Real Food for Mother and Baby The Fertility Diet, Eating for Two, and Baby’s First Foods
By Nina Planck
Nina Planck’s landmark book, Real Food: What to Eat and Why, was a bold and enthusiastic promotion of traditional, old-fashioned foods, and especially of long-revered animal fats such as butter and lard. Since the birth of her first child, Planck has now followed up with Real Food for Mother and Baby and, as readers might expect, this book is in part a reprise of many of the key nutrition discussions of her earlier work, with a particular focus on fertility and pregnancy diets. At first glance Planck’s advice seems comprehensive and sound; her upbeat reassurances beam from the pages. She uses all the right words; she invokes the name of Weston Price. Soon though, the reader finds that Planck did not follow these guidelines; she ends up reducing traditional dietary recommendations to such a degree that these shortcuts sabotage the very wisdom that informed her guidelines in the first place. Her predilection for breezy simplification results in serious misrepresentation and confusion.
For instance, “The Fertility Diet” chapter has plenty of good, detailed advice for both men and women who wish to conceive. “If you’re ready to have a baby, change your diet first,” Planck counsels. Be an omnivore for access to diverse nutrients; get those fat-soluble vitamins by eating the right fatty foods; indulge in plenty of clean seafood; and avoid simple carbohydrates in their many industrial guises. For those unsure of their diet, however, Planck falls back to recommending a basic prenatal multivitamin and taking extra folic acid rather than emphasizing the especially important foods that provide these nutrients: “If you eat plenty of real food, that’s all you need to do [take a multivitamin plus folic acid]. If you don’t, I suggest a little cod liver oil for vitamins A and D. If you’re surprised to find yourself pregnant, don’t fret. Just start eating well. Most mothers and babies do just fine.”
Planck reduces her fertility advice to one short paragraph called “Five Easy Pieces,”—a simplified list of only five foods: “For vitamins A, D, and K2, drink whole milk. For vitamin E, be generous with extra-virgin olive oil. For folate, have a green salad. For iodine, eat wild salmon, or any seafood. For zinc and vitamin B12, any red meat will do. It’s just plain real food, and substituting other real foods is fine.”
Planck’s recommendation for whole milk to provide vitamins A, D and K2 has the effect of obscuring and diminishing the conclusions of Dr. Price. Whole milk will provide small amounts of vitamins A, D and K2 if—very big if—the cows are eating rapidly growing green grass in the spring and fall; a container of whole milk from the grocery store is unlikely to contain vitamins A and K2, and the vitamin D will have been added. The store milk is likely pasteurized or ultrapasteurized, a process that compromises the lactoglobulins that help the body absorb vitamins A and D. In any event, Dr. Price never recommended whole milk as a good source of A, D and K2 (his Activator X). Raw whole milk from pasture-fed cows is an excellent source of calcium, minerals and a range of other nutrients, but it cannot supply adequate fat-soluble activators to ensure successful reproduction and optimal development in the child—you need cod liver oil, organ meats, certain seafoods and plenty of grass-fed butter for that. So the devil is in the details, which Planck cheerfully glosses over.
Thus Planck’s Panglossian assurances regarding dietary requirements and women’s pregnancy and birth outcomes are blindly optimistic, amounting to a kind of deception. The inescapable reality in America today is that we have a crisis in reproductive outcomes directly affected by our generally deplorable diet. Planck is carefree, however: “My own fertility diet was basic. I took extra folic acid and a little cod liver oil. . . Here and there my diary says ‘bison heart’ or some other obscure traditional food, but I can assure you those meals were rare. Most American women get pregnant without eating bison heart.” While that last statement may be strictly true, with current U.S. infertility rates reported at about 25 percent, serious problems like these need accurate advice and serious solutions.
Planck introduces the research of Weston Price, and particularly his observations of the nutrition practices of the native peoples he visited who exhibited superb health and reproductive vigor. Unlike Planck, Price was humbled by the great care and attention these people devoted to nurturing the next generation—not just choosing any old milk or meat, but going to great lengths to procure special foods, especially for mothers-to-be. And of course these people were already consuming nothing but nutritious real foods, as well as drinking clean water and breathing clean air in undefiled environments. Nonetheless, their native wisdom demanded that young men and women preparing for marriage, and that pregnant women, new mothers and young children should regularly receive still more of these especially important foods to ensure perfect health for future generations. This philosophy of nurturance (not to mention the long view on our dependence on one another) sounds extraordinary to many today, but the message remains that preparing for childbirth is an undertaking of the highest commitment and dedication.
By stark contrast, Planck was fourteen when she decided to become a vegan in order to lose weight. At precisely the age when young women in the traditional groups Price studied were receiving extra nutrition for their reproductive health, Planck embarked on a voluntary exile into a nutritional wasteland that lasted about a decade. Even after she transitioned from vegan to vegetarian in order to eat fat-free yogurt, her consumption of fat was never more than a trickle of olive oil, and her diet never included animal fats. It was during her stay in London in her twenties and her work in establishing farmers’ markets there that she found herself in the midst of a cornucopia of real foods and finally came to her senses. Nevertheless, the dark legacy of those critically vulnerable years in the nutritional desert is worrying. Although Planck never reflected on the possible damage caused by those years of sub-optimal nutrition, astute readers ought to take heed when regarding their own reproductive health history. Those who have been vegans or lowfat vegetarians need to follow a diet of truly nutrient-dense foods, with keen attention to detail, for considerable time before getting pregnant.
Planck addresses the question of environmental pollutants and their effects on the developing fetus, recalling with chagrin the herbicides her parents used on their farm during her childhood. Of course, farm children bear the greatest risk of accumulated chemical exposures and later effects. Rather than focus about what might be residing in her body and how to find dietary protection now that she was newly pregnant, Planck decided instead to think positively and continue on as before. Planck’s situation ought to at least provide a warning to other women who have been exposed to chemicals in their youth: they will need even more care with their preconception diet in order to replenish and protect themselves.
EATING FOR TWO
Right off the bat we learn that Planck is alarmed by how much food she is asked to eat to satisfy most pregnancy dietary advice. With no increase in appetite, although with a great increase in fatigue, she becomes peevish and impatient with recommendations that seem overwhelming to her. Unfortunately, she has forgotten to heed her own advice to change her diet before becoming pregnant.
She reproduces the list of fats and proteins recommended by the WAPF that she typed up for herself and taped to her refrigerator. “Then I tried the diet,” she continues. “Impossible. I couldn’t even manage it for one full day.” The diet that has helped hundreds of mothers give birth to vibrantly healthy babies gets no more than one day’s effort. She doesn’t really like beef and lamb, and no matter how hard she tries, can’t find a way to use lard daily. And there was just too much food.
Turning next to Adelle Davis’s Let’s Have Healthy Children, Planck found the advice more to her liking: “Davis emphasized the elements you needed to build a baby: vitamins, protein, calcium. She suggested you fill in the rest, according to taste and hunger: fruit, brown rice, whole wheat toast, chocolate. (True, she never mentioned chocolate, but women who eat chocolate daily when they’re pregnant have babies who smile more.)”
Planck crankily tries to be the Good Eater: “For a few weeks, I dutifully ate liver twice a week. To make room for all the beef, chicken, fish, eggs, cheese, milk and butter, I reluctantly cut way back on dark chocolate (to a couple of squares), fresh fruit (from five or six pieces down to two or three), and homemade ice cream, now with a mere smidgen of honey or maple syrup. . . Still, I wasn’t happy. Meals were not a pleasure.”
It seems to me odd that Planck should be suffering alone with her mealtime quandaries—where was the baby’s father, or Planck’s mother or aunt or friends? How about some help from our local WAPF chapter? Especially in the days when all she wanted to do was sleep, couldn’t someone else provide tempting, nutrition-packed meals each day? Planck quotes Dr. Price, who wrote of tribal leaders in the Fiji Islands who assigned teenage boys the task of seeking special seafood daily for the expectant mothers to nourish their children. Pregnant women need support and nourishment from their “tribe.”
Instead, Planck plugs on alone and once again comes up with a simplified eating approach to the forty weeks of pregnancy, dividing the period into three “acts.” Each “act” involves the development of a different system of the baby’s organism, and Planck highlights the foods that are particularly necessary at those times: “As long as I was taking cod liver oil, I realized, I didn’t need to eat liver twice a week for vitamins A and D. As long as I had a little grass-fed butter oil…I didn’t need to worry if there was enough butter on my eggs. I could probably skip the extra lard altogether. (Hurrah!) When I took fish oil, I didn’t worry if I wasn’t hungry for salmon.” So Planck herself was not relying on milk for vitamins A and D. But she does not say which brand or how much—a critical omission.
A home-born child herself, Planck naturally planned to deliver her own baby at home. However, after laboring without progress and in constant pain for twenty-four hours, Planck’s midwife calls off the homebirth and drives her to the backup hospital. The baby is in a difficult posterior position, and Planck’s labor remains stalled. Per routine hospital protocols, she is moved along the slow conveyor belt that ends in cesarean section. Those grueling hours in the hospital which finally result in the delivery of baby Julian are painful to read; Planck’s misery was complete.
Unsurprisingly, Planck finds herself weeping daily for a month after the birth. She insists some of this is normal as postnatal hormones readjust— in her own case she must also work the drugs out of her system, and add in a recovery period for major surgery along with her many emotions. While mentioning almost in passing that being well-fed can prevent “mild baby blues” she advises mothers whose depression is severe enough to interfere with caring for their babies that anti-depressant medication may be in order, even if they are breastfeeding. Wouldn’t additional cod liver oil, egg yolks and bone broths be a better solution?
Crushed that her hopes for a peaceful home delivery were dashed, Planck asks, “Why me? Why was my baby the one in this rare position, the one in need of rescue?” No one can presume to know the answer for certain, but we ought to remember that ease of childbirth was one of the key markers of reproductive health noted by Dr. Price in the healthy groups he studied. In the U.S. today, the cesarean rate is over 30 percent, and even higher in teaching hospitals. Without this rescue surgery, how many American mothers and infants simply would not survive the otherwise normal human function of birth?
Planck introduces her chapter on breastfeeding with renewed energy and optimism—after a brief trial and error period while she and Julian get the hang of it, nursing is something she finds she does very well. Planck includes lots of information about the components of breast milk—she several times has her own milk tested for DHA content—so important for baby’s developing brain—and finds it consistently high. She includes an illuminating section on the difference between “cache or carry” mammals, which elegantly explains why human mothers and babies do best in close body contact day and night to facilitate the almost constant nursing helpless human babies require.
Detailed nursing techniques, a list of FAQs on breastfeeding, and troubleshooting advice are all sensible and useful. The difficult topic of what to do if you cannot nurse your baby introduces the pros and cons of wet-nurse as Planck’s first choice, human milk bank as second, and home made formula (WAPF’s milk and meat formulas are referenced) third, with powdered, low-iron milk formula as a distant fourth, when there is truly no other choice.
For the most part, Planck uses a “real foods” approach to feeding baby Julian, and she relies on it again for moral support in her own clashes with the pediatrician over Julian’s weight, considered too low at one point, and iron levels, also considered low. The inclusion of these run-ins may be useful for new parents unaccustomed to challenging doctor-sanctioned standards of healthcare for their children, but low weight and low iron levels should be taken seriously as warning bells to make improvements in the diet.
For try as she may to prevent it, Planck allows sugar and white flour products to creep into Julian’s diet—with the inevitable tears from both when Julian demands bread, chocolate and crackers. Part of the difficulty no doubt comes from Planck’s frequent cross-country travel—starting when Julian is only three weeks old—and continuing regularly with him in tow on book tours. All that disruptive travel for an infant makes me wince, but I suppose I’m hopelessly anachronistic. “Hats off” to mothers who manage to travel with beef stew and raw milk for their children, she says, but admits she can’t pull it off.
I was rather surprised that even simpler conveniences for her child seemed too much bother: “Most books will tell you to purée meat in water, stock, or milk and spoon-feed your baby, which is dandy, but it seemed like a lot of work to me. Julian had meat on the bone or in chunks from the start.” The digestive capacities of a child take years to mature, and it is a great help and kindness to at least mince meat in tasty, digestion-enhancing bone broth for him.
Where Planck does become diehard about food selections is in her insistence on lots of fruit and vegetables every day. While giving credence to the superiority of fully ripe, locally grown, pesticide-free produce, she insists that it’s still better to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables every single day, regardless of their provenance. “If your fridge isn’t packed with fresh produce, you won’t have a couple of vegetables at every meal. I’d rather throw away old vegetables—and often do—than do without at supper time. The same goes with fruit. . . In deepest winter, when local produce is scarce and expensive here in New York City, I go directly to the greengrocer, head held high, to buy greens. I have no idea what the carbon footprint of these choices is. But I know the price and convenience calculation without thinking.”
I hate to say it, but if you do think about it, imported greens in winter are for the most part only exercise for your jaws and window dressing for your dinner plate. Most vegetables rapidly lose what uncertain nutrients they have starting minutes after they have been harvested, whether they are organic or not. They won’t gain anything aging in your refrigerator, either. Conventionally grown produce is little more than water, fiber and traces of pesticides and rocket fuel.
A family is more securely provisioned with a freezer full of raw June butter, liver and lard from autumn-harvested animals, and soup bones for the stock pot to last over the winter, and a pantry filled with raw cheese and lacto-fermented organic vegetables. These foods carry the nutrients of the sun-filled seasons to us in deepest winter, in more reliable form and denser concentration. I wish that Planck could have worked up some real passion insisting on plenty of these foods for pregnant women.
Real Food for Mother and Baby contains a good deal of useful, easily accessible information not often found in the usual pregnancy preparation books currently available. Unfortunately, by blithely simplifying that advice to meet modern-day circumstances, Planck’s program falsifies the message of Dr. Price, cannot claim to best nourish pregnant women or their children, and in fact shortchanges them of a diet rich in essential nutrients. The truth remains that there are truly no short cuts to this success; most modern couples today will need extra time and extra nutrition—and clear, accurate explanations—to best prepare for parenthood and ensure that their baby enjoys perfect physical form and optimal health. The stakes are very high and the message needs to be very clear and more serious.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2009.