Centuries of agriculture have depleted our soils causing the nutrient-density of fruits, grains and vegetables to decline dramatically, but the health of effects of eating foods that are not nutrient dense are widely misunderstood. This excerpt from The Intelligent Gardener (New Society Publishers, 2012) by Steve Solomon explains nutrient-density and the role it plays in achieving better health for you and your family.
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Achieving a nutrient dense diet involves perfecting three things. First: some entire food classes are more nutrient dense than others; we need to avoid foods with little intrinsic nutritional content. Second: some batches or lots of the same kind of food can be far more nutrient dense than others. These differences can be due to genetics, but usually have more to do with the soil on which the foods were grown and sometimes at what stage of maturity they were harvested. Finally, some foods have been devitalized, that is, processed so as to reduce their nutrient content. White flour and refined vegetable oils are two glaring examples.
Different productions of the same type of crop can vary greatly in nutritional quality. The same variety of wheat can have very different protein levels depending on the soil and, to a lesser degree, according to the amount of rainfall that year. Some varieties of same kind of vegetable have far higher levels of vitamins and minerals. So, the same is not really the same.
Another class of differences in nutrient-density is between types of food. This conversation is sometimes termed “making healthy choices.” For example, wheat usually is far more nutrient dense than rice. In fact, rice is probably the least nutritious of the major cereals, especially white rice. So if it were possible to choose between rice and some other grain, it might be wise to avoid rice.
I distinguish between nutrition and fuel. We benefit from almost unlimited quantities of nutrition, but excesses of fuel burden the body and become deposits of fat. Both fatty foods and sugary ones are highly concentrated forms of energy that carry little or nothing in the way of minerals, vitamins or enzymes. Even raw honey, the best natural sweetener, has barely enough minerals and enzymes in it to justify its consumption; for sure, cane sugar does not. It contains nothing but energy.
Practicing healthy choice also means avoiding devitalized foods. To be healthy, our bodies need every bit of nutrition they can possibly assimilate. If, for convenience or for profit, nutritional content is removed or destroyed during processing, the consumer’s health gets shortchanged. Health really does equal nutrition divided by calories; devitalization removes much of the nutrition, but few of the calories. In fact, devitalized foods usually become more calorie-dense as they are made less nutrient-dense. Much has already been written about this situation; it is an example of commonly held knowledge most people choose to ignore.
Making healthy choices extends beyond the simple selection of wheat over rice, or brown rice over white rice, or the avoidance of unnecessary fat and sugar. These days, the choice has to be made based on invisible differences. Most varieties of wheat can, if grown on properly fertile ground, contain quite a bit of protein, many minerals and key vitamins. In order to contain enough gluten to make decent bread, wheat must be 14% protein or more. However, there’s a type of wheat used to make soft white instant noodles. It contains about 8% protein; it was bred to grow on soils of low fertility and is less nourishing than even white rice. Both sorts of wheat look much the same until you try to use them, but you can’t make rubbery bread dough out of noodle wheat. Even otherwise high-protein hard red wheat grown on unsuitable soil might end up at 11% protein. In ideal conditions, the same variety might reach 19%. At 11% protein, the stuff is termed “soft wheat,” good for little but making crumbly cake or for chicken feed. At over 14% protein, it is termed “hard wheat.” At 16%, it becomes highly prized by bread bakers and sells for a premium. At 18%, it’s a baker’s treasure. Same variety; higher protein; entirely different nature. These kinds of differences occur in all foods.
The Importance of Nutrient-Density
People hugely underestimate the importance of nutrient-density. I am entirely without a footnote for that assertion, but still, it’s obvious. If people really did value nutrient-density, they would not be making the kinds of food choices they routinely do make. The hard, unappealing truth is that the average nutrient-density of your entire food intake over your entire lifetime is the basic cause of your current state of health or disease. The next most significant contributing factor to your current physical state was the nutrient-density of your mother’s nutrition from her conception to the point that she stopped breast-feeding you (if she did breast-feed). The main exceptions to this are environmental pollution and poisoning with workplace/agricultural chemicals.
In about 1990, I invented a simple mathematical formula to express the idea just described:
HEALTH = NUTRITION ÷ CALORIES
I did not invent the concept my equation expresses; that universal law was proved beyond all doubt by multi-generational animal-feeding studies during the 1920s and 30s. Unfortunately, this vitally important truth has been conveniently ignored ever since by senior medical authorities controlling institutions such as the AMA and the state licensing boards it controls, the CMA, the Australian Medical Association, etc. Acknowledging that truth wouldn’t have been good for business.
The decade of the 1920s was a time of enormous scientific advancement in the fundamentals of biology, health and agriculture. We discovered vitamins, developed the “newer knowledge of nutrition” and learned to measure (assay) some of the nutritional qualities of foods in a laboratory. The existence and nature of vitamin deficiency diseases was first revealed by Dr. Robert McCarrison, who in 1922 published Studies in Deficiency Disease. The book was developed from animal-feeding studies done in his own laboratories. In that same decade, Dr. Francis Pottenger did landmark multi-generational cat-feeding studies, with results so meaningful that ordinary people interested in holistic health still talk about them. Dr. Pottenger established a control group of properly fed cats that were entirely free of disease and then, by giving several generations of these cats improper feeding, induced, and then, by several generations of proper feeding, reversed, the same sorts of disease and degenerative conditions commonly found in humans. Often these diseases are incorrectly attributed by medical doctors as the result of unfortunate genes. They aren’'t — Pottenger’s properly fed cats almost never exhibited deformities, but their poorly fed progeny did.
In the 30s, McCarrison observed that populations of lab rats change their size, overall health, longevity and social nature when fed the various diets of India over several generations. Some groups waxed large and healthy and long-lived; others shrank, shriveled, became ill-tempered, and stopped breeding. The studies were reported in two major medical-school lectures McCarrison presented in 1938, one in Pittsburgh, the other in England. Slides were shown, evidence presented, and then the whole topic was swept under the rug. Interestingly, one Pittsburgh attendee was J.I. Rodale. You can read McCarrison’s lecture online at the Soil and Health Library.
And in that same era, Weston Price, DDS, took an interest in preventative dentistry. Around 1900, young Dr. Price left his native North Dakota to practice in Cleveland. Although Cleveland was a place of great financial and social opportunity, Price took more interest in prevention research than repairing teeth. However, he couldn’t determine how the nutritional connections worked because, as he put it, he lacked a control group. Yes, he would have an occasional patient with excellent teeth. But why did this person have such good fortune? And what, if anything, could those with poor teeth have done to prevent their condition from developing? This puzzle was especially confusing because an extraordinarily healthy and long-lived person sometimes thrived on a diet of overcooked red meat, potatoes stewed in greasy gravy and whiskey. The only way to scientifically work these confusions out is to first establish a healthy control group and then see what happens when something different is applied to part of that healthy control group. The problem was, there were no groups of people in or around Cleveland, or even in or around the entire United States, that had consistently healthy teeth. And if such a group could be located, how could a researcher get them to agree to control their diets? Or trust that they had actually eaten as promised?
Fortunately, in Price’s era, people still existed that did possess excellent teeth. They all lived in highly inaccessible places. These folks were to become Price’s control groups. Starting around age 60, Dr. Price went traveling with Mrs. Price to see what they might discover. They journeyed to Europe, Aica, the wild north of Canada, the west coast of South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia and Melanesia (Fiji). Their dental connections opened doors; local health authorities were enlisted to guide the Prices. Guide? Why guide?
Before World War II, remote communities still existed that had no access to the foods of civilization. No village store sold white flour, marmalade, sugar, tinned sardines. None of that. These peoples survived almost entirely on what they hunted, fished for, gathered or grew locally. The visiting Prices conducted mass dental examinations and developed statistics on the incidence of caries (tooth decay). They searched the communities for the sick people and, through interviews, developed an impression of what diseases were routinely faced. The Prices took excellent photographs, most of them showing facial bone structure, and sometimes, wide-open mouths. They drew correct and highly useful conclusions about why these people were so healthy. By 1939, when he published Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Price had learned almost everything needed for us to transform this planet into a healthy place. If only we, collectively, had wanted to do that. If only those with political and economic power had been willing to lead us in that ethical direction.
I have derived one huge and highly liberating principle from Price’s book — there is no ideal diet for homo sapiens. Or more accurately stated: if there is an ideal diet on which humans can have average lifespans exceeding 120 years, then we’re a long, long way from discovering what it might be — and it probably has more to do with the soil foods come from than which foods are chosen. Every one of Price’s remote communities was entirely healthy and long-lived (as we think of long life these days), but each one depended on different basic foods. In the far North, people mostly ate animals and fish supplemented with berries and other wild vegetables in the short midsummer period when they were available. Some healthy communities were primarily vegetarian, eating garden produce and cereals. Isolated South Pacific islanders — Melanesians and Polynesians both — depended on seafoods supplemented with garden vegetables, semi-wild fruits and coconuts; the Gaelics, of the often-foggy Outer Hebrides, mainly ate seafoods and oats, with a bit of extra-hardy garden vegetables, like kale. In a remote Swiss valley, Price visited extraordinarily healthy people who depended on rye bread and dairy products.
All these primitive communities had excellent overall health. Except for the heavy meat eaters of the far North, who only experienced a fully enjoyable life into their early 60s, they had lifespans equal to or better than Americans or Canadians have now. In all these communities, the people — the old people — possessed all or nearly all their own teeth; Price found extraordinarily little evidence of decay and no gum diseases. Anyone with missing teeth had lost them through trauma. Price did frequently find traces of tooth decay in individuals who had spent a few months away, living on town food. But, when they returned home, their teeth healed themselves; new enamel, somewhat like scar tissue, formed over the pits. Chipped or broken teeth also healed themselves, as the body’s Designer intended.
Every healthy community Price visited — which included humans of every color, shape and hair texture, who had many types of lifestyles and ate many types of diets — was found to be composed of good-natured, honest, responsible people possessed of an innate spiritual awareness that did not require regular church attendance to awaken. Their women did not fear childbirth, did not suffer much during it and rarely died from it. And the reason for their health: nutrient-dense foods.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food published by New Society Publishers, 2012. Buy this book from our store: The Intelligent Gardener.