Well, I read this article about nutrition and it said… blah, blah, blah
Mark Twain was fond of saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Meaning, a skilled statistician can make the data say almost anything. Few people, even the “medical experts”, are very good at reading a research article with discernment and understanding. It is unfortunately very easy for a researcher with an agenda or with a poor peer review to present information that is misleading at best and just plain wrong at worst. Most of these researchers are not trying to be manipulative, although some are. There is a common phrase in acadamia: “Publish or perish!” And it is repeated for a reason. Researchers need to have good projects to receive continued funding to keep their job. A good project has good results, or at least the appearance of good results. A study that finds nothing is often not a very good project in the minds of the researcher, the university, the corporation, or whoever it is that is funding the research.
I don’t claim to be an expert statistician or researcher, but I do know that I have seen a large number of “research articles” people send me that are garbage. I may agree or disagree with the basic premise or motivation of the research, but because the study was designed poorly or had errors or had low power or had unknown or acknowledged biases, or had many other types of problems, the results of the “research” is worthless. My advice is to be very careful about placing all your faith, actions, or beliefs in one study or one researcher, especially when it concerns your health.
Is organic food better?
There have recently been some studies published reporting that organic food is no more nutritious than conventionally raised food. Taking my point above into consideration, these were pretty good studies. However, what exactly were they looking for? The researchers were mainly looking at major nutrients. The results showed that fruits and vegetables produce the same amount of major nutrients whether they were grown via traditional or organic farming techniques. I actually agree with this. Plants are going to be pretty consistent when it comes to major elements that are produced within their fruits and vegetative parts. Mainstream Big-Agricultural companies loved this report. The media jumped all over it. The average person probably said, “Wow? Then why do I pay so much more for organic food?” This is the problem with research. The question you ask is vital. The researchers asked about major nutrients, and they got an answer that worked for them. While the researchers never said it, they allowed the media to run with the headlines saying, “Organic farm food is no healthier than conventional farm food.” This is a subtle, but very powerful message. And I believe it is wrong!
These studies did not investigate the effects that modern herbicides and pesticides and fungicides have on the human body. They did not address the fact that our conventionally raised food is sprayed and coated with toxins that are taken into the plant tissue itself – the same plant tissue we eat! And meat is even worse since they accumulate toxins. Animals are exposed to all the chemicals used to grow the plant foods they eat; plus the animals are given hormones and antibiotics as well. From this aspect alone, it is obvious to anyone with any degree of common sense that organic food, food not plastered and impregnated with chemicals, is going to be healthier for the human body.
Are there any downsides to organic food?
I think there is. There are some large organic farms that look almost identical to the commercial farms next door. They are using “organic” pesticides and fungicides and herbicides. While I believe this is a better option, they are still destroying the soil. They are degrading the environment. They are still using massive tractors and burning through petroleum just as fast as a conventional farm. They may not be destroying the landscape as fast. They may not be poisoning the groundwater (and that is important). But they are not rebuilding the soils. They are not rebuilding the environment. They are not restoring ecologies.
Some smaller organic-certified farms are doing great things for the soil, land, and environment, and I need to be clear about that. But just because food is labeled organic does not mean that farm is restoring the land. It doesn’t mean they are raising nutrient dense foods.
Wait a minute… what are nutrient dense foods?
As we discussed above, the major nutrients in plants and animals are identical in most organic and conventionally-raised foods. But what about all the minor nutrients? What about all the other elements that go into a plant or animal when they are raised in an ideal environment? We know about some of these nutrients and elements. Plants contain phytonutrients (FI-toe-NEW-tree-ents) that have a wealth of health benefits, most of which we barely understand, and each plant often produces their own unique phytonutrients (some examples are monophenols, flavonoids, lignans, curcuminoids, aromatic acids, esters, carotenoids, xanthophylls, other terpenes, betalains, organosulfides, indoles, and many other antioxidants).
Look, we still have farmers who think that NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) are all that is needed to raise healthy plants. I honestly think that our great-great-grandchildren are going to look back at this era of conventional farming, shake their heads, and laugh. We currently know so little about soil health and ecology. We know so little about plants let alone their interactions with the soil and the atmosphere and other plants around them and animals in their environment. We do know a lot of facts, but in comparison to what is unknown, we are just scratching the surface. We are like a child who is barely passing kindergarten pretending to be effectively working on an advanced theoretical physics project.
Food that is raised in soil that is alive, soil that is similar to that found in a natural ecosystem, is going to produce plants and animals that are healthy. I mean really healthy… vibrant, full of life. The food collected from this environment is going to be packed full of nutrients, not just the major nutrients we fully understand today, but the nutrients we are just beginning to understand, the components we know exist but do not understand at all, and the components that we do not even know exist yet.
Where do I find food like this?
This is where Permaculture comes into this discussion. There are ways to design agricultural systems modeled on nature itself that integrate human communities and produce nutrient dense foods. I call this Permaculture (and this is what the bulk of this site is all about!), but there are people who have done this without using the title. Masanobu Fukuoka in Japan, Allan Savory in Zimbabwe, Sepp Holzer in Austria, and Joel Salatin in the United States are just a few people who have all healed the land while producing nutrient dense foods, but they did not (at least initially) use the term Permaculture. They bring the soil back to life, restore ecologies, and produce food that significantly more healthy than that produced by conventional agriculture. And these farmers and ranchers are all over the world raising this kind of food. If we seek out these producers and support them, we will ensure that this food continues to be available to us. We will help shift the market so that this food becomes even more widely available.
It does take some searching to find these producers, but you can find them. Although occasionally this can be difficult. This is a big reason I am creating AgriTrue (along with a few other key people!). AgriTrue is a website that will help connect the average person with people who produce food in a way that is important to that person. We are finally making really good progress with this project, and we hope to have the site up and running by the first of the year. Stay tuned!
With that said, in my opinion, the best way to get high quality food is to raise it yourself! You will know exactly how it was raised. You will know what that plant or animal was fed and what it was exposed to. Food that was growing in a garden only minutes before it is on your plate has a flavor that is hard to explain, and it has health benefits we are just starting to really comprehend. Again, understanding and learning how to do this is what this site is all about.
I gained weight when I started to eat this food!
I wish I had thousands of patients who have followed the advice I give to eat fruits and veggies that were raised in a high quality environment and to eat pasture-raised meat and fats. Then I could give amazing reports on how a wide variety of people respond. Unfortunately, I do not… yet! I have my own patients’ experiences to draw from. I have read as much as possible of the limited data that has been reported in medical journals. I also take other physicians’ and health providers’ experiences to get a general picture of what is common. This is not the same as a high quality, well-designed medical study, and I know that, but that is all I have right now.
With that said, I know that it is possible, although not common, for people to actually gain some weight initially when they change their diet to this type of truly healthy food. How can this be? Well, I think it is because of the nutrient density I spoke about earlier. When a person has been eating such poor quality “food” for so long, they become deficient and depleted. They may be obese, but they are starving for nutrition. When they finally get to eat food that is packed full of nutrients, their body instinctively guides them to eat more and more of it. That person takes in more calories in this process, and they gain some weight. But when the body becomes healthy again, becomes full of nutrients again, the weight starts to drop fast. The body easily sheds the extra stored fat.
Will eating this way allow me live longer?
I will be very honest and say that we have very little “proven” data to show that people will live longer if they switch to this type of diet. But, there are currently very few people studying this right now. We have scattered groups of people eating this way and not large groups which are easy to study. I will say that there is a lot of evidence to support that eating in the manner I promote will be very beneficial to your day to day health and will increase your life expectancy. I have many of my patients who have improved their health and the quality of their lives by eating this way. This is enough evidence for me to continue to recommend this. I am confident that future research will validate this.
For the individual, I cannot say eating this way will prolong your life. There are too many other factors in play… genetics, other lifestyle choices (tobacco, alcohol overconsumption, etc.), accidents, environment, and more. These all play a role and may easily cause you to die tomorrow. However, I will plan on living for a long time and make decisions based upon that premise.
I will add that we know of one other factor that has been proven to extend live (in large population studies), and that is eating less. Those who consume fewer calories live, on average, longer than those who eat a lot. What is encouraging to me is this: a person who eats food that is nutrient dense, including regular consumption of pasture-raised fats and proteins, will end up eating less food. The body doesn’t crave more food, because all its needs are met with less quantity of high-quality food. This is yet more support of this dietary lifestyle.
What about seafood?
Wild-caught seafood is fantastic for our health. If the seafood is farmed in a manner that creates nutrient dense food, that that is also fantastic. I place this kind of seafood on the same level as pasture-raised meats and fats. Not everyone has access to this food though. There is a lot of large-scale farmed seafood that is as unhealthy as conventionally raised pork, beef, or chicken.
I do think that the mercury issue has been blown a bit out of proportion as our bodies are amazingly adept at filtering out and dealing with toxins. But we do need to consider this when making food choices.
I also think that the over-harvesting/unsustainable harvesting of seafood is a very big issue. We do need to consider this when making seafood a part of our diets.
What about raw milk?
In short, I am all for it… as long as a person is not lactose-intolerant. Most of the world is actually lactose-intolerant in full or part. I don’t think raw milk is going to save the Earth, but I think it is a great food for those that can tolerate it. I plan to write an article about raw milk soon.
Are there any other types of food we should consume?
Yes! Naturally fermented foods should be a regular part of our diet. Our bodies are literally loaded with beneficial microbes. Our modern diet contains animals routinely fed antibiotics. As a physician, I understand that there is a time and place for humans to take antibiotics, but I know that modern medicine regularly overprescribes antibiotics. It is no surprise we have such unhealthy bodies when we are consuming things that destroy the beneficial microorganisms within us.
Fermentation provides us with at least two significant health benefits. First, they are loaded with good microorganisms that help re-populate and sustain the beneficial microbes in our bodies. Second, the fermentation process can increase the nutrients and nutrient availability in that food. Even grains, which I do not recommend regularly eating, can be fermented and transformed into a highly nutritious food. My favorite fermented grain comes in the form of home-brewed beer!
There is a lot more on this topic that I intend to write, but I do have a brief article on Lactic Acid Fermentation here. I would also highly recommend The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz if you have an interest in making your own fermented foods. I have a relatively new batch of homemade sauerkraut sitting in my fridge right now… delicious!
Is this really how you eat?
Mostly. I would say that I follow my own recommendations about 80-90% of the time. But honestly, I do allow myself to eat against by advise on occasion. I typically choose foods that fall within the hunter-gatherer style of eating when I am at home and during most lunches at work. I also try to make good food choices when I am eating out at a restaurant if possible. But sometimes I am not able to do this easily, like when eating at a friends house. I don’t impose my lifestyle on them, so I eat what is served. I also allow myself to “cheat” when it comes to certain meals. It just so happens that tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a national holiday in the United States. Many of the foods traditionally served on this holiday do not fall in line with this dietary plan, other than roast turkey. I will focus my eating on the protein and vegetables, but I will certainly have some pie!
I also know that I physically feel it when I stray too far from my own recommendations. I get lethargic. I feel bloated. I get irritable. And I gain weight… easily. Then I realize I have been being too lax, and I get more strict. I feel better. I sleep better. I have more energy. And my weight starts to drop again… easily. Over the years, we have had many people live with us for extended periods of time. Almost all of them have dropped weight when they live with us. They are usually a bit surprised. It almost feels impossible to eat food that tastes so good, not worry about “dieting”, and still lose weight… while feeling good at the same time!
The truth is that I love food. I love to eat. I love to cook. I love to read about cooking and food. I even took the day off of work today to prepare food for Thanksgiving tomorrow – yes, I skipped work to spend the day in the kitchen. My kids came and went and helped or watched. They sampled some food. My father and I talked while I worked. It was fabulous.
We were designed to eat. We were designed to enjoy food. We were designed to be healthy. We have just gotten off track. I hope that these series of articles helps you realize that it is possible to enjoy eating and have good health at the same time. I have seen in work in my patients’ lives. I have seen in work in my own life – I am about 50 lbs (23 kg) lighter than I used to be. I know that this will work for you as well. I will be writing more about how Permaculture fits into our diet and health on a larger scale, but that is an article for another day.
John Kitsteiner, MD
a.k.a. “Dr. Permaculture”
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