A Return to Real Food

In our rush to embrace conventional dietary wisdom, have we needlessly abandoned authentic fare? Nina Planck thinks its time we took a long, honest look backward.

My poor grandmother. She dropped out of school in second grade to work in a shoe factory, and for the rest of her long, long life she worked hard, ceaselessly, and indulged in a few simple pleasures – like the chopped liver she grew up on, made with lots of whole hardboiled eggs, and served with a side of whole-grain rye bread. Or, rather, she enjoyed it until her doctor told her that she had high blood cholesterol and, consequently, wasn’t allowed to eat egg yolks anymore.

So she would come to visit her grandchildren with plastic bags the size of basketballs stuffed full of hardboiled egg yolks. We were supposed to feed these to the dog. Eat them ourselves. Do something with them, please. She would look at these egg yolks longingly, as she tucked them into our refrigerator. My mother threw them in the garbage after she left: What – the dog was going to get high cholesterol and have a heart attack?

My grandmother spent the last 30 years of her life complaining about her chopped liver, now made only with chopped egg whites, and served on “diet,” thin white bread: It didn’t taste right. While she lived to be 96, the last years of her life were not, shall we say, lived fully. She was all but sealed off from the world by dementia and macular degeneration, an eye disease that causes blindness.

Now, years after her death, we know that high blood cholesterol is not always indicative of heart disease, and to add to the sadness, I have learned through Nina Planck’s new book, Real Food: What to Eat and Why (Bloomsbury, 2006), that egg yolks may actually prevent macular degeneration, and help brain function, too. If my grandmother had been “allowed” to eat egg yolks, her life might have been much healthier, and it certainly would have been more pleasurable.

“I think tens of thousands of older men and women have been needlessly deprived of egg yolks and butter,” sighed Planck, when I told her my story. “And so much of it was done on the basis of faulty science.”

Said faulty science later got updated, but when it was, it was largely ignored by the medical community, which was by then entrenched in “conventional wisdom” based on the initial faulty science.

“They established in 1999 that people who eat more egg yolks have less heart disease,” Planck told me, citing a definitive study of nearly 118,000 people published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that people who ate five or six whole eggs a week had a lower risk of heart disease than people who ate less than one egg a week.

And why would this be? Eggs, as Planck explains in Real Food, have “antioxidant carotenoids, vitamins, omega-3 fats, and good effects on blood sugar and insulin.” They are rich in lecithin, which helps the body digest fat and cholesterol; in choline, a B vitamin; and in glutathione, an antioxidant amino acid that, as Planck describes it, “helps other antioxidants fight cancer and prevents oxidation of LDL [bad cholesterol].”

Egg yolks in particular, she notes, are extremely rich in the antioxidant carotenes lutein and zeaxanthin, which “are good for the eyes (they prevent macular degeneration) and show promise in fighting colon cancer.” Moreover, Planck writes, “The lutein in eggs is more easily absorbed than the lutein also found in spinach. Along with liver, eggs have the highest concentrations of biotin – a B vitamin essential for healthy hair, skin and nerves – of any food.”

Planck’s book is chock-full of this kind of information, with chapter after chapter describing, in rich, well-cited scientific detail, a whole universe of information that proves real food is the best food.

So what is real food? It’s vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, and pasture-raised eggs, poultry, meat and milk. Basically, real food is anything your great-grandparents would have eaten, in the days before the industrial food supply.

So, if real foods are all so simple and familiar, why are so many people so sick? It has to do with the current dominance of industrial foods, writes Planck: sugar, above all, and cheap, processed, commercial vegetable oils, as well as less-healthy, grain-fed industrial milk and meat. And, perhaps most obvious, the way modern people don’t eat nearly enough vegetables.

Does this sound like the kind of commonsense, but also scientifically supported and pleasure-inducing, approach to food you’ve been yearning for? If so, you really should check out this book, which includes plenty of delicious and nutritious recipes like the Zucchini Carpaccio below, and the Chopped Liver recipe available in the Web Extra!

These insights might have all arrived about 10 years too late for my own grandmother, but I take heart in knowing that her great-grandchildren will enjoy the same simple pleasures she did, namely, eggs, chopped liver and other real foods, with a slice of dark rye bread – not misinformation – on the side.

Dara Moskowitz is a Minneapolis-based food and wine critic. Nominated five times for James Beard Awards – the Oscars of the food world – she received two awards for her restaurant and wine columns in the Village Voice–owned newspaper City Pages. Her work has been included in the Best Food Writing anthologies of 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005.

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