Few questions have generated more books, articles, studies, lectures, fads, arguments, or confusion in recent years than this one: What should we eat if we want to be healthy?
We have been told to eat meat, to not eat meat, to eat only white meat, to eat mostly plants, to eat organic, to eat natural, to eat what our grandparents ate, to not eat genetically modified food, to skip carbs, to load up on carbs, eat less, eat more, to go vegan, go paleo, go South Beach, go Mediterranean, and on and on. It seems like a new set of instructions comes out every week, so it’s no wonder that people feel bewildered.
Personally, I had settled on two simple answers: 1) If you are going to eat meat, eat only grassfed. 2) Eat more fruits and veggies, just like mom said, preferably from a local organic farm.
Recent research, however, indicates we should be asking a further question: Which fruits and vegetables? Specifically, which varieties should we be eating? New science says there are huge nutritional differences within types of fruits and vegetables. An apple is not an apple is not an apple, in other words. Some varieties will keep the doctor away, but some will make your doctor cringe with concern. That’s because many popular apple varieties are badly deficient in nutrients and highly loaded with sugar. The nutrient content of the Jonathan Gold apple, as an example, is much lower than a less-widely available variety called Heritage.
For Jo Robinson, a pioneering journalist who was one of the first to broadcast the good news about the health benefits of grassfed beef, the answer to the question about what to eat is scientifically clear:
Eat on the wild side.
By “wild” she doesn’t mean the kind of wild experienced by farmers two or three generations ago either, but the really wild—as in plants that were first cultivated four hundred generations ago.
Her thesis, which she explains in her book Eating on the Wild Side, is this: the energetic campaign by humans over the centuries to make wild plants more productive, attractive, appetizing, and easier to harvest has significantly diminished the quantity and quality of their nutrients, many of which are essential to our health. These changes are so big that the fruits and vegetables we eat today are essentially modern creations.
“Compared with wild fruits and vegetables,” Robinson writes, “most of our man-made varieties are markedly lower in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids.… Most native plants are also higher in protein and fiber and much lower in sugar than the ones we’ve devised.”
There’s another huge difference: wild plants are much higher in phytonutrients, which are bio-based compounds that protect plants from insects, disease, damaging ultraviolet light, and browsing animals. According to Robinson, more than eight thousand phytonutrients have been discovered by researchers so far, and each wild plant produces several hundred. Many of these are potent antioxidants, which fight free radicals in our bodies, responsible for damaging our eyesight, turning cells cancerous, and increasing our risk of obesity and diabetes. Phytonutrients have also been shown to reduce the risk of infection, lower blood pressure, speed up weight loss, protect the aging brain, lower “bad” cholesterol, and boost immunity.
“We will not experience optimum health until we recover a wealth of nutrients that we have squandered over ten thousand years of agriculture,” Robinson writes, “not just the last one hundred or two hundred years.”
This is a reason why this area of research is so hot today—and big business. The supplement market has exploded with phytonutrients, including pills, energy bars, juice drinks, and powders. However, Robinson says we don’t need to give money to the pharmaceutical industry to get phytonutrients back into our bodies. Instead, we can shop “with a list,” as she describes it, at our local grocery store and farmers market for fruits and vegetables that resemble their wild ancestors as closely as possible. Better yet, we can grow these varieties in a garden of our own.
Call it eating at Nature’s Café.
The original menu at the café was dominated by plants that were tough, bitter, dry, astringent, seedy, and mostly sugarless. It’s little wonder that as the agricultural revolution began to take off ten thousand years ago, early farmers worked hard to cultivate plants that were sweeter, more tender, starchy, and oily. Cultivated dates, figs, and olives were early additions to the menu. In short order, we added a long list of cereal grains, including wheat in the Old World, corn in the New World, rice in Asia, millet and sorghum in Africa.
Over time, thousands of new café items were introduced to customers, many becoming highly popular, such as coffee, farm-raised meat, and anything containing sugar. With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of food science, the menu changed dramatically once more, as did our health. As we loaded up on sweets, starch, and feedlot beef, our well-being declined proportionally.
We didn’t just lose phytonutrients in the process, Robinson says, our food has been de-flavored as well, ironically enough. That’s because the food industry selects for ease of transport and storage, uniform appearance, and high productivity (including resistance to pesticides), all of which have had a negative impact on our food’s flavor.