Book Review: Real Food

Over the past few months, I've read two popular books about the way modern Americans eat: Real Food, by Nina Planck, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. I'm now in the middle of a third well-known book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

I have enjoyed all three books, and found that reading them in the order listed above was a good strategy, as each book goes into successively greater detail and analysis.

Below are my thoughts on the first book I read, Real Food: What to Eat and Why, by Nina Planck, 2007:

I rate this book 3.5 stars out of 5. It's a good starting point to spark your thinking about what we as a culture tend to eat, what we used to eat, and what we should eat.

Planck's reasoning is framed mainly from a nutritional perspective. She references medical and anthropological research to support her claim that "real" foods - i.e. produced and prepared using primitive or traditional methods - are the most healthful, whereas modern, processed foods are more dangerous to our health.

She argues that humans have evolved to eat certain types of foods, including meat, but that modern food technology has created foods that are bodies are not built to use in the right manner. According to Planck, modern foods are the root of modern health problems such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Planck seeks to debunk what she sees as a myth, pervasive in American culture, that low-cholesterol and low-fat foods are the healthiest. She believes that animal products - and the fat and cholesterol contained within them - are not inherently bad for us. Instead, it's conventional factory-farming practices, as well as refined foods such as processed sugar, that threaten our health.

According to Planck's food philosophy, we should eat eggs from pastured chickens, grass-fed beef, and plenty of wild-caught fish, but should avoid refined foods - including isolated soy protein - which she considers a health-food impostor.

Planck is a one-time vegan who has come to firmly believe that eating animal products, including meat, is natural and healthful. However, she is adamant that the consumer should make every effort to obtain animal products raised using the most stringent, ethical methods possible. Interestingly, she argues this primarily for reasons of nutrition, with environmental and animal-rights concerns being secondary.

Conventionally-grown vegetables and fruits may contain harmful residues of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. However, Planck argues, compared to eating a small amount of meat from an animal who consumes non-organically grown plants, you would have to consume a massive quantity of chemically-sprayed plant products directly to accumulate the same amount of toxins in your body.

I liken it to thinking about how mainstream it has become to worry about consuming mercury when eating fish. Fish who eat other fish develop higher concentrations of mercury in their flesh, so those highest up on the food chain should be consumed very sparingly. The Monterey Bay Aquarium publishes a seafood guide that outlines the recommended frequency for consuming different types of fish. The guide is based on the risk of different types of fish to our health, as well as on the different fishing or farming practices used to acquire each type of fish.

Planck advocates consuming organic, free-range, grass-fed, wild-caught, etc. as much as possible when eating animal products, but feels that it is less necessary to buy organic when consuming plants.

The book was certainly eye-opening for me, as I was only beginning to consider factors apart from convenience and price when determining what to eat.

However, I was a bit disappointed by the book's lack of structure. The author seemed to bounce around and circle back a lot instead of thoroughly exploring each topic she introduced. For me, this diluted the message of her book. Others may not find the somewhat disorganized format to be as distracting, but for me the lack of cohesion made it harder to distill the take-away points.

Also, although Planck provides citations for many studies to form the basis of her theories, I felt that I should take her assertions with a grain of salt. The anthropological observations she described were interesting, but not as persuasive to me as the empirical medical studies she referenced.

Still, if you have the time, Planck's book is certainly worth a read. After finishing Real Food, I re-evaluated my own diet as follows:
  • As I described in another recent post, I've adopted Planck's strategy of spending more on animal products to ensure that they were raised in a fashion that imparts the greatest nutritional benefits - along with doing less damage to the environment and the animals' welfare.

  • I also try to obtain local or organic produce as often as possible, but am not willing to pay quite as much of a premium as I do with animal products. I generally avoid cheap milk, eggs, and meat.

  • I no longer feel guilty about eating whole eggs, rather than just the whites. Even as a child, I liked the yolks the best! I have tried buying cartons of liquid eggs whites before, and found them to be an unsatisfactory substitution for eggs. Many people consider egg whites to be a health food, but Planck believes whole eggs to be much more beneficial.

  • I verified with a friend who is completing a joint MD-MPH program, with a focus in nutrition, that eating egg yolks will not directly lead to high cholesterol and heart disease. She said I should feel free to eat whole eggs, as long as I don't consume an insane quantity every day. :)

  • I began drinking whole-fat, un-homogenized milk (Trader Joe's sells cream-top organic milk by the half-gallon). As a child, I always drank whole or 2% milk - skim tasted like glorified grey water to me. I switched to skim from 2004-2008 because that seemed like the "adult" thing to do. Now I'm back to enjoying a daily glass of sweet, rich, creamy real milk - and the switch has not caused me to gain weight.

  • I recently took it one step further and tried raw milk (which is un-pasteurized as well as un-homogenized), as Planck recommended. I've had absolutely no digestive issues with the change. Whole Foods carries raw milk options.

  • When cooking, I use olive oil and real butter, never margarine. Vegetable oils are made solid through hydrogenation. Therefore, margarine = trans fats!

  • Soy: I still love tofu, but instead of using vanilla soy milk in my coffee, I now use organic half-and-half or whole milk. I never use non-dairy "creamer" - which is actually made with both high-fructose corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated oils!

  • I still consume some refined and processed foods. Old habits die hard, and there are certain processed foods that still make me salivate! I want to live life and enjoy different kinds of flavors - but I am more selective and try to practice moderation.

  • Although I switched to brown rice and whole wheat bread and pasta several years ago for everyday consumption, I still bake with some white all-purpose flour and white sugar.

  • I also still indulge in store-bought cereal along with occasional snacks and desserts, but always examine the ingredients.

I'm still trying to establish and maintain a healthy diet that works for me. I want to feel healthy and like I am making ethical food choices. However, I am still recovering from being a lifelong picky eater, and taste is very important to me. I've made a lot of improvements in eating nutritiously over the last couple years, particularly in the last few months since I started cooking from scratch and getting involved in gardening.

However, a typical meal for me is heavy in pasta (whole wheat, at least!) and dairy, with some vegetables and fruit on the side. I think the balance on my plate needs to be reversed - so that is my next goal.

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