Nina Planck grew up on a farm in Virginia and ate foods like chicken liver, eggs, and whole milk. It was a diet she didn’t think much of until she experimented with vegetarianism and low-fat foods as an adult—and her health suffered because of it. Her return to what she calls “real foods” led her to create the first farmers markets in London, then run the legendary Greenmarkets in New York. Now, she’s the author of two illuminating books on what we should (and shouldn’t) eat: “Real Food” and “Real Food For Mother And Baby.” Here, Planck, mother of a 3-year-old and newborn twins, shares why butter is good, baby food purees are pointless, and pregnant women should eat fish.
What is your definition of real food?
Real food is old, meaning we’ve been eating it for a long time, and it’s traditional, meaning it’s still pretty much the same as it used to be. A good example is grass-fed beef, not hormone-filled beef grazed on soybeans.
Today’s foods are often deconstructed so that we’re eating only part of a food—like skim milk with no fat. Why is this not a good idea?
People think it’s helpful to break down the food and reconstruct it, but often the elements in the food work together. For example, the fat in milk helps you absorb the calcium. I notice now that orange juice comes with vitamin A and D added, but neither of them belong because both of them are fat-soluble vitamins. So if you were to have a glass of orange juice, you’re not getting them.
For so long we were told to avoid eating butter. It was a surprise to hear you say it’s a healthy part of one’s diet.
Butter is the single food that best represents real food. People love it, everyone used to eat it, now everyone is afraid of it. The natural saturated fats it contains are not bad for your heart— which we used to think. It also contains a lot of vitamin A, which prevents birth defects. Plus, grass-fed butter contains small but noticeable amounts of an anti-cancer fat called CLA.
You did fascinating research about what women who are planning a pregnancy should eat to increase fertility and their chances of a healthy pregnancy.
We all know about folic acid, and that’s important to prevent spinal cord defects, but in fact several B vitamins help prevent early birth defects. You’ll get those from meats and leafy greens and whole grains. Vitamin A is another important one [see above], that you get from butter and olive oil. Last, if you want to eat well to prevent preeclampsia, eat protein. There’s still a myth out there that swelling occurs from too much salt and not enough water. Really, it’s a deficiency of protein.
Fish comes up again and again as an essential food, including for pregnant women. Why?
Here’s the strange thing about fish: We are worried about fish and mercury, but avoiding fish is worse for the development of babies’ brains than eating fish, even with some mercury in it. The human brain is so dependent on fish oil. So the answer for any pregnant woman is eat fish, but eat fish low in mercury.
When it comes to feeding babies, you advocate real food like lightly cooked egg or banana over purees. What’s the philosophy behind that?
If your baby loves purees and you love spoon feeding, be my guest. But I found it an extra step that didn’t add any nutrients to my baby’s meals and did add a lot of mess. I think it’s quite natural to give your baby foods in a range of shapes and sizes, and that includes chunks. [My son] Julian chewed on chicken bones. Remember, you will not be letting your baby eat unattended. What babies need is quality fat and protein. Any real food is fine, with one exception: most babies are not really prepared to digest complex carbohydrates until they’re about one, when they start producing amylase. So brown rice cereal, whole oatmeal—those are not ideal baby foods. It’s just that the baby food industry has got us going on grains.
For families who are looking to change the way they eat, but feel overwhelmed, what are three simple steps they can take?
If you start by eliminating industrial corn from your cupboard—corn syrup, corn oil, and corn-fed beef—you would have made great strides. Second, just get whole foods and stop buying foods that are engineered to be low in something or high in something else. Third, eat around the edges of the supermarket—meat, fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs. In the center are the highly processed, low-nutrient, high-profit margins foods.