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I move to London

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1151585478/gallery_29805_1195_33575.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">from Real Food: What to Eat and Why

by Nina Planck

Special to the Daily Gullet; part two of two

On July 4th, 1996, after a year in Brussels, I moved to England as a journalist for Time magazine, and found a place on St. Paul Street in Islington, a groovy north London neighborhood. A typical London row house, it had a little, overgrown garden, which I cleared out, hauling away many buckets of shattered concrete from an old patio. A farmer from Cambridgeshire delivered a load of well-rotted compost, which I had fun digging under. I laid a stone path to a spot where the morning sun fell and put a bench there. One other place got sun, and there I built a raised bed, barely four feet square, for zucchini, herbs, and lettuce. It was a tiny patch, nothing like 60 acres in Virginia, but it was mine.

Apart from the clouds, I loved everything about England and made lots of friends, but soon I was homesick -- not for Virginia, but for local produce. My sunny patch was too small for all the vegetables I ate. I tried whole foods shops and what they call "box schemes" (a weekly delivery), but they disappointed. The produce was organic, but it was often wilted, bland -- and imported. I took the Tube to London’s famous street markets, which, not long ago, featured local produce from Kent ("the Garden of England"), but they mostly sold Dutch peppers and Israeli tomatoes and t-shirts.

Imported fruits and vegetables couldn’t compare to the ones we grew at home. I longed for ripe strawberries in season, fresh asparagus with its scales unfolding, and traditional apples instead of the standard commercial fare: under-ripe Granny Smiths from Australia or insipid Red Delicious from Washington state. Desperate for good produce, I rented a site near my house, set about finding farmers, and opened London's first farmers' market on June 6, 1999. The Minister of Agriculture rang the opening bell, Prince Charles (a keen organic farmer) sent a letter of congratulations, and all the major papers and the BBC turned up. The farmers, many of whom had never sold at retail, were doing a roaring trade. They wanted more markets, and people in other neighborhoods were calling. By September, I’d opened two more, in Notting Hill and Swiss Cottage. In January, I quit my job -- by this time I was a speechwriter for the American ambassador to Britain -- to start more farmers' markets.

After many years as a fairly dedicated vegetarian, I had begun to eat fish, partly because I had a great fishmonger, but probably more because they said fish was good for you. In 1999, a terrific book on brain chemistry, Potatoes Not Prozac, persuaded me to eat eggs again and to cut back on juice, honey, and white flour. Very quickly, I felt better and began to need new clothes. But I was still fat- and cholesterol-wary, quite afraid that meat, butter, and eggs would give me a heart attack.

My own farmers' markets rescued me. Here was real food on my doorstep, just like at home -- only better, because there were also new foods I’d never eaten: dried beef, pork pie, creme fraiche. Overnight I stopped using the supermarket, except for things like olive oil, chick peas, and chocolate. For The Farmers' Market Cookbook, I wrote recipes for beef, lamb, pork, poultry, even rabbit -- and ate them all. Without really trying, I stopped thinking about food and starting tasting it. Beef and lamb didn't thrill me (nor do they now) but I loved roast chicken and bacon. I never meant to lose weight, only to eat more real foods (more ice cream, less non-fat yogurt) and tastier ones (more chicken, less tofu). The pounds did their proverbial melting as I swapped rice and beans for roast chicken, bacon, and cheese. And I’d never heard of Atkins.

My other complaints disappeared too, along with the colds and flu. As a vegetarian, I would have scoffed at the idea that my diet was anything but ideal. Now it’s clear my body was depleted of protein, saturated fat, fish oil, and vitamins A, B, and D. Among other virtues, protein and fish help keep you trim, B vitamins and fish prevent depression, vitamin A aids digestion, and saturated fats boost immunity. I knew nothing about that, of course, only that the more meat, fish, butter, and eggs I ate, the better I felt. Health and good cheer restored, I became curious about the claims for a vegan and vegetarian diet. What I learned surprised me: we’re not natural vegetarians -- and no traditional culture is vegan.

Humans are omnivores, meant to eat everything from leaves and fruit to meat and eggs. Our anatomy is a hybrid of the herbivore and carnivore, with flat molars to chew vegetables and sharp teeth to tear into meat. Our digestive tract is neither very short (like a dog's) nor very long (like a cow's), but somewhere in between. All over the world, omnivores eat different foods: fish on the coasts, caribou in the woods, beef on the range. But dinner for a cow (grass) or a tiger (meat) is the same everywhere.

For about three million years, we ate mostly animal foods -- as a percentage of calories, much more than today. Early humans had a particular taste for bone marrow, brain, fish, and organ meats -- and with reason. Marrow contains monounsaturated fats, brain is rich in polyunsaturated fats, fish is the only source of vital omega-3 fats, and liver has loads of iron and vitamins A and D.

This preference for rich food -- rather than the leaves and bark other primates ate -- had a profound effect, turning us into Homo sapiens: the thinking ape. Relative to body weight, we have the biggest brains of all animals. Our brains grew bigger rapidly, easily outpacing more vegetarian primates, says William Leonard, professor of anthropology at Northwestern University. "Brain expansion almost certainly could not have occurred until hominids adopted a diet sufficiently rich in calories and nutrients." With primates, the rule is: the bigger the brain, the richer the diet.

We are the extreme example of this relationship. Modern hunter-gatherers get 40 to 60 percent of calories from animal fat and protein, compared with a mere five to seven percent for chimps. Our brain is not only big but also ravenous, using 16 times more energy than muscle by weight. What does the brain need to run smoothly? Fats, especially fish oil. The brain is an astonishing 60 percent fat, of which half is DHA. DHA is found only in fish.

The simple truth is this: there are no traditional vegan societies. People everywhere search high and low for animal fat and protein because they are nutritionally indispensable. Frugal cooks use small amounts of meat and fat to supplement the vegetables, grains, and beans that provide most of the calories. Think of collard greens with fatback in the American South, Latino refried beans with lard, and the Asian stir-fry with a little pork, lots of rice. Gelatin-rich bone broth extends the poor or scant protein in plants. Even vegetarian societies prize dairy and eggs. Indian cuisine relies on eggs, yogurt, and ghee (clarified butter); Hindus call foods cooked in ghee pukkha -- authentic or superior -- and foods in vegetable oil kachcha -- inferior.

<a href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1596911441/egulletcom-20" target="_blank"><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1151265230/gallery_29805_1195_21783.jpg" align="right" hspace="8"></a>The vegan diet is unnatural and rare because it’s risky, especially for babies, children, and pregnant and nursing women. "When women avoid all animal foods, their babies are born small, they grow very slowly and they are developmentally retarded," said Lindsay Allen, director of the U.S. Human Nutrition Research Center. "There’s no question that it’s unethical for parents to bring up their children as strict vegans." Vegans risk deficiency of three critical nutrients: protein, vitamins, and fish oil.

The body uses protein for structure (muscle, bone, blood) and operations (enzymes made of protein run the whole body). A cow can live on grass, but omnivores need complete protein and they must get it daily because it cannot be stored. Most plants contain some protein -- some, like beans, a fair amount -- but all plant protein is incomplete. Protein is made of 20 amino acids, nine of which are essential because the body cannot make them. All plants lack one or more of the 20 amino acids, or contain too little of one. Soybeans, for example, have all the amino acids but not enough methionine; corn needs more lysine and tryptophan. Protein needs are unforgiving: when the diet lacks amino acids, the body ransacks its own tissue to find them.

Incomplete plant proteins can be combined to make complete protein. Famous pairs are wheat and milk and rice and beans. Yet this is still second-best nutritionally, for even when combined, plant protein is always inferior to animal protein, in quantity (there’s more protein per calorie in fish than in rice and beans) and in quality. Unlike plants, meat, fish, milk, and eggs contain amino acids in the ideal amounts.

Vegetarian myths

Myth: Our primate cousins are vegetarians.

Truth: All primates eat some animal fat and protein. We eat more to feed our big brains.

Myth: We are natural herbivores and should eat only plants.

Truth: We are omnivores with bodies designed to eat plant and animal foods.

Myth: Historically we ate less meat.

Truth: Historically we were even more carnivorous than today.

Myth: Other cultures are vegan.

Truth: There are no traditional vegan societies. Even vegetarian cultures use butter and eggs.

Myth: We don’t need animal protein.

Truth: Omnivores need complete protein every day. A small amount will do.

Myth: Plant protein is as good as animal protein.

Truth: Plant protein, even when combined to provide all the amino acids, is inferior to the protein in meat, fish, dairy, and eggs.

Myth: Soybeans contain complete protein.

Truth: Soybeans contain all the amino acids, but not enough of one (methionine).

Sources: Many, including The Paleo Diet (Cordain), Weston A. Price Foundation, Real Food (Grohman), www.beyondveg.com.

Vitamin B6 is found in small amounts in plants, while chicken, fish, and liver are rich sources, while vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods. Only animal foods (especially seafood, liver, butter, and eggs) contain true vitamins A and D. Animals make vitamin A from beta carotene in grass; cows are particularly efficient. Humans, too, can make vitamin A from beta carotene, but with more effort. The conversion requires bile salts, fats, and vitamin E. Babies, children, diabetics, and those with thyroid disorders are poor converters. The body can make some vitamin D in the liver from cholesterol and sunlight, but many people, surprisingly, don’t get enough sunlight.

The gravest risk is deficiency of EPA and DHA, found only in fish. In theory, the body can make these polyunsaturated fats from plants (flaxseed and walnut oil), but humans, especially babies, aren’t very good at it. Dr. Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University and expert in historic diets, says that low DHA in mother or baby causes behavioral, mental, and visual problems in infants; studies show that vegan breast milk is deficient in DHA. Other risks are low birth weight and premature birth.

I found all this chilling, and felt intensely grateful to my omnivorous mother. If I were pregnant or nursing, I’d eat lots of wild salmon, and if my kids got ideas about being vegan, I’d do my damndest to talk them out of it. An adequate vegetarian diet, however, is possible, if it includes complete protein, plenty of flaxseed oil, and vitamins A, B12, B6, and D. If you must be a vegetarian, do eat butter and eggs for the protein and vitamins and flaxseed oil for omega-3 fats. Better still, eat fish.

Back in 1999, I knew nothing of chimp diets or vitamin A or why babies need fish. Farmers' markets, not nutrition textbooks, restored my appetite. As I ate my way through the English landscape, discovering local delights like the unctuous smoked eels of Somerset, I wondered: Is there an ideal diet for omnivores?

Excerpted by permission from Real Food: What to Eat and Why, by Nina Planck. The Daily Gullet thanks Nina and her publisher, Bloomsbury USA.

Nina Planck created farmers' markets in London and Washington DC, and ran New York City's famous Greenmarket. The daughter of Virginia vegetable farmers, she wrote The Farmers' Market Cookbook and hosted a British television series on local food.

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Thanks for the excerpt. I really did enjoy reading it.

Edited by Hiroyuki (log)

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Great piece. I particularly liked the philosophy expressed in the sentence, "Without really trying, I stopped thinking about food and starting tasting it." Of course, your tastings took place in a nearly perfect context, one that had already benefited from your good thinking (and acting!).

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Now i really enjoyed reading this piece for 2 reasons. You talk about tasting food - which is something that i feel anyone who has a strict diet denies themself, and secondly you talkabout enjoyment of eating and the way that it can enrich you life!

I think that the good old fashioned enjoyment of your food goes a long way towards a happy life

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'Is there an ideal diet for omnivores?'

Sure there is. I like to think I'm on it. Furthermore, Nina is doing God's work here. GOD'S WORK!!

This whole love/hate thing would be a lot easier if it was just hate.

Bring me your finest food, stuffed with your second finest!

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Fantastic 2 piece, and thoughts and encouragement for my 3 young ones, who thankfully are willing to at least try everything that daddy cooks.

main point here is (I feel) "everything in moderation", now if i can only make myself beleive that as i walk past my pastry section. :hmmm:


after all these years in a kitchen, I would have thought it would become 'just a job'

but not so, spending my time playing not working


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This is my first post on eGullet and I am thrilled to comment on this excerpt.

Nina Plank has weaved her way to culinary truth by having an open mind and tongue, then by following her curiosity to become informed, using that information to inspire experiments with personal dietary changes, and then finally by taking action (starting farmer's markets and book writing) to uphold and share her discoveries and convictions. She promotes real and honest food (which turns out to be health food after all!) and exposes commercialized food for what it is (artificial and dangerous to human health, beauty and longevity.) Her knowledge and understandings will be unpopular with those less informed or dogmatic individuals, and undoubtedly so by the food powers that be. This is a chronicle of her personal journey. We are all on our own path of discovery and Nina is an ideal role model. She has inspired me to make sure that "real food" is the only food that passes my lips (smack, smack, yum.) Thank you Nina!

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I greatly enjoyed reading this excerpt while eating a tuna fish sandwich.



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