Eating on the Wild Side
Loree’s Note: A couple of interesting food books have come out recently, and I asked nutritionist Annie Riedel to give us her take on them, as well as the very important role that produce plays in our diets. Thanks for your insights, Annie! – LD
This summer I have been reading two great books about our ever-evolving food supply. This is the first of a two-part post. Here I will cover the first book, Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson.
Robinson gives a history of how our food supply has evolved over time from the foods hunter/gatherers consumed to our modern- day diet. It’s a fascinating read that details how and why our diet has changed over thousands of years. Robinson gives us insight as to how our modern diet may not be exactly what our bodies are designed to ingest and what we can do to reclaim the nutrients we may be lacking.
In her book, Robinson talks about foods that our ancestors ate, and how they do and don’t relate to our modern day diet. She alludes to the fact that this may have something to do with the rise in cancers, diabetes and other chronic diseases of inflammation. The foods we eat now, even those that we deem “super foods” have far fewer antioxidants than most of the foods our ancestors ate.
Take corn, for example. Supersweet corn, which now outsells all other kinds of corn, is 10 times sweeter than regular corn and approaches a 40 percent sugar content. Most supersweet corn kernels are white or pale yellow. In comparison, corn with deep yellow kernels has nearly 60 times more beta-carotene, valuable because it turns to Vitamin A in the body and helps with vision and the immune system.
Over tens of thousands of years our farming ancestors cultivated milder and sweeter plant varieties that appeal more to our sweet-loving taste buds – often to the detriment of their nutritional benefits. We are just now starting to understand the health implications of this.
Fortunately many farms are working to bring back “lost” crops that were tossed aside to supply us with “tastier” options. Everyone from independent farmers to chefs to large-scale growers have embraced the idea of “heirloom” vegetables grown from seeds that, just a decade ago, were not available for purchase.
Robinson gives many tips on how to identify foods that are going to give you the most nutrition bang for your buck. For instance, we all know that greens are good for you, and it’s common knowledge that the darker greens are healthiest. But there is a lot of variation even in that statement. Ironically the darker reds and brown greens are highest in phytonutrients. Then the darker greens come in.
Additionally, the way the leaves grow impacts the amount of antioxidants they contain. Leaves that grow wider open as opposed to tightly packed – think red leaf compared to iceberg – are much higher in anti-cancer nutrients. That is because the plant develops the antioxidants to protect itself from the UV rays from the sun. When we ingest those leaves we ingest their protective antioxidants. These are the phytonutrients so important in fighting cancers, cardiovascular disease, and diseases of chronic inflammation.
The list of foods high in phytonutrients is extensive. Here are a few of the tips and highlights.
- Greens: Choose red, red-brown, and purple or dark green loose-leaf varieties. If you are sensitive to bitter, add smaller amounts of bitter greens to your milder mix.
- Beets: Eat them! Red beets contain betalins, which reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases.
- Onions and garlic: Go for red and yellow varieties. Scallions are also much more nutritious than white onions.
- Potatoes: Shoot for colorful options whenever possible. Blue skinned, followed by red skinned, are the most nutritious and have lower impact on blood sugar than standard baking potatoes. The skins have 50 percent of the antioxidant content, so don’t peel them! Sweet potatoes too, are much higher in antioxidants than common potatoes.
- Carrots: Darker carrots are more nutritious. Purple, red and deep orange carrots are high in anthocyanins, which have been shown to reduce some of the health problems associated with high fat diets.
- Tomatoes: Again, shoot for darker varieties. Also, as a rule, the smaller the tomato, the higher it’s nutrient content. Cooking tomatoes can improve the absorption of lycopene, another powerful antioxidant.
As if we needed yet another reason to say “eat your vegetables.” This book spells out in no uncertain terms how important they are to our optimal health and well being. It may start to unlock one of the reasons why our evolving food supply may need to take a step back to advance our health.
Annie Riedel MPH, RD
Annie received her Bachelors degree in Food Science and Nutrition and her Masters in Public Health from the University of California at Berkeley. She worked in international nutrition with refugees in Southeast Asia. She also worked with Share Our Strength in New York City, providing nutrition education for low-income families. She currently lives in Marin County, California with her husband and two children, eating for optimal health.