Monday, December 10, 2007

Book Review: Real Food

This book is for anyone who has ever raised an eyebrow at the many unpronounceable ingredients gracing today's packaged foods. The bottom line: put the box down! In Real Food, Planck builds a case for returning to the whole, natural foods that nourished humanity for thousands of years.

Planck begins by sharing her personal history with food, from childhood on a Virginia farm to veganism to eating "meatloaf, bacon and eggs with impunity." The rest of the book serves as an extended definition of the title: what is real food?

While mainstream nutrition tends to treat certain foods as homogeneous, i.e. milk is milk, Planck asks: which milk? She asserts that it is not the food itself that is healthy or harmful, but how it is produced. Raw milk from healthy, grass-fed cows is perfectly suited to human nutrition, whereas milk from confined cows fed grain, animal byproducts, hormones and antibiotics is not. Planck goes on to distinguish between "real" and industrial meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, fats, eggs, grains, salt, and chocolate. Even vilified foods like lard, when prepared as they have been for thousands of years, can be part of a healthy diet.

It may be true that anyone interested in reading a book of this genre is already capable of distinguishing between old-fashioned and processed foods. For me, Real Food summarized most of the conclusions I had already made via self-directed research. The value of the book, however, is just that; Planck synthesizes the available research on traditional foods and delivers it with flair. The questioning reader is free to scrutinize her endnotes and test the legitimacy of her citations.

In a field where extremists are not hard to find, this book is a cool-headed treasure. Some nutrition writers will make you afraid to eat anything - Planck, however, rejoices in [unadulterated] food and has the opposite effect. She encourages readers to eat all the natural foods they like and thoroughly enjoy them without counting calories, fat, or carbohydrates. While she is clearly passionate about the subject matter, she doesn't stray into sensationalism or scare tactics, but remains objective in all the right places. She praises locally grown, fresh vegetables supremely, and makes a substantial case for dietary reprobates like liver, butter and eggs.

Planck takes a controversial and compelling position on saturated fat and cholesterol. Not being a Masai tribeswoman myself, I would not attempt a meat-milk-and-blood diet, nor does Planck recommend it, but I am persuaded that our bodies and foods are more complex than the reigning "if-then" science of fat, cholesterol and heart disease. It is true that every body is different; some can thrive on a vegetarian diet, others on steak and eggs. In addition, Planck does not fail to highlight the importance of exercise for health.

I recommend Real Food as an ideal introduction to the traditional foods lifestyle. There are more scientific works on the subject, but Planck's friendly, conversational tone makes real food approachable and attractive. Her personal experiences and practical advice take the "daunt" out of incorporating traditional foods into very modern lifestyles.

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