“On Vegan and Low Fat Diets, My Health Suffered”

The author describes how growing up on the farm taught her to love "real foods" and how much healthier she became when she stopped being a vegetarian.
  • 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.