I like Nina. I do.

Well, it’s not surprising, but the blogosphere is indeed buzzing about Nina Planck’s Death by Veganism op-ed. Many vegans, like this one, make some great points — namely, there are plenty of neglectful non-vegan parents, so why single out this (rather extreme) case?

Nina is a savvy woman, though, if only because after reading her op-ed, and some of the responses, I did the very thing that she probably hoped I would do (and that the vegans probably feared I would do): I went out and bought her book.

I’m only a couple of chapters in, but so far I like it. In no means do I want to pick a fight with the vegans of the world — who is doing more to save this planet of ours than vegans? Who lives their beliefs more than they? Who is more likely to bitch-slap me for my diet help me improve what I eat?

(for a good review of Nina’s book from someone who’s actually finished it, check out this post from Tigers and Strawberries.)

But I like the book mostly because her definition of “real food” matches my own. Which makes me realize: although I declare myself a mama in search of real food, I never actually defined real food. But Nina did — and she provides facts and figures to back up what I arrived at by gut instinct.

Real food, for me and Nina, is:

1. Old: the kind of things humans have been eating for a long, long time. Which means butterfat, not margarine. Fruit, not “fruit” snacks. Eggs, not EggBeaters.

2. Not only should the food be old, but it should also be raised/produced the way it used to be (meaning, in the case of meat, for example, fed the diet that it evolved to eat, not crammed with e. Coli-creating corn…).

With this diet, and some budgetary restrictions, you’ll wind up eating heaps of vegetables, virtually no additives…and, yes, some animal products, but more healthful animal products. That’s my definition of real food. That’s what you find here. And I do believe you’ll be healthier for it. You bet I do.

As for veganism and the ethics of meat-eating: the most compelling arguments that I’ve read for veganism are in response to industrialized agriculture, not sustainable, local livestock. Environmentally, I’m not convinced that packaged soy products are really much better for this earth than, say, local beef, assuming that the cows were pastured and not trucked 1200 miles to your plate. And nutritionally, pastured meat just isn’t the same as its feedlot cousin. Should we eat less meat? You betcha’. But the difference should be not just in quantity, but also in quality.

O angry vegans, I certainly am open to learning more. But in the meantime, the (admittedly inflammatory) Nina makes sense to me. You?

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14 Responses to “I like Nina. I do.”

  1. 1 Sheri May 22, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Curious to see how Nina’s book compares to Marion Nestle’s “What to Eat,” which I have home from the library and have started browsing. Marion seems to define real food similarly to you and Nina (and me). Have you read it?

  2. 2 Anna May 22, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    Oops, I put my response to “I like Nina” under “Five Things”. Sorry.

  3. 3 Einhorn May 22, 2007 at 7:42 pm

    I’ve been lurking on your blog for a while now – ever since Jenn over at Breed ‘em recommended your blog. Figured it was a good a time as any to say hi.

    I like Nina. And you.

    I’ve been a vegetarian for just under a year now – before that I’ve been a long time good quality/ reasonable quantity (1-2 times a week max) meat eater. And since I’m still a bit of a youngster (25 and counting), a long time means that this is how I was raised. And just so you know – all that hard work you do now? It really pays off – chances are your kids will be thanking you later in life for the food ethics and values you are ingraining in them now.

  4. 4 boogiemum May 22, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    Haven’t read up on this Nina, but she sounds like one cool chick! :) I think your defintion and as you would say her’s of real food is wonderful. I wish more people had that defintion. I seem to have a hard time finding people in RL who think like this. Today this mom was complaining to me about how unhealthy the school food is b/c they use leftovers as her son ate BLUE? applesauce??? yikes… I wish I had some business cards with your blog printed on them to hand out. :)

  5. 5 Fairly Odd Mother May 23, 2007 at 1:10 am

    I think your points are well put. I am currently exploring local farms for meat and egg shares; we don’t eat much meat (I don’t eat any other than the random bacon) but, for the meat I do feed my family, I would like to know where it is coming from, how it is raised and what it is fed. Same with veggies (already signed up for a share at a local farm). Quality over quantity is a great mantra—-about a gazillion people in this country could benefit from adopting it!

    My problem with Nina’s Opinion article is that she lost me at the first paragraph. I completely and utterly disagree that the baby died b/c of veganism. He died b/c his parents were idiots. Had they not heard of soy formula? Didn’t a 3 pound baby look freakishly sick? I’ve seen vegan kids and they look pretty good to me. I do think that it takes a lot of thought to make sure a child raised on a vegan diet gets all the nutrients they need, but I’m sure it can be done. I’d be willing to give it a try but I think I’d cave the first time I was eyeball-to-eyeball with a good hunk of blue cheese.

  6. 6 ExPat Chef May 23, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    Agreed. They were stupid, soy formula would have saved the child. They deserve to be prosecuted, frankly.

    I could never be vegan. No desire to. Cheese is wonderful. A real diet of real food is wonderful. As I sit down to dinner nightly or read the ingredient list on a processed food, I wonder, how could we, as an entire society, choose to blindly eat anything but real food? How did we get here, and how did the option not to be able to afford or get access to healthy foods get denied to so many people? Yes, we need to change so much for so many. Sigh.

  7. 7 Barbara May 23, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    Thank you for the link to my review of Planck’s book.

    Although I have to say, even as a non-vegan, her op-ed in the NY Times irritated me mightily, mostly because she misrepresents her opinion as fact. The truth is she is not an authority on nutrition or pediatrics, so her rather ill-informed opinions on the suitability of a vegan diet for children are just that–opinions.

    In order for her to make a successful argument against veganism, she has to appeal to qualified authorities whose opinions concur with hers; otherwise her argument is unsupported.

    Which is the case in her rather poorly written essay in the Times.

    So, I wrote a response to it, basing my statements on supported facts and opinions from qualified nutritional authorities.

    If you are interested, my essay is here:http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com/2007/05/22/nina-planck-stirs-the-pot-vegans-get-steamed-film-at-eleven/

    That said, I generally agree with her definition of “Real Food,” though by her definition, tofu, tempeh, seitan and soy milk all qualify as real foods as well, since they have thousands of years of tradition in the Far East behind them.

  8. 8 Andrea May 23, 2007 at 5:25 pm

    Thank you for providing the information about Nina and I will head over to the book store to pick up a copy of her book very soon. I also had a problem with her op-ed about the vegan parents and I agree with others she is slightly missing the point. The parents were negligent and stupid. My brother and wife are raising their children vegan and they are all very tall, strong, smart, healthy kids. Of course that is anecdotal. I do agree that all the processed crap we eat is in part causing all of our health problems and the key is to eat natural locally grown food, which is what my husband and I try to do and how I would like our future children to eat too.

  9. 9 Alexis May 23, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    Came across your post from Barbara’s site. You might like Michael Pollan’s article in the New York Times a while back — much better than Nina Planck, in my opinion. He talks about the definition of (real) food too.


    I agree that it’s important for people not to get complacent about food sourcing just because they’re vegetarian or vegan (ie to eat packaged soy products, etc, but ignore that because at least they’re not eating meat). I find it easier to be vegetarian because otherwise I would have to explain to people “I can eat my meat but not your meat”, which is rude (and it’s expensive and I dislike handling meat). But I try to buy local food and avoid processed stuff and things shipped from faraway places. Any diet that takes into account ethical and environmental concerns is better than one that doesn’t. But all things being equal, blithe, unaware meat-eating is generally worse than blithe vegetarianism/veganism.

  10. 10 Anna May 24, 2007 at 3:57 am

    Nina Planck is accused of not being an expert on nutrition. Hmmm.

    Look at what the nutrition “experts” have done to the US. Whatever food smarts our collective nation had is long gone, so we slavishly follow the food marketers and nutrition “experts” to learn what we should eat and we are the worse for it. We’re a nation largely of fat, but malnourished couch potatoes, whether we eat animal products or not. The sooner we stop listening to the “experts” and start relearning and listening to people who still know what “real food” is all about, the better for all of us. We have some major healthcare (or rather, “sickcare”) crises headed our way, thanks to the dietary advice and industrializing of our food supply the past 50+ years.

    Nina didn’t just come up with her opinions out of thin air; she did some investigating to find answers that made sense, historical and biological sense, not to mention common sense.

    Furthermore, I suspect she meant to ruffle feathers, which is just what is happening. Perhaps it’s time to push back and even say that perhaps the Emperor has no clothes.

  11. 11 cleanerplateclub May 24, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    The dialogue! I love it!

    I should probably have called this post “I like Nina. At least I like her definition of real food, mostly.” I might not like her personally, since I don’t always love in-your-face feather rufflers in person.

    A few quick things:

    Sheri – so far (and I’m not deeply into it yet), I would say that Marion Nestle and Nina Planck probably have very similar diets in the real world. Book-wise, I’d say that Marion, trained as a nutritionist, is more conservative with her opinions. She offers tried-and-true advice that you’d expect to hear: about saturated fats, and cholesterol, and calories. And most of it makes sense. The biggest problem I have with this, though, is that for the most part, she treats all eggs alike, all meats alike (it’s not totally true, but mostly) – without as much recognition as I’d like given to how what-you-eat actually eats. In other words, despite the nutritional differences between pastured beef and feedlot beef, for the most part, it’s all beef to Marion. Nina on the other hand, seems to throw the conventional dietary advice to the winds (as Anna suggests, it hasn’t actually improved our health, though that’s partly because nobody follows it!), focusing more on the how-it’s-raised than anything.

    I’m not always a fence-sitter (sometimes people are genuinely wrong, and sometimes they’re genuinely right) – but in this case, I do think the truth lies somewhere between. The conventional nutritional wisdom really does feel simplistic sometimes, and I think science is starting to support this…but Marion’s basic advice still stands. It’s funny to parse things like this, though, since I’ll bet you’d find similar ingredients in each of their refrigerators. But the difference in their refrigerators would be this: Nina’s milk would be whole and raw, Marion’s low-fat and organic.

    Alexis. Oh yeah. Michael Pollan. I know the article, and I know him. I also love him. No, I mean, I luuuuurrrv him. His definition: real foods are those that your great great grandmother would recognize as food. And I love that. I luuuuurrrrrv that. I, by the way, have had the “I’ll eat my meat but not yours” problem, and it’s hard. So I compromise with “okay, your meat probably won’t kill me, and I hate to be rude…but at home, it’s my meat.”

    Barbara – that’s a great response to the article. Very well said.

    And everyone – I love the dialogue! I love it, I love it! I love it!

  12. 12 Barbara May 24, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    I’m glad you liked my response–and yes, I am thrilled to see dialog here and elsewhere on the issue of Nina Planck’s op-ed, too.

    What I find most annoying about Planck’s general view of “real food” is that she has a fairly narrow view of it. “Eat what your grandmother ate.”

    Well, the thing is, tofu, edamame, miso, soy sauce, seitan, soy milk and tempeh all vegan standards, have long histories in the far east. They have all been eaten by plenty of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean grandmas.

    So, what’s the problem if today’s vegans eat them instead of meat?

    Is it okay for Buddhist or poor Asians to eat vegan food, but not American middle and upper class folks?

    My grandma would likely not recognize tofu as food, but my Chinese friends’ grandma’s would, so why can’t I eat it and be just as healthy as they are?

    Planck is just unaware of how narrow her view of real food is–and that bugs me.

  13. 13 Barbara May 24, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    Oh, and btw–I am glad I found your blog, (through your link to mine–again, thank you) and am going to add it to my blogroll. Great stuff here.

  14. 14 Anna May 28, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    Nina and I had an email exchange a while back about the “grandmother’s food” guideline. We both agreed it wasn’t meant to be literal, just a guideline that helps people make more thoughtful choices (and that thoughtfulness is a continuum, not a fixed point). Both of my grandmothers grew up with whole, traditional foods, but adopted industrial foods as they became available. So I prefer to think back at least one or two generations *before* my grandmothers’ early lives (both were born in the ‘teens), because the “Western” world had started some dramatic dietary changes a bit over 100 years ago (adoption varied by location & circumstance) due to new industrial technologies (more refined grains, changes in types of fats and oils consumed, fewer meals eaten at home as urbanization increased, canning for food preservation, etc.).

    Also, of course my great-grandmother in rural Central PA would not have had access to miso, tempeh, etc. But my interpretation of the “grandmother’s food” guideline again isn’t literal; I would include foods of my great-grandmother’s *era* (or prior), not just what she consumed. I do focus on foods of her era that are available in *my area*, because seasonality and locality would have been a big factor in her diet, even if there wasn’t a fig, lime, or avocado tree within a several state radius. Someone somewhere was eating those back then.

    Also, even though it goes back before any the grandmothers that I can name, the most traditional edible forms of soy (fermented to inactivate the anti-nutrient properties and enhance the nutrients, such as soy sauce, tempeh, miso, etc.), aren’t as “ancient” as many people imagine or claim. I have seen credible estimates of as little as 3,000 to no more than 5,000 years for soy as a human food. Tofu is the more recent of the “traditional” soy products. Also, many of the modern “traditional” soy foods are now made from speedy (cheaper) industrial processes, which bypasses the slow hand-crafted traditions (think Velveeta vs. aged Cheddar). Hardly the same thing.

    Soy wasn’t a food at all for most of human history and until fairly recently in agricultural history, soy’s role was primarily as a nitrogen-fixing rotational cover crop to increase soil fertility for other crops. Many agriculture products are much older and need less human processing to make them edible and nutritious. Soy as it exists in most Western diets is not a health-promoting food, in fact, it can be unhealthy for many people (soy is a goitrogen, endocrine disruptor, allergen, growth-inhibitor, etc.). In Asian diets, traditionally fermented soy is consumed in small condiment quantities, not in a gazillion ersatz packaged foods in factory-fractionated form. So there’s good reason to be choosey about not only soy food forms, but quantity and quality.

    I haven’t read Marion Nestle’s What To Eat book yet, but I have read her Food Politics book and she is certainly one author with some authority who is headed at least in the right direction. I am quite bothered by her association with the CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest), one of my least favorite advocacy groups (in fact, downright dangerous in many respects). And I think she needs to finally get over her lingering fear of naturally saturated fats (she should know better by now). I also agree with CleanerPlateClub that Nestle makes too little distinction when it comes to the “we are what they eat” issues. But that is another point on the “food thought continuum” and some folks just aren’t there yet. When I can (mostly at home or in restaurants of my choosing) I keep high standards for my family’s food (and it is always evolving as I learn more or find new sources). But when I am in someone else’s home or someone else’s restaurant choice, I don’t want to make an issue of it.

    Back to Nina Planck and anyone else who is talking about our food. I think gutsy, feather-ruffling writers are a great antidote to the immensely pervasive influence of the food processing industry and their handmaidens (the American Dietetic Association, the American Heart Association, the govt, the advertising and marketing industries, etc). We need to be thinking about our food in a more active mode, even if it isn’t always comfortable or agreeable. 100% agreement is not only unlikely, it probably isn’t good, either. But it’s past time for a comtemporary Upton Sinclair (if you haven’t read The Jungle, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in food, the food processing industry, and the public health connection). Perhaps Nina Planck is that Upton Sinclair.

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