Book Talk: Real Food

As promised, I’m going to spend a post talking a little bit about Nina Planck’s Real Food. Just like with the last book talk, I’m not calling it a review, and I’m not going to mention every little thing discussed. I’m just going to talk about the things I remember most – the things that, for me, matter most. You’ll also notice a lot of things we saw in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, which really isn’t very surprising at all when you consider the topics of each.

Some background: Remember your mom asking you if you grew up in a barn every time you left the back door open? Well, here’s the thing: Nina Planck really was raised in a barn. A farm, more accurately, but still. And, no, she doesn’t have problems with leaving doors open – what she has is a passion for real food raised right. Planck grew up eating real raw milk and cheese, fresh vegetables picked an hour before dinner, and brown eggs from the chickens out back. When she moved out on her own, Planck fell victim to a sometimes-vegetarian, mostly low-fat diet – and gained weight and became cranky. She decided to switch back to real food, and chronicles a bit of that in the early chapters.

Planck’s first vendetta in the book is real, raw milk, butter, and cheese. The most important things? Milk is a complete meal – it has all of the nutrients for a growing body. Raw milk and raw milk products are not inherently bad for you. When they come from healthy (read: non-industrial) cows, the raw milk products are actually better for you than their pasteurized counterparts.  Also, butter is better for you than margarine (but we already knew that, right?). And one more thing: cholesterol is not actually linked to heart disease in most people.

Next up? Real meat and fish: meat products from animals eating whatever they’d eat when left to their own devices. The grass your meat eats  increases its nutritional value and keeps the animal healthy, limiting the antibiotics in your food. If the animal was raised on a traditional farm, it’s probably okay to eat. Similarly, fish should eat whatever they’d eat in nature, and are preferably wild anyway. More omega-3s and less omega-6s that way. (3s are best, and should have about a 1:1 ratio in your food and in your body. For most Americans, the ratio leans far heavier on the side of the 6s, thanks, mostly, to industrialized food products.)

Having grown up on a farm, it’s no surprise that Planck dedicates a good portion of the book to fruits and vegetables. The bottom line? Eat more of them, and you’ll be healthier. But again, we already knew this.

Planck spend a large chunk – two separate sections – discussing real fats and industrial fats. There are only a handful of real (traditional) fats: butter, lard, and olive oil are three. Industrial fats are usually hydrogenated, and therefore damaging. Planck wants to make sure that her readers know that humans NEED fats – they make up our cell walls and we literally need them to survive. If you eliminate fat from your diet, you starve to death. The last word on fats? Eat traditional fats, stay away from industrial ones.

I’d suggest reading it if you want a more personal take on real food, but not if you want just the facts, ma’am.


Meal Plan Sunday

So, I forgot to post a meal plan last week. And then we proceeded to eat absolutely nothing of value all week. Seriously. It’s like I’m destined to eat junk food unless the internet is holding me accountable for it. Naturally, I’m posting one this week. Hopefully I stick with it. In no particular order (except for Thursday’s pasta, since Keith plays football on Thursdays and likes to feel strong and carbed-up for it), here goes:

  • Mexican mix-up (rice, black beans, corn, tomatoes, sometimes chicken, and always topped with cheese)
  • Spaghetti with spinach and sausage (maybe with red sauce, maybe this recipe that I found after I decided on making something involving sausage and spinach
  • Roast beef with carrots and potatoes
  • Baked breaded chicken breasts with some kind of vegetable, maybe squash – is that too weird a combination?
  • Macaroni and cheese
Thanks for helping me keep it real, interwebz. See you next week. (Actually, I’ll be posting soon about my latest real food read, aptly titled Real Food, by Nina Planck.)

Book Talk: In Defense of Food, Part Three

In Part 3 – “Getting Over Nutritionism” – of In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan introduces the “how to” portion of the book, giving a series of detailed “rules” to help anyone looking to improve the quality of their diet – presumably everyone reading this book (or, perhaps, this blog!).

Pollan breaks them into three major categories. I’m going to list them that way here, too, and describe any I think need it, or that I feel like talking about (sometimes I just can’t help myself). His motto reappears here, as he lists them under the categories “Eat Food,” “Not Too Much,” “Mostly Plants.” Here we go:

Eat Food: Food Defined

  •  Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.  Goodbye, Nutrigrain bars and Lean Pockets.
  •  Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number, or that include D) high fructose corn syrup. 
  • Avoid food products that contain health claims. Seems counter-intuitive, but a product whose label makes health claims means it has a label, which is already one strike against its realness, and it also means that the food product almost certainly came from a large, rich company (who could afford a study to have the FDA approve whatever the claim may be), and we already know most big companies aren’t making real food. (Most. Not all.)
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. Shop farmers’ markets or sign up with a CSA. No health claims, processed foods, or high fructose corn syrup to be had there! (Visit Local Harvest if you’re not sure how to find one of these.)

Mostly Plants: What to Eat

  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.  There’s no argument or concern about vegetables’ good-for-you-ness. Eat more of them!
  • You are what you eat eats, too.  Be aware of where your meat, milk, and eggs came from. Grass-fed is best for cows, of course, but it’s hard to verify this, as a ton of industrial farms get similar labels. You want 100% grass-fed. Grass-fed beef has healthier fats and larger amounts of vitamins and antioxidants. For chicken and eggs, you want to see the word pastured, for much the same reasons. Plus both are better for the animals, too, if that’s your motivation.
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer. Buy meat in bulk and freeze. Do the same with farmers’ market produce.
  • Eat like an omnivore. Add new species to your diet (more than the corn, soy, and wheat so much of the typical American diet
  • is based on.).
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils. Find a farm you trust and buy from them. Store it in your new freezer!
  • Eat wild foods when you can. Wild grasses, some wild game, and few wild fish. Do your research.
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements. But don’t actually take them – for the most part, they’re useless (except after you turn fifty). But people who take supplements are often healthier-living people.
  • Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks. Eat more of a traditional diet, but not necessarily a specific one.
  • Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism. Innovation isn’t always great.
  • Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet. The foods and their components work together in a variety of traditional diets to create scores of healthy people enjoying all sorts of them.
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner. Just one!

Not Too Much: How to Eat

  • Pay more. Eat less. Higher quality food often comes at a higher price. Except when you take into consideration the fact that as food spending has increased, health care spending has skyrocketed.
  • Eat meals. Sit down, talk to your family or friends, enjoy it.
  • Do all your eating at a table. As Pollan clarifies, a desk is not a table.
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does. Non-perishable gas station hot dogs and cheese curls are not food.
  • Try not to eat alone. Aloneness breeds mindless eating. (There is research that goes against this, but that research refers mostly to light eaters. Overeaters will benefit from an eating companion.)
  • Consult your gut. Stop eating when you’re hungry. While most French people answered the question, “When do you stop eating?” with “When I feel full,” most Americans responded, “When my plate is clean” or “When I run out,” which could just as easily be, “When my show is over.” While Americans respond on visual cues to tell us we’re finished, the French listen to their bodies. We need to get better at that. Guilty party here, that’s for sure.
  • Eat slowly. “To eat slowly, in the Slow Food sense, is to eat with a fuller knowledge of all that is involved in bringing food out of the earth and to the table” (196).
  • Cook and, if you can, plant a garden. “The cook in the kitchen preparing a meal from plants and animals at the end of this shortest of food chains [soil – plants and animals – farmer – cook] has a great many things to worry about, but ‘health’ is simply not one of them” (201).
I’d like to add one more: ENJOY it. All of it: the gardening, the picking, the shopping, the cooking, the eating, the company, the cleanup (okay, maybe not the cleanup). Pollan mentions this throughout the book, but I just want to reiterate. If you don’t take the time to enjoy what you’re eating, you risk overeating or gulping down something terribly processed while swinging through a drive-through. Stop, eat, and enjoy.
There you have it. In Defense of Food, including rules, in as little of a nutshell as I could fit. Reading this book was like getting to pick Michael Pollan’s brain for a few days. Highly recommended for anyone interested in real food.

Book Talk: In Defense of Food, Part Two

Jumping right back into the book today!

In Part Two of In Defense of Food, “The Western Diet  and the Diseases of Civilization,” Michael Pollan focuses more intensely on the myths and truths surrounding a western diet and its affect on heart disease and cancer.

Pollan opens by describing one experiment by Kerin O’Dea that took ten Aboriginal Australians out of their Westernized diets (they’d moved away from the tribe ten years earlier and had acquired a fully Western diet) and back into the traditional Aboriginal diets they’d previously existed on. During the time the ten Aborigines spent eating a Western diet, they had all become overweight and diabetic, with signs of insulin resistance and heightened levels of triglycerides in their blood (a warning sign for heart disease). Splitting their seven-week Aboriginal quest between coastal and inland locations, their diets varied in the two places: more fish, of course, when they were on the coast, with some other animal foods, and several plant foods as well. When they moved inland, their fish intake decreased and their hunting of crocodiles and kangaroos increased. After seven weeks on the two traditional diets, all ten of the Aborigines lost weight, lowered their blood pressures and triglycerides, and saw their diabetes symptoms disappear or decrease. All in just seven weeks of a varied, traditional, real food diet!

For me, this shows that there’s not just one correct answer to what we should be eating. The Aboriginal Australians didn’t count their calories or eat low-fat foods. They simply ate what was available to them at any given meal time. Pollan encourages us to all be a bit more Aboriginal in the following pages, as he explores other traditional diets, in all of their varying glory.

Another study that Pollan cites is an extensive investigation by Weston Price. Price, a dentist, traveled all over the world to look at the health of traditional eaters’ teeth. What he found was astounding: even in areas where the people had never used a toothbrush, as long as they were eating a traditional diet, their teeth were perfectly formed and cavity-free (though he does mention one tribe that had teeth covered in slime – but under the slime lay perfect teeth!). The kicker? The traditional diets varied as widely as the places Price found them: Price found, Pollan notes, “populations that thrived on seafood diets, dairy diets, meat diets, and diets in which fruits, vegetable, and grain predominated,” (97). Some groups consumed almost no plant foods, existing on meat, blood, and milk alone. Other populations ignored dairy. Organ meats were popular, and seafood was a high-priority item almost everywhere. The conclusion? “Eat a traditional diet consisting of fresh foods from animals and plants grown on soils that were themselves rich in nutrients” (98).

The transition from a traditional to a Western diet happened in several specific ways, Pollan notes:
1. From whole foods to refined: as white flour became a symbol of wealth, it became more coveted, regardless of the fact that white flour has almost no nutrients.
2. From complexity to simplicity: less nutrient-dense soil, less nutrient-dense food, less diversity in food.
3. From quality to quantity: More food for less money = lesser quality food.”
4. From leaves to seeds: People eat more grains than greens.
5. From food culture to food science: The industrialization of our food has impacted its healthfulness.

That all means just what O’Dea and Price found out: Americans and other Western eaters need to move back towards a traditional diet, which doesn’t mean just one specific way of eating. Moving away from white flours and into whole wheat, eating more plant foods, and focusing on both animal and plant foods that were grown on rich soils – something that, with the rise of industrial farming, is hard to come by, and being aware of the processed-ness or lack thereof of the foods we choose, are all ways to move away from a Western diet. For our family, that means more plant foods (I’m trying vegetables I’ve never taken a second look at before), and an attempt at finding a year-round farmer’s market (I think we’ve found one we’ll like – hoping to check it out soon).

Next time? The “How To” part of the book, in as much detail as I can without boring everybody who stumbles upon this blog.

And, as promised, here’s the answer to last night’s poll: either hot dogs or milk chocolate would be the best choice. Why? FAT. Your brain needs fat, your body needs fat. Surprise!

Book Talk: In Defense of Food, Part One

As I mentioned a post or two ago, I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food. I’d read Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma in the latter part of my college career, and promptly gave up red meat (and then began eating it again when I became pregnant with Ben – whoops!). I decided to read In Defense of Food without even realizing that it was decidedly a book about real food – I read it because I’d been planning on making the switch to a primarily “real” way of eating, and a friend, discovering this, suggested it. I’m a sucker for book recommendations, so I picked it up at the library the next time we visited.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to discover that Pollan uses this book as a map – guiding the way for people like me who are lost when it comes to what to eat. Pollan doesn’t give specifics, but focuses on some broad rules to help individuals who are unsure about how to make the switch from the presumably deadly Western diet we’re so familiar with. A good example of the generalizations Pollan enlists are his big three: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Not only pasted across the cover of the book, those seven words also start the text.

Disclaimer: I’m hesitating to call these next few blogs a book review for a few reasons (though not for lack of qualifications – I have more debt than I care to admit after spending four years as an undergraduate English major), but mostly because I’m sure I won’t include everything that’s normally reserved for and required in traditional book reviews. I’m writing this from an emotional, and a quite subjective point of view: as I’m ready to make this leap, I am excited for the things Pollan has to say. Forgive me if I sound like a disciple. I’m sure Keith (and everyone who has crossed my path since I picked the book up last week) is going mad with information on eating, and eating well. Basically, this isn’t a book review because I”m telling you just what it did for me, not necessarily what its total message is or might be.

Back to the book: Pollan spends the first part of the text breaking down the concept of nutritionism, a term not coined until relatively recently, as scientists began isolating nutrients from foods. Pollan’s biggest issue with this idea is that foods are not just the sum of their parts: foods are complex structures, in which scientifically-isolated nutrients certainly work differently when combined with other nutrients in the given food. Pollan also notes a concern with the fact that “when the emphasis is on quantifying the nutrients contained in foods, any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear” (32), which is to say that without looking at food in its entirety, processed foods may appear healthier than whole foods based on nutrients alone. Pollan, of course, believes that processed foods are quite the opposite.

Pollan moves on to discussing the marketing nutritionism breeds. Using margarine as an example, Pollan describes how processed foods can change – by adding or eliminating the current “best” or “worst” thing for the body. Margarine, Pollan notes, started as a butter substitute, not because it was healthy, but because it was cheap. Marketers advertised margarine as having less cholesterol and saturated fats than butter with more vitamins and polyunsaturated fats. As specific vitamins became in vogue and things like trans fats became the bad guys, margarine-makers simply added or subtracted them to make their product sellable.  This wouldn’t seem so bad, except that a tomato, or a banana, or a bunch of broccoli can’t simply add or subtract a nutrient. The result? Americans are now eating more and more processed foods and less whole foods.

Pollan goes on to blast through the myths that low-fat versions of whole foods (specifically milk, cheese, and yogurt) are better and that cholesterol is a heart-disease-creator. He cites multiple studies that followed men and women for several years, and none can prove either myth.

The final section of Part One has Pollan wondering where all of this leaves American eaters. His response? “More confused about how to eat than any people in history” (78).  Pollan cites another study to demonstrate that confusion. Paul Rozin, a psychologist, surveyed Americans about their eating habits: about half of those surveyed believe than eating high-calorie foods in small amounts is actually more caloric than eating low-calorie foods in small amounts; one-third of people believe a diet without any fat in it would be better than one with just a bit of fat. Perhaps the most telling aspect about Americans’ complicated relationship with food is a comparison between American and French responses to the same word-association prompt. The prompt: Chocolate cake. Americans’ top response: “Guilt.” French eaters’ top response: “Celebration.”

Part One of In Defense of Food encouraged me to really investigate my foods before I buy – to make sure, that is, that they’re real foods, and not processed food substitutes. I simply want to raise my family on a diet of food, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask, so I read: I read labels, I read ingredients lists, I read nutrition facts, I read blogs by experts, by moms, by chefs, I read any books or articles I can get my hands on, I Google to find where to find the “realest” breads and pastas. This is not easy, and I’m only claiming effort in an attempt to demonstrate how this part of the book has impacted my shopping and eating habits. I do have to say, though, that the standard American issue with food enjoyment does not stand up here: we eat dinner together every night during the week, no matter what else is going on, and we almost always eat three meals a day at the table on weekends (if not, it’s lunch on the go – but breakfast and dinner remain intact). We eat slowly when we can, and we enjoy our meals. Keith and I talk about our days while Ben chimes in by asking for “mow cheese pease.” Shared and enjoyed meals are non-negotiable. I can’t take total credit for that: growing up, my mom insisted on the same, so it was never an issue when Keith and I began our own family. Pollan showed me that we’re doing something right!

I’ll leave you befuddled until next time. Here’s a little quiz, one that Pollan cites and Rozin came up with (79):
Assume you  are alone on a desert island for one year and you can have water and one other food. Pick the food that you think would be best for your health. Choose from corn, alfalfa sprouts, hot dogs, spinach, peaches, bananas, and milk chocolate. Leave your response in a comment or take this nifty poll, and anticipate the correct answer within the next Book Talk!

Meal Plan SUNDAY.

Another week, another six meals:

  • Sausage, pepper, and onion sandwiches with chips (!) and kale
  • Turkey tacos
  • Spaghetti with Mom & Dad’s sauce and eggplant
  • Tilapia with kale and … not sure what else yet – any suggestions? 
  • Rice, black beans, corn, and tomato mix-up (I don’t have a name for this, but we slather it in cheese and call it dinner. A favorite around here – and vegetarian!
  • Homemade pizza! (Super excited to try this, if you can’t tell by the exclamation mark. We’ve been talking about making it for ages, but over the weekend, my mom sat me down with some cookbooks and we found a super easy recipe with very little wait time – which, as anyone with a toddler knows, is crucial. Plus she gave me some tomato paste, so I’ve no excuse now.)

And of course, there’ll be a night of leftovers! Although, to be honest, now that I’m looking at this list, there’s not many meals this week that usually leave us with leftovers. Maybe the spaghetti and the Mexican mix-up, but only because they make so much. What can I say? My boys are big eaters.

That’s it, folks! Pollan book review coming tomorrow, I promise.

More Meal Plan Monday on Sunday.

This week, we’re dining on the following tasty delights.

Sunday: We had a late lunch and some tortilla chips and ice cream at my mom’s for a snack, so no official dinner tonight. Strange? Yes, but it’s the weekend, so we’re less worried about sticking to a strict schedule on these days. It’s all about enjoying each other, so while meals are still almost always at the table (enjoyment thus expanding to mealtime, a big part of why I do this) and well-balanced, there are occasional meal-times like today, where schedules go out the window in favor of late Ben naps and early Eagles games. Sorry, dinner!

Monday through Saturday: I haven’t decided on an order for these meals, because of Keith-sports and a hopeful night out for Mom.

  • Chicken quesadillas with diced peppers and onions (a good way to sneak vegetables into Keith and Ben where neither is the wiser)
  • Turkey cheeseburgers (always a hit – but I’m stuck on what to do about buns!) with potato wedges and sauteed kale (a new Maynard-household favorite)
  • Spaghetti with Mom and Dad’s homemade sauce, plus zucchini and squash
  • Vegetarian tacos
  • Pot Roast with broccoli, carrots, and potatoes (hopefully all in the crock pot for an easy night!)
  • Of course, the ever-popular leftover buffet sometime mid-week
  • EDIT: I forgot that, after I’d made this list, my Pop Pop brought me a jar of homemade bean soup, so we’ll be having that over rice tonight instead of whatever else it was that I was going to make from this list. That means one extra, easy, totally homemade (by Pop Pop, of course) meal – wallet-friendly, plus easy for Mom! Good news for all parties.

And! One big change this week from last? I’ve decided to use bananas as our schedule quick breakfast, rather than our usual granola bars. (Though, in a weird turn of events, both my mom and Keith’s mom gave us packages of Pop Tarts in the past few days, so we’ll snack on those, or eat them for breakfast, whichever suits the day. Like I said in a previous post, I can’t not eat food I have. Too wasteful for me to stomach. Plus, I find it hard to believe that the occasional Pop Tart will shave years off of my life.)

I should mention, too, that I found this really amazing PDF of a good list of bento-appropriate lunchbox foods – perfect for slapping on the fridge (and maybe an extra copy in your purse) to remind you of what to pack and what to buy for lunches. That said, even if you’re not a bento-fan, these are just plain good ideas for cold or room-temperature foods to pack for kids’ – or adults’! – lunchboxes, which is important because a  TON of schools and even some workplaces lack microwaves. Love it. The list comes from bento-enthusiast Wendy Copley at Wendolonia. You can find the PDF here and her homepage here. If you’re not quite sure what bento is, feel free to Google or to browse Wendy’s site, or visit Lunch in a Box, which is loaded with FAQs as well as a ton of ideas for what to pack – plus Biggie, the site author, is currently living, working, and raising a son in Japan, where the bento idea originated. All three are guaranteed to give you some bento inspiration of your own. Enjoy!
There you have it, folks, one more week of progress, inspiration, and tastiness.