We all know that vegetables are good for you, which is something that most rational dietary philosophies agree on. It’s simply not possible to find a truly healthy person who doesn’t consume vegetables regularly, in my opinion. However, did you know that many traditional hunter-gatherer societies ate as many as 100 different species of plants? And this diversity of plant foods is severely lacking in today’s world.
Today’s article is about the lack of diversity in the plant foods, which not only affects our phytonutrient intake, but it also affects our microbiome (gut health) because different types of gut microbes prefer different types of nutrients.
I believe strongly that it is useful to look at nutrition through an ancestral lens. I don’t think it’s the only way to look at food, but it’s a useful reference and from that perspective, when thinking about health, we should ask this important question: is it true that there were people who were healthier than the common American does today? And the research on this is not only quite extensive but also fairly overwhelming. Some nutrition researchers of today are beginning to think of and break down food groups into 3 non-traditional categories.
- Animal food
- Seed food
- Vegetables and fruits
So, when they analyze how each of these are different today from the healthy diets of ancestral people, some interesting concepts come to light. In terms of animal foods, these include wild fish and pastured eggs and meat, which are all still available today. It may not be exactly the same, but it’s basically the same, so long as you make the distinction between pastured/wild/grass-fed vs. commercially raised/processed.
In terms of seed food, that would include grains, seeds and nuts. Seeds and nuts have not changed much at all in thousands of years. Ancient whole grains are similar. Wheat would be an exception as that has changed a lot, which is why we have the rise in celiac and gluten allergies, but that’s a different topic for a different day. Most of this category is pretty similar when comparing today vs. ancestral times.
Finally, we get to the vegetables and fruits category. You would think that there aren’t a lot of differences, but researchers have found the opposite. Our ancestors weren’t eating iceberg lettuce and watery tomatoes on a fast food burger!
So, what have the researchers found in terms of how our ancestors incorporated plants into their diets? First, they did NOT eat them because it was the main source of calories or fats or even proteins or carbohydrates, despite what your anti-meat friends may say. They ate them because they found that their health was better when they includedthese in their diet. Essentially, even though they didn’t specifically think of it in these terms, they were eating plant foods because of the phytonutrients—which just means plant chemicals—and antioxidants and all these things which we now associate essentially with vitamin pills.
And they ate a much wider variety than we do today, up to, in some cases, 120 different varieties per year and 15-20 per day of different roots, leaves, vegetables, and fruits, and it was all local, in season and organic.
Since different vegetables/fruits have different types of phytochemicals and antioxidants, etc…it makes sense that eating a greater diversity will contribute to improved overall health. Stop now and think hard about what you ate over the past week. How much diversity was there? Here is my list:
- Collard Greens
- Brussels Sprouts
- Sweet Potatoes
- White Potatoes
- Butternut Squash
- Green Pepper
- Red Peppers
- Summer Squash
- Olives/Olive oil
Count it up and you get 25 plant foods, which I’m thinking is pretty good. But I certainly didn’t eat all 25 every day, which would be more in line with ancestral nutrition. It’s an interesting exercise to give you some perspective. Certainly, I’m doing something right and am far better off than the average American (researchers found that the average American eats 8 -10 per year), but can I do better?
In today’s world, the truth is that it is hard to do a lot better than this. And that goes for the vegans/vegetarians out there also, because all too often, they eat more grains than vegetables. So what can you do? Here are some suggestions:
- Foraging for wild, edible plants – definitely not for everybody and you need expert help to get started for safety/toxicity prevention purposes – but it’s a legitimate option
- Grow your own – do some gardening and get seeds/plants from specialty sources to improve the diversity of what you eat.So, don’t grow what you can buy in the store, but rather experiment with heirloom varieties or vegetables that you’ve never heard of before.
- When you go to the local farmers market over the summer, don’t buy the same old things.Try something new and talk to your local farmer to learn about what they grow.
- Join a CSA and get a variety of different items on a weekly basis.
- Try out some vegetable powders.There are some sources where you can purchase powdered vegetables that typically include a ton of different kinds of vegetables.You would use it to sprinkle on soups, salads, other veg or meat dishes, etc…I have not tried these, but they are said to be very nutritious,very flavor-enhancing and are becoming more popular in fine restaurants.
So how did you do when you counted up your vegetable/fruit consumption last week? More important, what are you going to do to include a greater diversity of vegetables/fruits in your diet? I’m challenging you to think hard about and take action. You’ll have better health, just like our ancestors!!!