manure cesspool that needs… that becomes a toxic waste dump.

Question: Why are you such a big fan of dairy?

Nina Planck:  I’m a great fan of dairy products for humans, in general. But dairy is a very complex food socially and nutritionally and culturally and so it requires a little bit…  that statement requires a little bit of unpacking.  Many, many cultures thrive on dairy products of all kinds.  The best dairy products are traditional, so they come from grass-fed cows.  The milk is un-homogenized.  The milk is ideally unpasteurized or raw because there are many heat-sensitive nutrients in milk and then those dairy products are often prepared in traditional ways, so usually fermented or cultured, made into cheese or yogurt or butter, which is really just removing everything but the fat, ghee, which is truly everything but the fat.  So we start there.  The best dairy is traditional and is often prepared in a way that makes it more digestible for people who are not accustomed to consuming fresh dairy products in adulthood. 

So it has been suggested that many people are lactose-intolerant.  This isn’t really accurate.  What we’re actually describing is in adulthood we stop producing lactase, the enzyme which helps us breakdown fresh milk.  We’re all born producing lots and lots of lactase because we are mammals and we’re breast-fed traditionally.  So in a few cultures the adults carryon producing this enzyme, which allows them to digest fresh milk, but particularly if they lived in hot cultures they weren’t able to keep fresh milk from spoiling hence, the production of yogurt and other things to keep fresh milk around for more than a day or two. So if you have a look you can find actually the ability to continue to produce lactase in adulthood has arisen as a genetic capacity, as a competence of the human body in multiple places in human history, so lots of people can produce the lactase to digest fresh milk and a number of those genetic mutations, for that is what they are, have occurred in Africa as well.  So the idea that I’m Asian or I’m African, of African or Asian origin, and I can’t digest milk is simply untrue.  That 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 any dairy products. So the question is where to get the nutrients dairy products contain. In the historic, traditional fairly recent American diet dairy products are just flat-out one of the best sources of fat-soluble vitamins A and D and of calcium.  They’re a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful balanced recipe for protein, fat and carbohydrates, which is one of the reasons I love milk for children and pregnant women and nursing mothers.  And you can, if you need to, get these nutrients somewhere else, so the place to get them if you don’t thrive on or care for dairy products in bone broth for the calcium and other minerals, so chicken soup, beef broth, veal stock. And the vitamins A and D you’ll get from seafood and pork products, egg yolks too.

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

Nina Planck:  Well the first thing to understand about the FDA is that the USDA and FDA and other government institutions are very critical of traditional foods.  Without actually applying objective standards to how those traditional foods might be prepared in a safe and healthy and hygienic manner and so all their numbers on raw milk are dubious.  There are a number of food borne contaminants and illnesses, which are pose a much, much greater risk to you and me statistically than the consumption of raw milk.  

That said, if you choose to consume traditional foods such as raw fish, which I eat, or raw milk, which I drink and my whole family drinks – including our children – you need to be absolutely sure of the source and find someone who cares a great deal about traditional methods of production and hygiene.  So why do we drink raw milk even though there is a small chance we’ll get sick?  Well I find first after doing all my research that I trust the traditional food chain more than I trust the industrial food chain.  There are a number or risks from eating industrial food and I try to minimize and avoid those risks too.  We drink raw milk simply 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 by pasteurization.  Another is that the fats are rather delicate in milk.  The omega-3 fats are sensitive to heat and there will be omega-3 fats in grass-fed milk and so it’s nice to preserve those.  Another is enzymes, which help you digest the other nutrients in milk, so here are some enzymes which are deactivated or otherwise somehow limited after pasteurization.  Lipase, which helps you digest lipids or fats. Phosphatase, which helps you absorb calcium, a key nutrient in milk, which is why raw milk contains more available calcium. And our old friend lactase, the enzyme that helps you digest lactose, the basic carbohydrate in milk and there are tons of milk sugars, but lactose is the big one, is damaged by pasteurization. So I have met not a few people who say they were doubled over from gut pain when they drank milk and concluded they were so-called lactose-intolerant, who drank fresh, clean, raw milk without any trouble.  Well, it contains plenty of lactase.

Question: What's so great about organic eggs?

Nina Planck:  There is a lot to understand about real eggs and industrial eggs and there is a vast difference between them. That said, I want my bumper sticker to be that eggs are real food and everyone should eat real food because they are also a great food.  A whole fresh egg – that is the yolk, the white inside the shell – they’re a great frugal real food. So if you’re anywhere near the poverty line eat eggs anyway wherever you can find them, 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 a chicken.  She is in a little cage with some other chickens. There are…  I have been on chicken farms where the farmer was boasting the he put only three hens in a cage, which actually permits nine.  The chickens were still on top of each other.  She never goes outdoors.  Artificial light tells her little ovaries when to lay an egg and she is fed chickenfeed that may contain other animal parts.  It may contain plate waste or parts of pigs or cattle or other chicken. And that is because the chicken is an omnivore.  She can’t live on grass and plants alone.  She needs some protein.  She needs some bugs.  She needs some corn and other grain and her eggs are – in addition to causing suffering to the laying hen herself – her eggs lack the rich vitamin A that she would get from eating the beta-carotene in grass and they lack the omega-3 fats, which she would get from eating worms and bugs if she were actually running around. 

So, then we have organic eggs, which are typically fed vegetarian feed.  That is a good thing because they’re not eating other ground up animals.  It’s a bad thing because chickens really do want to be outside and if they had been outside a little they would have eaten a worm.  They wouldn’t be strictly vegetarian.  You might find a free range on the label with or without the term organic.  She’ll be eating organic feed, so there are no pesticides in her feed, which is a good thing.  If you see the term "free-range" this merely means that she is not caged and 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 she goes 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 the winter they can send them outside too.  There is not a lot to eat out there in say upstate New York, which is my region in the dead of winter.  I know farmers who throw alfalfa sprouts and other things over the side, so their chickens are getting some greenery.  Scratching in the dirt is what chickens love most of all and they’ll do it even in the snow, so look for the term "pastured" if you can.

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

Nina Planck:  Well, when I got pregnant I knew I would be eating real and traditional foods, and I wanted also to look at the conventional thinking on pre-natal diets. And I found it to be riddled with myths and misunderstandings, so I went back to my books and traditional cultures and started to look at what they fed young men and women who were newly married and were expected to reproduce forthwith, and we find a couple of things in traditional cultures and these were backed up by research I found that are at odds with our attitudes toward feeding expectant parents and pregnant women.  And one is that without question every traditional culture recognized that this was a period, the period from zero – I call that conception – to age two of heightened nutritional needs and they took great care about feeding young women, young men, pregnant women, nursing women and children very well, much more care than we take. And they took care with what I call the fertility diet, so the period before conception.  And what principles do we find there?  One is that these were not vegan 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 to getting men and women who would be mothers and fathers foods of animal origin.  So it’s very much an omnivore’s diet if you want to get pregnant and have healthy children. 

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

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

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

Nina Planck:  The good news is that breastfeeding has made a big comeback since rates were really low in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  La Leche League and other groups have brought breastfeeding back. So it’s now well understood by even the women on the street that breast milk is better than any kind of formula no matter good the formulas are getting – and they are getting better. So that is the good news.  Women could breastfeed longer.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a minimum of six months exclusive breast milk. That is no water or any other food for a full six months – and ideally for a full year.  There are a number of advantages to extended breastfeeding.  Your definition of "extended" varies widely.  There are very…  There are women very committed to nursing their toddlers.  I nursed our boy until he was two and he has had some since and he is now three, so some of the benefits are that if you continue to breastfeed while you introduce complimentary real foods you provide a kind of nutritional baseline.  The period when your baby is beginning to experiment with foods – and at the moment I have twins who are eight months old, so I know just what this is like – is characterized by highly erratic consumption patterns and highly uneven nutrition, so breast milk provides a foundation during that period. 

Breast milk is also very important to the growing child because it not only provides complete nutrition and provides a number of antibodies and really enhances immunity in multiple ways, but it develops and matures the digestive tract and the immune system. So it has effects... it affects the whole developing child.  Two of the three systems, which are immature at birth, immunity and digestion, are greatly enhanced by breast milk and the third organ that is immature at birth is the brain.  There is a huge growth in the brain in what is called the fourth trimester of the first three months of the baby’s life and in fact, in the first year and it’s the DHA that is derived from fish oil in a mother’s breast milk that really enhances brain and eye health in your growing child.

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

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

The good news about breast milk is that it’s quite a stable recipe, so whatever the mother eats breast milk will be quite steady.  The 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 correlation between the fats in breast milk and the fatty tissue in the mother, that is her fat stores in her own body and in her diet. So if you look at a mother’s breast milk and her consumption of trans-fats, for example – those are from artificially hydrogenated vegetable oils and they cause heart disease and a number or bad things – you will see trans fats in her breast milk and her diet.  You will see trans fat consumption across the whole population corresponding with trans fat quantities in the diet and the same is true of all the fats including the good fats, so we find that women who don’t eat enough fish or seafood don’t have enough DHA in the breast milk.  The breast milk in particular of vegan mothers is very low in DHA, so it’s quite important to have a good supply of high-quality clean fish oil in your diet when you’re breastfeeding. 

Question: What food issues are you most concerned about right now?

Nina Planck:  Well, I’m very concerned about the traditional foods versus imitation foods.  I still find people asking me about soy butter that doesn’t contain trans-fats because now they know trans-fats are bad.  They’re still asking me about substitute foods and imitations and engineered foods and foods with added this or removed that and what I want them to understand is that the whole traditional foods are best.  Even if they can’t afford the best quality version of beef or eggs or milk they ought to be consuming beef or eggs or milk instead of ersatz foods.

And I’m also concerned about a plant based diet for pregnant mothers and for young children.  There is a trend in many urban areas for young children to be vegetarians and I gather from parents and from journalists that it’s the children who are requesting to be vegetarians and this is presented as charming.  Once Johnny finds out that the chicken breast comes from a chicken he can’t bear to eat his friend the chicken.  Well our son Julian who is three helps me take apart chickens regularly.  He completely understands that his friends 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 five year-olds might want.  They might want junk.  They might want junk television.  They might want to be vegetarians.  But it’s not a good time for a person to be a vegetarian.  If, in adulthood, you’ve been well fed in your mother’s womb and at her breast and in your growing years you want to experiment with a high quality vegetarian diet – or even a very carefully planned vegan diet – I think that is acceptable, but I don’t think it’s right for children to be raised as vegetarians even if they ask. 

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

Question: What is your ideal meal?

Nina Planck:  Well my real food luxury would be a raw milk butler.  He would just bring raw dairy products including fresh raw milk to our house.  Once a day would be fine, every other day I could live with. But we go to some time, trouble and expense to get fresh raw milk in our household.  And then a real food meal: I just love roast chicken and when I came off the vegetarian wagon I really, really enjoyed what they call in England the parson’s nose.  It’s the chicken tail and it is just this fatty little thing.  It’s delicious.  So I love a fresh green salad with high quality greens that have been raised in real rich soil and have real flavor.  We love good olive oil.  I’m happy to spend money on it.  Gosh, I love good blue cheese.  I love homemade ice cream and I love to make pannacotta with raw cream, which I haven’t done for ages.  You can actually just use the little bit of gelatin and it’s a whole raw pannacotta.  I call it pannacrutta.  That recipe is on my Web site somewhere and I love a glass of wine and I love chocolate. So those are a few things.

Question: What foods are your guilty pleasures?

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

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

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

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

Nina Planck:  If you want to change your diet the quickest way is to think about a couple of things you can eliminate and a couple of things you can add.  I gather from the latest studies on weight loss diets that most people try to do too much and I expect that is the case with real food too.  So do you know how they refer to marijuana as a gateway drug to harder drugs like heroin?  Well I find that real milk is a gateway food to other real foods, so one thing you might do is just raise the standards of your dairy consumption a little bit. So if milk is a staple in your household buy whole milk, not skim milk.  Buy organic milk and not industrial milk.  Buy local, regional, grass-fed, un-homogenized milk.  And if you can, buy raw milk.  Buy better quality dairy products.  Eliminate any fake foods.  That is an easy one to remove.  If there is fake butter in your fridge, throw it away.  Clear out your pantry of anything that is ersatz, imitation or fake, anything that has been injected, engineered, reengineered.  You might consider eliminating industrial corn from your diet altogether – so that would be corn syrup, corn oil and all its friends actually, the yellow grain and seed oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil.  They are not good for you for a host of reasons we haven’t had time to discuss today.  You could eliminate corn-fed beef, which would be industrial beef and eat only better beef and you could eliminate corn syrup from your diet.  These would be quick ways to start.  And I would also just add if you have children in your house it’s a great time to get motivated to do these things. 

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