Big Think Interview With Nina Planck

Question: How did your upbringing affect\r\nyour ideas about food?\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n

Nina Planck: \r\nMy\r\nmother raised us on real food and she was a fan of Adelle Davis who was the\r\npioneering slightly out of the mainstream nutritionist, but a laywoman, right\r\nand so then a lot of people attacked her for not knowing enough, who came out\r\nof California.  In the ‘60s and\r\n‘70s she had a pretty big following and Adelle Davis had very simple principles\r\nall of which have been pretty much borne out by the subsequent science, whole\r\nfood, B vitamins, real meat, real milk, traditional fats.  She has a few clunkers that don’t\r\nsurvive the test of time, which you come across in her books, but on the whole\r\neverything she said proved to be true and so my mother raised us on whole wheat\r\nbread 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\r\nlittle farm, so we had very traditional simple American meals like fried chicken,\r\nmeatloaf.  I remember a food I\r\nregarded as one of our super frugal meals was macaroni with tuna and cream\r\nsauce, which I loved.  My mother\r\nused to dip her toast in the bacon fat and nothing was off limits except white\r\nsugar and white flour.  Those would\r\nhave been my mother’s standards and she used to say no matter how little money\r\nwe have we’ll always have real maple syrup, real olive oil and real\r\nbutter.  We also had a cow and\r\nchickens in addition to the vegetables we were growing on our vegetable farm,\r\nso we drank raw milk.  We didn’t\r\nmake any cheese or dairy products. \r\nThat would have been more homesteady than we were and we were really\r\nbusy as commercial vegetable farmers, but we did have fresh eggs and fresh milk\r\nand then what we couldn’t raise ourselves we bought or bartered for at the\r\nfarmers 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"\r\nwas grounded in my mother’s lessons for us, which were that it should be\r\nwhole.  It should be\r\nnutritional.  It should be\r\nsimple.  It shouldn’t be processed,\r\na small number of ingredients.  And\r\nthen I sort of went off track and in my teens and twenties became a vegan and a\r\nvegetarian and tried low fat diets and low saturated fat diets and low\r\ncholesterol diets and the reason I did that was not so much a thumb in the face\r\nof my mother, although perhaps we’re all acting against our parents in some\r\nways, but more because it was the conventional wisdom of the time in the late ‘80s\r\nand the early 1990s that less fat was good.  Less saturated fat was good.  Less animal fat, less cholesterol, more plant foods, so I\r\nassumed that if all those things were true that a nonfat vegan diet was\r\nprobably the best of all and that’s what I tried. And things went along\r\nfine.  No one would have called me\r\nsick, but on vegan and low fat diets in fact, my health suffered and I was 25\r\npounds heavier than I am now and I had a host of minor complaints and no one\r\nreally would have ever called me ill or certainly they wouldn’t have suspected\r\nmy 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\r\nfoods, how I now understand it.

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So what brought\r\nme back to real food was a wonderful serendipity.  I was living in London and I had started the first American\r\nstyle farmers' markets in London in 1999 and when I grew up in the Washington D.C.\r\narea at the farmers markets there were the vegetable people like and the fruit\r\nguys and then there was the plant lady and the honey man and the baker, at\r\nfarmers' markets.  When I started my\r\nfirst little farmers' market in London I had farmers even at my first little market\r\nwith only 16 producers selling grass-fed and pastured beef and lamb and pork\r\nand chicken.  They were selling raw\r\nmilk cheeses and cream and sausages and meat pies and fish and all sorts of\r\nwonderful things.  So then I got a\r\nbook contract and that was to write the farmers' market cookbook and I had just\r\nbeen dabbling around with eggs and with fish and I was no longer vegan and no\r\nlonger a vegetarian, but I wasn’t eating… \r\nI was not yet a carnivore or an omnivore even, and so I didn’t want to\r\nwrite a vegetarian or even a fish-and-eggs farmers’ market cookbook.  I felt I had to honor all the food\r\nproducers at the markets and all the eaters as well, so I looked around and I\r\nsaw the farmers of these wonderful traditional foods – the meat, the eggs, the\r\ndairy, the fats – were healthy and happy people and seemed to enjoy their food\r\nand the eaters were healthy and happy people and certainly enjoyed all those\r\nfoods and I began to wonder whether I shouldn’t try these foods. So for my\r\ncookbook I tried every food at our markets and wrote recipes and ate all the\r\nrecipes. And it was along the way that I slowly became an omnivore again. And\r\nwith each food I ate, with each fat, with each rich thing, with each red meat,\r\nwith each forbidden and taboo thing, with each item that the cardiologists were\r\nbanning in the U.S. – and in Britain as well – my health improved quite\r\ndramatically.  I lost 25\r\npounds.  I didn’t have to exercise\r\nas much.  I used to run six miles,\r\nsix times a week.  I had colds and\r\nflu in flu season.  My nails and\r\nhair and skin were dry.  My\r\ndigestion was terrible.  All of\r\nthose problems melted away when I became an omnivore again.

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Question: Can eating more lard and butter\r\nreally make you healthier?

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Nina Planck: It’s about the traditional foods\r\nversus the industrial foods and therein lies the tale I put in real food\r\nbecause when I started to eat all these foods I wondered will I feel great and\r\nI’m thriving, but perhaps the nutritionists and the cardiologists are right and\r\nsoon my arteries will be clogged like a drain and I’ll be dead at 32. So I\r\nwanted to do some homework on real food.  So I set out to find out whether it\r\nwas true.  Is it true that these\r\ntraditional foods, these meats and these fats are responsible for what they\r\ncall the "diseases of civilization" – and those are generally the three diet-related diseases that are crippling Americans right now – and they are obesity,\r\ndiabetes and heart disease. \r\nThey’re known as the "diseases of civilization," but I came to find that\r\nthat was a misnomer.  They are\r\ntruly the diseases on industrialization because the ancient Greeks and others\r\nwere certainly civilized and they did not suffer from these diseases.  We began to suffer from these three\r\ndiseases around the time we started to convert traditional foods into\r\nindustrial foods, so one-by-one I looked at each food and once again I found\r\nthat wherever you come from, whatever part of the world, whether it’s the\r\ntropics where coconut oil is the norm, or its northern climes where you’re\r\neating a lot of reindeer meat or seal blubber, or it’s the Scottish Islands\r\nwhere you have hardly any access to fruits and vegetables – wherever you look at traditional diets\r\nyou find a little list of traditional and what I came to call real foods and\r\nyou do not find the diseases of industrialization.  All the foods are good, but I did look at each food and we\r\ncan talk about them.  I looked at\r\nsaturated fat in particular.  I\r\nlooked at cholesterol in particular. \r\nI looked at red meat, which is accused of causing cancer. And then I\r\nlooked at the substitutes for these traditional foods that we’ve now added to\r\nour diet: the industrial foods, soybean oil, corn oil, refined flour, refined\r\nsugar, trans-fats, which are artificial man-made saturated fats and in each\r\ninstance I found that these industrial foods were responsible for obesity,\r\ndiabetes and heart disease. And other conditions too, but these are the three\r\nthat people are most concerned with. And just add these three conditions are\r\ndefinitely diet related.  It\r\ndoesn’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 that\r\naren't good for us?

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Nina Planck: \r\nWell\r\nwe start with what traditional foods are and here is some principles: One is that they’re whole.  They haven’t been broken down into\r\ntheir component parts or reassembled. And they haven’t had things added to them\r\nor removed, so they’re not engineered to be high in one thing or low in\r\nanother, so real food is…  Low-carb\r\nbread is not real food. Orange\r\njuice with added vitamin A and vitamin D is not real food.  So that’s the first\r\nprinciple.  

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

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

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Question: Did our ancestors really eat\r\nbetter than we do today?

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

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Question: Why is it better to eat locally\r\ngrown foods?

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Nina Planck: \r\nWell\r\nmy main reason for eating local food is that local food tastes better.  There are lots of side benefits to you,\r\nthe ecology and the farmer from eating local food. But the fact remains that\r\nsome foods don’t travel well. \r\nPeaches are one.  Fresh milk\r\nthat 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\r\npicked ripe for the sugars even to be developed and for it to taste good and a\r\nripe peach bruises.  In the case of\r\nmilk it’s because milk is a highly perishable food and it either has to be made\r\ninto cheese or yogurt.  Cheese has\r\nbeen called milk’s leap into immortality. \r\nOr it has to be consumed or fed to the pigs.  So we find the beautiful thing about preserving foods in\r\ntraditional cultures is that when you preserve foods in traditional manner… in\r\na traditional manner, the nutrients and the flavor are enhanced and when the\r\nindustrial food guys go about preserving foods they remove perishable nutrients\r\nand reduce the flavor only to prolong the shelf life. So if we come back to\r\nlocal foods for a minute we should eat the foods that spoil and perish locally\r\nbecause they’ll taste better and be in peak condition and then we should be\r\npreserving them in a traditional manner, so that we have, say, pickles and tomato\r\nsauce from our region in the dead of winter.  And there a great tradition of\r\npreserving the local harvest is fermentation of all kinds and you do find that\r\ncultured, fermented, soured,\r\npickled foods are common across all cultures because they had to eat in the\r\nwintertime. 

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

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Question: Is eating "real food"\r\nenvironmentally responsible?

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Nina Planck: \r\nEating\r\nreal food is absolutely environmentally responsible, if by real food we look to\r\nfoods of animal origin – that is meat, dairy and eggs – to traditional methods of\r\nproduction. So the argument which was most forcefully made by Francis Moore\r\nLappe in "Diet for a Small Planet" that meat production is\r\nenvironmentally destructive and even socially unjust was sound insofar as it\r\nwent because it was a critique of industrial meat production.  If we look to traditional methods of\r\nproduction, which we call grass farming in a very simple definition that is\r\nraising animals for meat on grass and raising…  Those are beef, dairy, cattle and lamb and raising chicken and\r\npigs on pasture, but with supplemental feed because they’re omnivores too.  If we look to those methods we find\r\nthat those are not only environmentally sound, but enhance the\r\nenvironment.  They make use of\r\nun-farmable land.  They can even\r\nenhance riparian areas.  Those are\r\nwetlands.  And certainly there are\r\nno unpleasant and costly byproducts from raising animals that way and I’ll just\r\ncite one example, cattle manure is a major environmental waste product.  It is housed in what are called manure\r\nlagoons.  They’re basically huge\r\ncesspools near industrial cattle and hog operations.  There are so-called environmental grants in order to create\r\nimpermeable pools.  That is cement\r\nfloors for these pools to keep this waste product from leaching into\r\ngroundwater.  This is what passes\r\nfor environmental legislation, right? \r\nWe give you a grant to keep a waste product out of the groundwater.  Much simpler to let the cattle walk\r\naround on grass and feed themselves rather than put them in a feedlot and stuff\r\nthem on grain where you have to remove the manure because in this way the\r\nspread the manure around themselves on grass and pasture that needs it.  Wendell Barry described – you know our\r\ngreat agronomy philosopher – described industrial cattle and hog operations as\r\nneatly dividing one solution into two problems, so the solution would be let\r\nthe animals feed themselves on grass and spread their manure themselves with\r\ntheir own four hooves, rather than pooling their manure so that we then have two\r\nproblems.  One, ground that needs\r\nnitrogen fertilizer and two, a manure cesspool that needs… that becomes a toxic\r\nwaste dump.

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Question: Why are you such a big fan of\r\ndairy?

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Nina Planck: \r\nI’m a\r\ngreat fan of dairy products for humans, in general. But dairy is a very complex\r\nfood socially and nutritionally and culturally and so it requires a little\r\nbit…  that statement requires a\r\nlittle bit of unpacking.  Many,\r\nmany cultures thrive on dairy products of all kinds.  The best dairy products are traditional, so they come from\r\ngrass-fed cows.  The milk is\r\nun-homogenized.  The milk is\r\nideally unpasteurized or raw because there are many heat-sensitive nutrients in\r\nmilk and then those dairy products are often prepared in traditional ways, so\r\nusually fermented or cultured, made into cheese or yogurt or butter, which is\r\nreally just removing everything but the fat, ghee, which is truly everything\r\nbut the fat.  So we start there.  The best dairy is traditional and is\r\noften prepared in a way that makes it more digestible for people who are not\r\naccustomed to consuming fresh dairy products in adulthood. 

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

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Question: Is it really safe to drink raw,\r\nunpasteurized milk?

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Nina Planck: \r\nWell\r\nthe first thing to understand about the FDA is that the USDA and FDA and other\r\ngovernment institutions are very critical of traditional foods.  Without actually applying objective\r\nstandards to how those traditional foods might be prepared in a safe and\r\nhealthy and hygienic manner and so all their numbers on raw milk are\r\ndubious.  There are a number of\r\nfood borne contaminants and illnesses, which are pose a much, much greater risk\r\nto you and me statistically than the consumption of raw milk.  

That said, if you choose to consume\r\ntraditional foods such as raw fish, which I eat, or raw milk, which I drink and\r\nmy whole family drinks – including our children – you need to be absolutely sure\r\nof the source and find someone who cares a great deal about traditional methods\r\nof production and hygiene.  So why\r\ndo we drink raw milk even though there is a small chance we’ll get sick?  Well I find first after doing all my\r\nresearch that I trust the traditional food chain more than I trust the\r\nindustrial food chain.  There are a\r\nnumber or risks from eating industrial food and I try to minimize and avoid\r\nthose risks too.  We drink raw milk\r\nsimply 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\r\npasteurization.  Another is that\r\nthe fats are rather delicate in milk. \r\nThe omega-3 fats are sensitive to heat and there will be omega-3 fats in\r\ngrass-fed milk and so it’s nice to preserve those.  Another is enzymes, which help you digest the other\r\nnutrients in milk, so here are some enzymes which are deactivated or otherwise\r\nsomehow limited after pasteurization. \r\nLipase, which helps you digest lipids or fats. Phosphatase, which helps\r\nyou absorb calcium, a key nutrient in milk, which is why raw milk contains more\r\navailable calcium. And our old friend lactase, the enzyme that helps you digest\r\nlactose, the basic carbohydrate in milk and there are tons of milk sugars, but\r\nlactose is the big one, is damaged by pasteurization. So I have met not a few\r\npeople who say they were doubled over from gut pain when they drank milk and\r\nconcluded they were so-called lactose-intolerant, who drank fresh, clean, raw milk\r\nwithout any trouble.  Well, it\r\ncontains plenty of lactase.

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Question: What's so great about organic\r\neggs?

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

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

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Question: Why are real foods better for\r\nfertility, pregnancy and nursing?

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

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

And, finally, I\r\nfound that there were a few misconceptions about feeding baby’s first foods. And\r\nthis dates back to some industrial food marketing in our country, so the baby\r\nfood niche has been largely filled by cereals. But it turns out that cereals\r\nare not the ideal first food for babies. \r\nThey lack amylase, which is a big starch-digesting enzyme until about\r\nage one.  A baby’s diet is somewhat\r\niron-poor because breast milk is by design iron-poor and grains interfere with\r\niron absorption.  Cereals basically\r\ndon’t provide a lot of high quality fat and protein. So even though we’ve been\r\nfeeding babies cereal out of jars for a long time the better foods are high\r\nquality 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 culture\r\nbreastfeed for less time than elsewhere in the world?

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

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

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Question: What types of "real\r\nfoods" are best for women who are nursing?

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

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

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Question: What food issues are you most\r\nconcerned about right now?

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Nina Planck: \r\nWell,\r\nI’m very concerned about the traditional foods versus imitation foods.  I still find people asking me about soy\r\nbutter that doesn’t contain trans-fats because now they know trans-fats are\r\nbad.  They’re still asking me about\r\nsubstitute foods and imitations and engineered foods and foods with added this\r\nor removed that and what I want them to understand is that the whole\r\ntraditional foods are best.  Even\r\nif they can’t afford the best quality version of beef or eggs or milk they\r\nought to be consuming beef or eggs or milk instead of ersatz foods.

And I’m also\r\nconcerned about a plant based diet for pregnant mothers and for young\r\nchildren.  There is a trend in many\r\nurban areas for young children to be vegetarians and I gather from parents and\r\nfrom journalists that it’s the children who are requesting to be vegetarians\r\nand this is presented as charming. \r\nOnce Johnny finds out that the chicken breast comes from a chicken he\r\ncan’t bear to eat his friend the chicken. \r\nWell our son Julian who is three helps me take apart chickens regularly.  He completely understands that his\r\nfriends 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\r\nyear-olds might want.  They might\r\nwant junk.  They might want junk\r\ntelevision.  They might want to be\r\nvegetarians.  But it’s not a good time\r\nfor a person to be a vegetarian. \r\nIf, in adulthood, you’ve been well fed in your mother’s womb and at her\r\nbreast and in your growing years you want to experiment with a high quality\r\nvegetarian diet – or even a very carefully planned vegan diet – I think that is\r\nacceptable, but I don’t think it’s right for children to be raised as\r\nvegetarians even if they ask. 

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

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Question: What is your ideal meal?

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

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Question: What foods are your guilty\r\npleasures?

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

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

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Nina Planck: \r\nI\r\nmake some exceptions for eating out, although I don’t really write them down on\r\na note card, but while I would never ever buy farmed salmon and we have\r\nbeautiful wild Alaskan salmon in the freezer, in the cupboard all the time I do\r\nsometimes find myself eating farmed salmon at weddings or on airplanes, that\r\nsort of thing.  One of my pleasures\r\nof the moment after our three young children are in bed is to walk down the\r\nstreet and for 20 minutes have a dozen oysters and one glass of sparkling wine\r\nat the local joint.  Oysters, by the\r\nway, 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 can\r\ndo to eat healthier?

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Nina Planck: \r\nIf\r\nyou want to change your diet the quickest way is to think about a couple of\r\nthings you can eliminate and a couple of things you can add.  I gather from the latest studies on\r\nweight loss diets that most people try to do too much and I expect that is the\r\ncase with real food too.  So do you\r\nknow how they refer to marijuana as a gateway drug to harder drugs like heroin?  Well I find that real milk is a gateway\r\nfood to other real foods, so one thing you might do is just raise the standards\r\nof your dairy consumption a little bit. So if milk is a staple in your\r\nhousehold buy whole milk, not skim milk. \r\nBuy organic milk and not industrial milk.  Buy local, regional, grass-fed, un-homogenized milk.  And if\r\nyou can, buy raw milk.  Buy better\r\nquality dairy products.  Eliminate\r\nany fake foods.  That is an easy\r\none to remove.  If there is fake\r\nbutter in your fridge, throw it away. \r\nClear out your pantry of anything that is ersatz, imitation or fake,\r\nanything that has been injected, engineered, reengineered.  You might consider eliminating\r\nindustrial corn from your diet altogether – so that would be corn syrup, corn\r\noil and all its friends actually, the yellow grain and seed oil, safflower oil,\r\nsunflower oil, soybean oil.  They\r\nare not good for you for a host of reasons we haven’t had time to discuss\r\ntoday.  You could eliminate corn-fed beef, which would be industrial beef and eat only better beef and you could\r\neliminate corn syrup from your diet. \r\nThese would be quick ways to start.  And I would also just add if you have children in your house\r\nit’s a great time to get motivated to do these things. 

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

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

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