Foreword - Real Food: What to Eat and Why - Nina Planck

Real Food: What to Eat and Why - Nina Planck (2016)


Real Food was a bold, groundbreaking book, so ahead of its time that even now, a decade later, the world is just catching up. Weaving together arguments from science and history, the book made the case that not only whole foods but also whole fats should be part of our diet. Butter, lard, tallow, suet—for decades banished from kitchens and avoided on doctors’ orders—were, in the pages of Real Food, reintroduced as traditional, delicious, and, most daring, good for health.

Part of Real Food was uncontroversial. The book gave language and shape to a burgeoning movement unfolding across America: a return to fresh, local, and seasonal foods as well as a reengagement in the pleasures of eating after decades of sterile, supermarket dominance and menus written as if from a prescription pad.

Yet while many in the farm-to-table-movement were happy to embrace local produce, whole-grain breads, and olive oil, Nina Planck went a step further, insisting that traditional foods must also include many considered taboo: full-fat cheese, whole milk, egg yolks, red meat (plus the organ bits) and, of course, those bygone fats.

The case for real food resonated in a simple yet powerful way: How could these ancient foods, part of tradition and culture for millennia, be bad for health? Over the last decade, people have begun to remember that before the obesity epidemic, our ancestors collected eggs, churned butter, and drank whole milk. They savored the cream while feeding skim milk to the pigs—to fatten them. Chopped liver, bacon for breakfast … these memories aren’t entirely gone. Now they’ve been unearthed and reexamined in a new light: maybe they aren’t culprits after all. It now appears that these foods may very well have been the guardians of our once-good health, which many Americans, now medicated and overweight, are struggling to recover.

Yet even in the face of this history, doubts have lurked about whether these foods are safe. After all, they contain saturated fats and cholesterol, which, since the 1950s, have been considered dietary evils Numbers One and Two for heart disease. In 2006, Nina Planck made a detailed scientific case in favor of saturated fats and cholesterol, a view then so unpopular that hardly a nutrition expert would support it. But in the past five years, there’s been a sea change, an almost vertiginous reversal in the scientific record.

Since 2013, for example, the caps on dietary cholesterol have been dropped from government nutrition advice, meaning we’re free to eat egg yolks and shellfish with impunity. Eating cholesterol, it turns out, doesn’t reliably alter blood cholesterol levels.

Even more stunning has been the recent reversal on the link between saturated fats and heart disease. In the last five years, a large body of scientific literature has challenged this most sacred belief. As I write, no fewer than thirteen meta-analyses and systematic reviews, on a vast quantity of observational and clinical trial data, concluded that saturated fats are not linked to death from heart disease—or any other disease.

Some data do show that saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol, but this fact doesn’t seem to raise one’s chances of having a heart attack or dying. The simple explanation for this apparent paradox is that neither total nor LDL cholesterol reliably predict heart disease. In the last decade, researchers have made remarkable progress in finding more accurate biomarkers, such as lipoprotein subparticles, that better predict poor cardiac health, and that research is still unfolding. We can, however, answer the pressing question: Will eating natural saturated fats lead us to an early death? Those thirteen review papers clearly say no.

Of course, none of this thinking is mainstream yet. Although scientists are beginning to be more vocal about their doubts on saturated fats, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada backed off its saturated-fat limits in 2015, U.S. authorities have held firm. It is controversial to say that American nutrition experts have been able to do this only by ignoring the data; I believe this is true.

One hopes for a correction from our officials, not only because we’d like everyone to enjoy, guilt-free, the pleasure of eggs fried in butter—although that would be plenty! The more urgent reason is of course to repair the public health. As Real Food explains, these traditional foods are essential for obtaining the full complement of nutrients needed for human well-being. It is simply impossible to get the vitamins and minerals essential for healthy pregnancies and babies, and for a life free of chronic disease, without eating foods of animal origin.

Also, there’s the sticky reality that without animal fats, one’s choice of fat is largely limited to refined vegetable oils, an industrial product invented only in the early twentieth century, whose astronomical rise in the food supply parallels ill health. The omega-6 fats in these oils—including corn, soybean, canola, sunflower—cause inflammation when consumed in excess and oxidize easily, especially when heated. Nina Planck was prescient in warning us about the dangers of consuming too many vegetable oils.

Thus any proponent of “real food” must, in the basket alongside whole grains and produce, include foods derived from animals as well as the fats those animals naturally carry. This is the diet nature has given us, the diet we evolved to eat. Fat itself is still taboo for many eaters. Yet science does not support the low-fat diet; it never did. A convincing quantity of clinical trial data shows that without ample dietary fat, most of us will struggle to lose weight or to prevent or control diabetes. That is presumably why the U.S. government began dropping any total fat limits from its 2015 dietary guidelines.

What Real Food does so beautifully is to combine the conversation about nutrition science with one about food—the history and culture it conveys, and the pleasures it brings. Sixty years ago, nutrition science began to deflate the simple joy of eating. Cuisine was reduced to an arduous slog of macronutrient percentiles, calorie counting, and a growing list of the verboten. No doubt the effort was well intentioned. But the experts who pinned the blame on fat and cholesterol were tragically wrong.

Now we are called to rectify these mistakes, to scramble back to an authentic way of eating. In this nation of immigrants, each individual and each family will have to rediscover a personal and family food culture. I predict a rewarding journey for those who pursue it fully. Ahead of her time, Nina Planck has given us the courage to start. Daring, thorough, and persuasive, Real Food is an enduring guide for a lifetime of eating.

Nina Teicholz
Author, The Big Fat Surprise (Simon & Schuster 2014)
New York, NY