Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.
I recently finished reading Deep Nutrition by Dr Catherine Shanahan, a book which has been recommended and raved about on Twitter through the likes of Alexander Juan Antonio Cortes.
Agriculture’s job is to feed people, but ideally it must help nourish and ensure their long-term health.
The book is detailed, yet it boils down to the idea that the human body thrives on traditional cuisine.
Why? There are many reasons, but one of the fundamental ideas of Deep Nutrition is that food is not just energy. It’s not nutrients, either. Food is information.
Much like light is both a source of energy and information for plants, the food we eat controls our bodies’ epigenetics, mechanisms which control the expression of genes in our bodies. Epigenetics works in complex ways we don’t quite understand yet. Anyhow, food plays a massive role.
Our genes are adapted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in which we would receive a variety of different fresh and local foods. Anyone who has read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens will remember that ‘agriculture is history’s greatest fraud’. Human beings moved from a fulfilling and healthy lifestyle to a lifestyle of repetitive work and a diet of grains. The only advantage of agriculture is that it allows for more dense human settlements. When push comes to shove, 1000 sickly peasants will win over 100 majestic hunter-gatherers.
That said, human beings have been trying out different foods and cooking practices for generations since then. Over millennia, cultures all over the world have figured out how to maximise the health of themselves and their children. Maybe this is through conscious experimentation, or maybe it is the result of natural selection (à la Lindy Effect). Either way, traditional cuisine has served people eating it well.
Agriculture brought a decline in the availability of nutrients, yes. However, processes such as cooking and fermentation made the nutrition in our food more bioavailable by concentrating and amplifying it. Essentially, as Deep Nutrition claims, chefs are the world’s original nutritionists.
For almost three generations, we have been departing from traditional cuisine and cooking practices. We are consuming more sugar and seed oils than ever, and younger generations are experiencing more chronic health problems than their ancestors did a century ago. If this comes as a surprise to you I recommend you spend some time reading about the effects of sugar and seed oils. (Especially seed oils, which are being touted as ‘heart-healthy’ in mainstream nutrition advice and are everywhere). Our food also contains less vitamins and phytonutrients* than it did in the past. All of this is giving our epigenetics the wrong information.
Let’s forget about sugar and seed oils for now – but only for now, as I’d recommend avoiding them like the plague – and focus on vitamins and phytonutrients.
Even if you stick to whole foods, crops contain less vitamins and phytonutrients than they did in the past. Since WWII, agriculture in Western Europe and the US has focused on maximising volume. Fair enough – after all, nobody wants famines like during the war – but this has lead to a further decrease in the vitamin and phytonutrient content of our food.
People are well aware of this. When I visited UrbanFarmers in The Hague back in 2016 with a guy from Priva, he told me that we should start looking at the nutrient density of our crops. Peter Jens said the same at Aquafarm 2018. Recently I spoke to a strawberry farmer in Belgium, Jos, who claimed that his soil-grown strawberries taste far better than the hydroponic ones sold in most supermarkets – and he’s right (I’m not saying that hydroponics can’t grow nutritious food, by the way).
You might think that that’s OK. After all, we now have supplements that pack all the goodness of high-quality produce into a handful of pills. Problem solved, right?
Not so fast.
Supplements don’t compare to food for many reasons:
- Many vitamins have multiple isomers (different structures of the same chemical formula). Supplements don’t contain all the isomers present in nature, and may even contain isomers that don’t occur in nature. Who knows what sort of information that could pass on to our epigenetics.
- Whole foods contain carrier nutrients to help assimilate the vitamins better. Supplements don’t. The different molecules in whole foods interact in ways we don’t understand yet. But our bodies still expect them, and supplements can’t provide this.
- Supplements can contain large amounts of copper and other contaminants. The industry isn’t that regulated at the moment.
What this means is that providing vitamins and phytonutrients is not Big Pharma’s job. It is the job of the agricultural industry. Agriculture is about biology, and biology is what can create the complex ingredients our bodies need. Only life can supply this level of complexity. Life upcycles.
The cooking practices developed over centuries have served us well. But they won’t serve us well unless the ingredients used are good to start with. Chefs are the world’s original nutritionists, but they can’t do the job without agriculture’s help. Our bodies require complex foods, and only biology is able to supply that complexity. As a result, optimal nutrition starts with agriculture focusing on nourishment.
And remember, folks – avoid seed oils and sugar like the plague!
* To learn how to bring more phytonutrients into your diet, I’d recommend reading Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson. It goes over how to best choose, store, and prepare your vegetables.