Tuna during pregnancy? Raw milk for mothers and babies? Nina Planck, a food writer and farmers’ market pioneer, emphatically says yes to both, along with a host of other foods that don’t appear on many common mom-and-baby grocery lists. In her new book Real Food for Mother and Baby, Planck, who once ran New York City’s legendary Greenmarkets, details the foods she ate while pregnant with her now two-year-old son, Julian, and shares the first foods she fed him. They include salmon roe, lamb chop on the bone, and lightly-cooked egg yolk with sea salt. Planck (now pregnant with twins) talked to Babble about food trends, the truth about “dangerous” foods, and how to take a common-sense approach to feeding your family. – Jacqueline Beach
In your book, you stress the importance of eating fish during pregnancy, especially in the last few months. Your advice is “Don’t avoid fish, just methylmercury.” Why do you think the U.S. government went overboard in their warnings about pregnant women and fish?
I don’t know what the politics were. A committee looked at the evidence and determined that mercury is toxic. There’s better evidence now, and it’s pretty clear that the risks of avoiding fish are greater than risks of mercury poisoning. We know what happens when babies don’t get enough DHA [an omega-3 essential fatty acid found in fish oils] – the eye and brain don’t develop properly.
You also mention that you think a small amount of alcohol is fine during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Do you think this is becoming more acceptable in America?
I think it is. The pendulum is swinging back to tradition and common sense. Women who like to drink a little don’t have to feel like pariahs.
Speaking of drinks, raw milk has been the subject of controversy for years. The New York Times featured you in the piece “Should This Milk Be Legal?” In that article and this book, you advocate drinking raw milk during pregnancy. What can you say to parents to ease their fears about raw milk?
Raw milk is a great food for mother and baby if you have a source you can trust completely. It’s more nutritious than pasteurized milk. Parents who live in states where raw milk is certified are lucky because they can rely on regular testing. The good news is that old, traditional foods are being restored to their proper place in the American diet, with appropriate regulations for production, volume and scale.
It seems all of this points to the culture of fear that’s cropped up in recent years. Why do you think there is such a pervasive theme of danger surrounding pregnancy and food habits?
It’s natural and appropriate for pregnant women to feel protective about the food they’re putting in their mouths. It was ever thus. However, people have become afraid of traditional foods and habits, and that’s where the fear is overblown. Pregnant women can be rightly concerned if living next to a factory belching cancerous compounds. This is a new risk in our time. But beef, butter, egg yolks – these are not risks in our time. They are old. They’re resources, riches, virtues.
You often mention fish oil, cod liver oil, and brewer’s yeast. What’s your opinion on the role of supplements?
Supplements are very valuable because our food supply has been degraded and because women don’t always eat as well as they’d like. The first trimester is important when you don’t yet know you’re pregnant and then when you don’t feel like eating. Real food is always best, and I advise taking supplements that come as close to food as possible. Cod liver oil is part of a real food. Alternatively, you could eat saut’ed monkfish or cod liver, but most of us don’t get around to that. Another rule of thumb, if vitamins are fat-soluble, I remember these as DAKE, then it’s more important to find high-quality manufacturers and to avoid overdoses. With water-soluble vitamins such as B and C, the manufacturer is not as important and these vitamins are safe in high doses.
Less meat appears to be a current trend in food politics. How do trends in eating, such as lowfat diets, vegetarianism, veganism, and so on, affect pregnant mothers and parents?
“I suggest buying only real foods – not industrial fakes or substitutes.”
The trends definitely affect pregnant women and what we feed babies. The good news is that our culture hasn’t entirely forgotten the primary importance of mother and baby. At least there is the sense, if somewhat faded, that pregnant mothers and babies need special, high-quality foods. Women seem to appreciate this. However careless with their bodies before pregnancy, you’ll find they often quit smoking or eating at Dunkin Donuts when pregnant. Flexitarians and vegetarians who eat fish and high-quality dairy and eggs can eat well during pregnancy. The most important trend is to avoid industrial foods and to eat traditional foods. We now have appalling evidence about trans fats and heart disease. To stop buying trans fats of any kind is high on my list for pregnant women and parents.
You often mention grass-fed meats and butter, wild Pacific salmon. What do you say to mothers who don’t have access to these foods, whether because of location or economic reasons?
The term that I prefer is food poverty. A lack of good food for any reason: financial, cultural, geographical. Right now we’re seeing a very rare condition unknown throughout history, a combination of rickets and obesity. In earlier times, this never would’ve existed: overweight children with vitamin D deficiency, excess calories and malnutrition. Food poverty will always be with us in some form. The question is how to eat the best you can on the budget you have. I suggest buying only real foods – not industrial fakes, substitutes, or things engineered to be in low in one thing and high in another. I grew up on supermarket meat and I’m in great health. What I didn’t eat was fake meat, fake cheese, and Fruit Loops.