Although dietary needs are specific for each of us, what is common is our need for high quality food—whole and unprocessed, organically grown, naturally fermented, grass-fed or pastured raised, and wild caught. These nutrient dense foods provide optimal macro and nutrients– necessary for good health and to help us face daily environmental stressors.
How can I make my current diet more healthy?
I think we should focus on taking the great foods that we are already eating and increasing their nutrient density. I thought I had an epiphany, but turns out I wasn’t the only one. Since I tend to think about my work 24/7, it didn’t seem odd to me to that while camping in a remote part of Mexico, immersed in my own primitive hot tub, that I would get excited reading Jo Robinson’s book, Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimal Health.
Our foods have changed
It isn’t a surprise to anyone that our food is different than designed. We have learned how to grow it out of season and modify it to increase crop yield. We have successfully changed textures, flavors, and other qualities to meet the desires of our palates. The issue is that by redesigning our foods, in many cases we have taken away their innate nutrient and healing qualities, purposely put there by mother nature as our daily “multivitamin” or in the case of many foods, our medicine cabinet.
For instance, Robinson points out that purslane has 6 more times vitamin E and 14 times more omega- 3 fatty acids than our heralded spinach–all while containing 7 more times beta-carotene than carrots! Its popularity is growing: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/food/sns-food-recipes-sides-purslane-story.html.
My husband prefers a wild spinach called Lamb’s Quarters that grows as a weed in our yard. His mother used to cultivate it from ditches on the side of the road. I know it doesn’t sound too appealing, but it really is. It can be tough if picked too late and is maybe not as sweet as cultivated spinach, but “offers a greener, earthier, mineral flavor that may be reminiscent to asparagus.” If you prefer to stick with spinach, you can improve its phytonutrient density by choosing medium size leaves (not baby), using it quickly, and not boiling it. Boiling strips away 3/4 of the nutrients, so you might as well drink the broth instead!
Food as medicine
Now, I am not saying we need to return to eating only ancestral foods, which might just be unpalatable. Instead, we can choose the most nutritious varieties of the foods we eat and prepare/store them correctly to maintain their healing qualities.
For example, the old adage, an apple a day, keeps the doctor away. In Myth Buster fashion, it was put to the scientific test. In a study completed in 2009, 46 men with the signs of Metabolic Syndrome (weight around midsection, high cholesterol, LDL, low HDL, etc) were divided into two equal groups. The only difference between the groups was that one was required to consume 300g of unpeeled Golden Delicious apples daily. Two months later, testing revealed that the serum triglyceride and its carrier protein, VLDL levels increased. Since Golden Delicious are low in phytonutrients and very high in sugar, folks with insulin resistance have a hard time metabolizing the sugar and instead converted it to fat.
Selecting the appropriate type of apple might have authored a completely different outcome. If we have an understanding of the varieties of our favorite foods we can get the nutrients that nature intended.
Ever heard of Dr. Westin A Price?
I fell in love with the concept of “food as medicine” and the importance of food quality after being introduced to the works of Westin A. Price.
Dr. Price DDS was chairman of the research branch of the American Dental Association from 1914 to 1923. In 1939, he published his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, where he observed various cultures— specifically their nutritional habits and health. His studies included cultures that were consuming the same diet they’d been eating for centuries as well as those changing their diets to a more westernized approach. What he discovered was that as cultures transitioned to a more modern diet, they started to show signs of developing degenerative disease.
“He observed that mothers had easy delivery and children with well-formed jaws and facial bones among societies who ate animals and fat, and saw the opposite in babies born from mothers who ate a non-traditional or westernized diet. This has manifested into a physical degeneration from one generation to the next, and we now see more and more obese babies, malformed teeth, and other maladies that begin in infancy. Entire generations are growing up with poor nutrition and its accompanying illnesses because of modernization in agriculture that depletes soils, deprives plants and animals of the nutrition they need, and considers speed and profit as a priority over physical health and ecological well being”.
You can learn more about Dr. Price, food quality, and the Paleo diet through his foundation.
How about organic foods?
When we talk about organics, most think about reducing pastiches, herbicides, fungicides, etc. But in general, foods that fight mother nature for survival contain more nutrients. Take phenols for example—fat-soluble chemicals found in over 9,000 plant foods. Their job is to protect the plant from harm. The more a plant is subjected to harsh conditions, the more phenols it creates and the healthier the food becomes.
For example, the 2013 Journal of Nutrition reported that older adults with a high polyphenol intake of over 650 mg per day had a 30% reduction in mortality compared to with those who consumed less than 500 mg per day. So by just choosing an organic version, our diet automatically becomes healthier.
Ever heard of the Environmental Working Group?
The EWG is a fantastic resource for helping us make better food choices.
The EWG annually publishes the “dirty dozen“, a list containing foods that should be eaten in organic form to minimize the impact on health. Their “clean 15“, list foods that may be eaten in the now more “conventional” form. This is important since “Nearly 70 percent of the non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potentially harmful chemical pesticides”. Utilizing these lists as a guidepost can help you make the best choice for you health as well as your wallet.