Thursday, March 08, 2007

BOOKS: Real Food

My friend Anne recently loaned me the book Real Food by Nina Planck, subtitled "what to eat and why". The book was a happy convergence of two interests I had been developing in recent years: shopping for food more responsibly (e.g., local produce from farmer's markets, cage-free chicken and eggs, pastured beef) and cooking and eating more healthily (with a particular eye on cholesterol and blood pressure). Thus I eagerly devoured the revelations contained in this book.

Planck's main message is that nearly everything we (Americans) thought we knew about healthy eating -- avoiding butter, eggs, and red meat, opting for skim milk and skinless chicken breasts -- is wrong. Her positive prescription is to eat "real food", concurring with Michael Pollan's advice to not eat anything your great-great-grandmother would not have recognized as food. Her diagnosis of why modern Americans suffer from so much coronary disease, arteriosclerosis, diabetes and other maladies is the large-scale replacement of "real food" with industrialized food: refined vegetable oils, trans-fats, cattle and poultry raised in unnatural crowded conditions with unnatural diets and pumped up with antibiotics and steroids, and dairy products with most of their nutrients blasted out of them and then anemically added back in.

I devoured the book, mostly because I was hungry for what she had to say. I think she makes a convincing case for most of her main arguments, with explanations suffused with the depth of her research but plainly stated so that anyone can understand them. Numerous references to medical and scientific studies give credence to some of the controversial claims, where it was helpful to know that she's not alone in making them. The footnotes and the biochemistry and leavened with pieces of her personal food journey (grew up on a farm, tried to live a "healthy" diet, but ended up with improved health when she came back to "real food"), and anecdotes of the politics of how some of our misguided conventional wisdom developed.

The frustrating part is that it's not nearly as easy as it ought to be to find "real food". You've got to hunt around for pastured beef, and "raw" dairy products are even illegal in some states (though not in California). And even with our blessings of farmers markets and Whole Foods, Anne and I are wondering where we could possibly find Planck's ideal poultry - not just free-range, but raised on a combination of grass, grain, and grubs. But we'll keep looking. Planck has got me convinced it's the right thing for my health and for the planet's.

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