Nine years ago I was a meat eater who subsisted largely on frozen hamburger patties that I cooked on my George Foreman grill. Later that same year I transitioned into pescatarianism (translation: a vegetarian that eats fish), then later became a vegetarian, a vegan, and finally returned to vegetarianism and then omnivorism (this time without the icky frozen burgers or the Foreman grill). I’ve learned a lot about nutrition and a lot about my body, but the most important conclusion that I’ve come to is that dietary choices are far too loaded and far too complicated to get judgmental or preachy about.
What you eat is intensely personal. You are made of what you eat. You have an intimate relationship with your food. Your food will see parts of your body that you will never glimpse. Your food is the reason you are alive. And every single body is different. Every body can handle some things better than others, or in different quantities, in different combinations, at different times. It is absolutely absurd to start talking about The One True Way when it comes to diet. And yet it seems to be one of humankind’s favorite topics to preach about. These days everybody is trying to sell you their own One True Dietary Way. Well, harumpf!
As you’ve surely noticed, scientists are constantly “proving” that something new is the Best Thing Ever or that something old Is Going to Kill Us All. With that sort of track record I see no reason to trust most of what I read on the subject, and when you stop to consider how easily statistics can be manipulated (or look into who’s paid for a study), well, you can throw a hell of a lot of “science” out the hatch.
There is some scientific evidence that I believe of course. When I hear that you can prevent scurvy by getting enough vitamin C, for example, I believe it because the science to support it has held out for quite a few years and because The Vitamin C Company did not pay for the studies to prove it. In fact, those are two questions I try to ask myself whenever confronted with new scientific evidence. How long has this information been around? And who conducted and paid for the research? (Another question that often comes soon after is how many studies from diverse sources have been conducted on the subject?)
In making my own dietary choices I combine what trustworthy scientific knowledge I can get my hands on (and I love to read about nutritional stuff, even if I can never remember the names of all the nutrients I’ve learned about to tell anyone about later) with my personal experiences with food. Am I right? Am I wrong? There’s no way to really tell for sure, but when I feel great, then I usually assume that I am on the right track. When it comes to choosing between believing my body and believing what a stranger has written on a piece of paper, I usually believe my body, and I think that you should too.
what is real food?
Real foods are whole foods. Foods that have not been industrially processed or fortified or refined. In her book Real Food for Mother and Baby: The Fertility Diet, Eating for Two, and Baby’s First Foods, Nina Planck defines it as follows: “Real food is old and it’s traditional.” What she means is that “real” foods are foods that humans have been eating for thousands (if not millions) of years. Raw diary products, the meat of animals who were not fed strange things like soy feed or bits of other animals, eggs, berries, nuts, leaves, and honey are all “real” food. (I keep putting the “real” in real food in quotations because it seems so ridiculous, almost redundant, to put those two words together. But when I think of what resides between the aisles of the Western world’s supermarkets, I am reminded that the distinction has become necessary. So I’ll cut it out with the quotation marks already.) By “traditional” Planck means foods prepared as humans have been preparing them for thousands of years (for example not pasteurized or powdered, but taken as is or prepared through processes like fermentation), before the intervention of factories.
The concept that eating real foods is good for me feels like a no-brainer. Of course eating an apple I picked or an egg from one of our chickens is better for me than eating something with an ingredient list I can only identify or even pronounce a quarter of. And the fact that thousands of years of human experience has shown us that these foods works makes me feel better than the latest study by Dr. Whoever does, tell you what. The arguments for eating real food appeal both to my logical and my instinctual sides. And they fit well with my growing interest in eating locally, eating organic, and thinking about a diet that could sustain me if all of a sudden the entire industrial complex fell apart humpty-dumpty style and I had to fend for myself. So there you have it: the abridged versions of Nikki’s Thoughts on Food and How My Diet Became What It Is Today, as well as The Reason I Am About to Recommend This Really Neat Book.
real food for mother and baby by nina planck
When I got pregnant my interest in what I was eating and why surged again in a way that it hadn’t since I’d first become a vegetarian. So, spurned on by my interest in whole foods, I ordered a copy of Nina Planck’s book Real Foods for Mother and Baby. And I absolutely loved it. Planck is matter of fact and unapologetic. She’s not finicky about local or organic, but about health and taste. She supports her position with scientific evidence, but she’s open-minded (the book is geared toward a diet including meat, but she always lists options for a vegetarian or a vegan to attempt to get the same nutrients) and very practical (which made me really love her advice about babies’ first foods). And she’s not afraid to admit that she makes exceptions herself—for the occasional pie with white sugar and white flour or a snack for a hungry and disgruntled toddler while out and about, for example.
Her perspective on food and dietary decisions, in fact, sometimes reminded me of my own. Take a look at this passage: “Recently, journalists, foodist, think-tankers, and the classes who chatter have gotten very excited about local and real food. A favorite story line goes something like this. This food is great! But it’s too expensive. And there are too many choices! People are terribly confused. Is organic better than local or the other way round? The same story runs again and again. I recommend you don’t read these articles. Once you have the information you need about food, there is no correct answer. There is only your taste and your point of view. Here’s mine.” I love me a non-fiction author willing to admit that theirs is not The One True Way, that even non-fiction is full of a lot of bias and opinion. And I love her writing style. Here is a book choc full ‘o facts and figures and charts, and it read faster than a sleezey romance novel. Here here, Nina Planck, here here.
Above all, Planck’s message is easy to understand. Unlike most of the dietary advice for pregnant women out there. Most of that advice speaks of numbers of servings of various nutrients and vitamins instead of in concrete language that is easy to understand at a glance. But not Planck. Her advice is some of the most concrete and easy-to-swallow that I have read so far. Take her break down of your needs by trimester: “You have about forty weeks to build a baby. Since we’re all steeped in the language of trimesters, let’s assume it happens in three acts. Your baby’s parts—her tiny liver, lungs, toes—are made of micronutrients called vitamins, so you hardly need to eat anything extra in the first trimester. Just eat well. If that’s difficult, take well-chosen supplements. You baby’s structure—his bone and muscle—are made of calcium and protein, so have plenty of both in the second trimester. You baby’s brain is made of fish, so it’s important to eat plenty of seafood at the end. Of course you’ll want to eat well all the while, and this cartoon of fetal development is certainly oversimplified. It may seem silly at first, but there is logic in it, and it worked for me.”
Many folks, particularly vegan folks, do not like Nina Planck. This is in large part due to an article she wrote for the New York Times a while back about a vegan couple who, having decided to feed their baby exclusively on soy milk, wound up with a dead baby. Planck wrote about why soy milk isn’t an awesome choice of baby food and how it is tragic that the parents didn’t have that information. Then her editor gave the article an offensively reactionary title along the lines of “Stupid Fucking Vegans Kill Baby with Soy Milk,” and vegans everywhere started cursing her name. But Planck addresses the issue (both of the article and of soy as a first food for babes) in Real Food for Mother and Baby quite adroitly and having experienced the meddling of editors myself, I for one am prepared to forgive her and order all the other books she’s ever written.
This post was a part of Fresh Bites at Real Food Whole Health, Freaky Friday at Real Food Freaks, Real Food 101 at Ruth’s Real Food, Monday Mania at The Healthy Home Economist, Fat Tuesday at Real Food Forager, and Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop.