Eating Like Our Ancestors

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 and wrote speeches for the U.S. ambassador to London before opening the first farmers’ markets in London. Today her company, London Farmers’ Markets, runs fourteen markets. She is the author of two books: "Real Food: What to Eat and Why," and "Real Food for Mother and Baby: The Fertility Diet, Eating for Two, and Baby's First Foods."

Planck is a Big Think Delphi Fellow. 

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

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.


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