The case was made recently in The New York Times that we might be systematically cultivating the nutrient value out of our plant foods. This is partly the result of eating an ever-diminished variety of plants and partly the result of choosing ever-sweeter versions of the plants we do eat. A case can be made that breeding for pest resistance and willful genetic modifications compound the problem. The argument in the Times is plausible, if not entirely unbiased or totally well-substantiated. But let's acknowledge that concern about this issue is certainly legitimate.
It is also of special relevance to one of the prevailing interests of modern nutrition, namely a return to our native nutritional habitat. While I am not as zealous about the Paleolithic diet as some, I am a strong proponent of its relevance to good nutrition in general - and consider it a valid contender for "best diet" laurels.
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All species are well served by sticking to something like their native diet, and there is no rational basis for presuming Homo sapiens to be excluded from this club. Whatever diet pattern is selected, there is opportunity for it to be informed by knowledge of our own native nutritional habitat.
But the concern about nutrient levels in modern plant foods suggests how challenging it would be to go "Paleo" in modern context. There is the obvious scarcity of mammoths these days. But there is, potentially, an inability to match the nutrient density of Stone Age plants as well.
This is compounded by our general failure to match their variety, too. And, there are other related concerns. On average, we are very sedentary relative to our forebears of just decades, let alone millennia ago. We burn many fewer daily calories than our Stone Age ancestors, leaving us with many fewer to replace by eating. If we eat less overall, and eat neither animal nor plant foods in anything like their Stone Age state, we are forestalled in numerous ways from even approximating our native nutriture.
One potential solution to this is, of course, supplementation. The most logical approach I know to making up a shortfall of many nutrients from foods is to combine all of the nutrients from those very foods into the same supplement. That's just what "whole food based" supplements do, the one I know best being Juice Plus. Assuming we never forget that a supplement can never be a substitute for healthful living, this may be one of the more practical means of approximating our native nutrient intake from a wide variety of plants.
A diet rich in diverse and pristine plant foods is probably perfect for our health. But even a diet rich in the plant foods we have on hand would be good - and a whole lot better than the perfectly bad diet of highly-processed junk that now prevails. As a nation, and culture, we are a long way from the recommended daily intake of vegetables and fruits, despite the fact that the recommended intake is lower than it should be. We have been stuck at our very low produce consumption levels for years, and even decades.
If we are indeed attenuating the nutrient value of our plant foods, we should rally against the implicated forces. But we could, at the same time, rally in defense of our health by various means. If we were to exercise routinely, we would be promoting our health directly and also increasing the number of calories we need each day to maintain a healthy weight. If we consumed more daily calories, we would have more opportunities to increase our nutrient intake levels.
Those opportunities would be greatly facilitated by jettisoning from our diets anything that, to put it bluntly, glows in the dark. There were no glow-in-the-dark, betcha-can't-eat-just-one Frankenfoods in the Stone Age. Honestly, those ought to go.
Every one of those removed from our diets takes a whole load of calories with it, making more room for a variety of foods lower in calories, richer in nutrients. And yes, these would be mostly plants.
Maybe those plants wouldn't be as nutrient-rich as they once were, or should be, but they'd make our diets a whole lot better just the same. And as our produce intake went up, and our diets improved, there would be ever more momentum in favor of protecting the nutrient value of our produce, reducing mono-culture agriculture and overhauling our Farm Bill. A change in the food demand is the most potent goad of all for a change in the food supply.
Pristine, Paleolithic produce would probably be perfect. The case for defending perfect food would get a whole lot stronger if as a society we committed genuine effort to getting our diets from alarmingly bad to consistently good.
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David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, is a specialist in internal medicine and preventive medicine, with particular expertise in nutrition, weight management, and chronic-disease prevention. He is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, and principal inventor of the NuVal nutrition guidance system. Katz was named editor-in-chief of Childhood Obesity in 2011, and is president-elect of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.