The food we eat is well known to be the number one cause of many of the preventable diseases we struggle with today. Despite this doctors everywhere are spending little or no time reviewing what patients eat and what they should be eating. Nutritionists are spending their time concentrating on fat, protein, and carbohydrates often times ignoring the other and likely more important aspects of food such as phytochemicals, vitamins, fiber and the medicinal effects of food.
Our relation to food in our modern society is amazingly messed up from the soil to our plate. We seem to have forgotten that we are just as reliant on the nutrients from the soil and energy from the sun to survive as plants are. We just get these things from the food we eat rather than directly.
Modern agriculture practices abuse plants and by proxy abuse ourselves as well. Through planting huge monocultures of plants we have eliminated the synergy between plants that allows nutrients in the soil to be constantly repleted. These large groups of one single crop completely deplete the soil of nutrients and are a huge advantage for any pest that feeds on that crop. Add to this that the depletion of nutrients compromises the immune system of the plants and their ability to fight off pests. This leads to the widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers. The problem with fertilizers is that it only repletes what is absolutely necessary for plant survival and growth but does not replete the wide array of nutrients that help make the plant truly healthy, making us unhealthy as well. As for the pesticides, we are all told to believe they are not harmful and no study has shown them to be harmful. However, all we have proven is that they are not fatal. They may very well be harmful to us as long term studies have never been done. We can all remember cases before when we were told chemicals were safe until they were proven harmful (DDT, BPA, asbestos). Our current system is set up to say chemicals are safe until proven harmful, not the other way around as it should be. Not to mention that the harm may not be to us directly but to other organisms in the environment. There is new research showing that the dying out of bees in massive numbers in a disorder coined colony collapse may likely be due to a fungicide that was presumed to be safe for bees but is now found to compromise the bees’ immune system leaving it vulnerable to parasites. Bee pollen has been tested and usually shows on average 9 to 21 different pesticides in it. This chemical stew’s effect on the environment and our bodies has never been tested. Also these chemicals take away the job of fighting off pests from the plant as this is done for them. Therefore the plant no longer needs to make these naturally occurring pest deterrents which happen to be many of the same chemicals that make plants so healthy for us.
Then after we harvest these sickly, nutritionally depleted, chemical laden plants rarely do we eat it in its whole form which is the most nutritious way for us to take it in. In fact this is the only way our digestive system has evolved to eat. Millions of years of evolution adapted us to be hunter gatherers. Gathering up wild fruits, vegetables and nuts and eating them and occasionally supplementing this with wild animal meat which is far more lean and has more omega 3 fats. Instead we take this food from the earth and often times ship it thousands of miles from where it was farmed giving it more time to nutritionally deteriorate. Or, even worse, the food may be sent for processing, separating it into isolated parts depleting it of almost all phytochemicals and vitamins and is made into some food product that has almost no similarities to anything our ancestors would have eaten. In fact there have been theories put forth that overeating is due to the body craving nutrients it still in deficient in despite eating a lot of calories. The body continues to send hunger signals despite lots of fat and having taken in plenty of calories in an effort to get the person to eat the nutrients it is lacking. So far there is only some observational data supporting this and to the best of my knowledge it has never been tested but it does make logical sense and may explain the failure of many other attempts to treat weight gain such as using leptin. Lastly, and possibly even worse than processing food, we feed it to livestock to fatten it up and eat it. The problem is that these animals never evolved to eat corn, soybeans or whatever cheap crop we choose to feed them. Corn is far to high in sugars for cows and is the main reason their intestines are now filled with dangerous E. coli bacteria that lead to gastrointestinal infections in humans as food borne illnesses and why we have to treat our meat like it is radioactive in the kitchen to avoid getting sick. Feed a cow only grass as it was evolved to do and the E. coli in its gut disappears and its meat becomes leaner and has far higher omega 3 fats making it much healthier. But this is not what we do. We abuse our livestock just like we abuse our plants, damning them lives to overcrowded, sedentary, nutritional deprived lives leading to sick animals that when eaten by us lead to sick people.
We have forgotten our connection to the soil, plants and animals. We spend less time than any other culture in history obtaining and preparing our food. Just a few hundred years ago most of our day was spent in these efforts. It is a huge luxury and advancement that we no longer have to devote so much time to meeting our basic needs. But there seems to be an inner desire that is fulfilled when we obtain this food ourselves. So much technology and industrialization of the food process has been set up to allow us more free time. And what do we do with that free time? We go fishing, or hunting, or we garden. We clearly have an evolved drive to cultivate and obtain food, and it brings us satisfaction to do so. So many of our psychological and health related problems could be helped by simply having a garden to grow some of our own nutritional food. Sharing that experience of growing food with our children and showing them first hand our connection to the soil and sun, and to our planet. Or spending time hunting, sitting in nature and admiring animals first hand and seeing their sacrifice for our nutrition up close. Many animal rights activists may criticize hunting and I certainly do as well if it is hunting only for sport and not for food. I have no moral objection to hunting a deer and eating it if it substitutes for the meat of a cow or pig that was raised on a livestock yard in inhumane conditions. The deer at least was able to survive and thrive in the wild for its whole life until it was killed for food. This seems far more humane and natural. And the meat obtained from the deer is much leaner and has far more omega 3 fats and likely many more nutritional aspects to it that we have yet to understand that make it far healthier than a farm raised cow or pig.
After all this food is planted, raised, harvested, processed, fed to livestock we then often eat it in solitude as fast as possible and in far too much quantity. The sit down family meal is slowly being replaced by the solitary meal in front of the television or the fast food behind the wheel of a car. We used to leisurely eat at a table with others giving our stomachs time to know it is full and allowing us to respond more to internal queues telling us how much and what to eat rather than external queues. When watching television the queue to stop eating is often the end of the show as your attention is drawn away from the food itself.
Diet experts and nutritionists are constantly tweaking the ratio of fats, protein, and carbohydrates to make for the perfect diet that will allow for optimal health and weight loss. However food is far more complicated than these three macronutrients. Very VERY slowly science is respecting the importance of vitamins and other micronutrients. Initially they were only considered to be important to prevent extreme deficiencies as seen in rickets, scurvy, or beriberi. Now slowly science is understanding that less severe deficiencies may also play are role in disease such as low vitamin D leading to osteoporosis or increasing risk for cancer. However this science is still in its early stages and there is still far too little of it. And we are just beginning to understand the importance of the 10,000 other phytochemicals in plants that may have a potential effect on the human body such as lycopene or selenium. Our understanding of food is in its infancy and to think we know enough to mess around with the soil, pest killing chemicals, and the diet of the animals we eat is not only arrogant, it is completely wrong. The safest thing to do when there is such a huge lack of knowledge would be to keep our diets as close to what we found in nature as we evolved. Our bodies have had millions of years to not only survive but to thrive on this diet. Our genetics are set up to be at our best on a diet of wild nuts, berries, and vegetables with the occasional lean meat.
Due to this organic fruits and vegetables not only have the advantage of exposing us to less chemicals. It also makes for plants that are under more stress producing more nutrients that our body needs including many more of those 10,000 phytochemicals that our body needs than their nonorganic counterparts. This is already well known in the wine industry. Grapes that are put under some stress as they grow make far better wine than grapes that had everything they needed and were grown under perfect conditions. The stress makes the grape make a far greater array of phytochemicals to ward off pests and resist draught. This makes for a richer, fuller taste that our palate enjoys. We crave this taste of the earth.
Our idea of nutrition has to change dramatically. Food is not merely a conduit for calories in a ratio of protein, carbohydrates and fats. They are also the delivery system for vitamins and thousands of other phytochemicals that we need. One day in the far off future we may have a full understanding of food and be able to get all the vitamins, nutrients, and phytochemicals we need from supplements, but that day is no where near. For now our best path to health is to match the diet as closely as possible that we have evolved to thrive on. The diet should consist predominantly of fresh, whole fruits and vegetables with minimal cooking or processing (none if possible). This should be supplemented with a small amount of animal meat or fish that are raised in as close to wild type settings as possible. Grass fed cows, wild fish, free range chickens and eggs. It may seem like this would be far too expensive for anyone to sustain but keep in mind you should be eating FAR less meat than you do. Meat is not only the most expensive part of our diet, it is also the least efficient use of our energy. Plants give us far more bang for our buck. And if everyone were eating far less meat we could afford to pay more for it and devote sufficient amount of land to allow them to be pasture raised. Our plants need to be not only organic but grown in close proximity to different types of plants. Monocultures are not found in nature and for good reason. They deplete the soil and make for a perfect environment for pests. Our plants need to be able to naturally struggle with pests in a sustainable diverse environment.
We all need to reconnect with the soil and our ecosystem. We need to grow some of our own food even if it is only some herbs in a window box. Our children need to understand that our current system is not sustainable and is poisoning us. With this approach much of the modern day diseases would be far less frequent and we could all feel much more healthy while enjoying our food more at the same time.