With fast food, processed snacks, and more packaged convenience foods than ever before, our society is being faced with a problem often referred to as being “overfed and undernourished”, the result ranging from nutrient deficiencies to diseases of affluence such as heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic inflammatory conditions. But even those who live a healthy lifestyle consuming a diet rich in whole foods, individuals are developing deficiencies at an alarming rate. The most common nutrient deficiencies include iron, vitamin A, zinc, iodine and folate, plus additional micronutrient inadequacies such as magnesium, vitamin K2, and potassium. Specific nutritional inadequacies on Vancouver Island are selenium (due to low concentrations in soil) and vitamin D (due to lack of sun exposure in winter in the northern hemisphere).
While there are many factors at play including poor nutrient absorption due to reduced diversity of the microbiome, insufficient digestive secretions, and increased gut permeability, there is a huge environmental piece that contributes to this discussion. Modern agriculture and the domestication of food has dramatically reduced the nutrient density of our food.
Traditional cultures hunted, fished and foraged for wild foods that were rich in fat soluble vitamins, macro and trace minerals, and were bursting with phytonutrients including antioxidants, polyphenols, and medicinal constituents. Over thousands of years, we have worked hard to domesticate our food sources, selectively breeding plants to produce larger, milder tasting, and faster growing produce. While this has been necessary and effective to allow us to control crop growth and optimize food production (see the image above comparing tiny huckleberry sized wild strawberries [left] to organic cultivated strawberries [right]), we have also bred out key components of the plants that promote nutrient density and diversity. For example, the bitter flavour in many wild greens and the tartness in wild fruits stimulate digestive secretions, protect the liver, and contain an abundance of health promoting compounds such as medicinal alkaloids and the aforementioned antioxidants and polyphenols.
The discussion of cultivated foods would not be complete without the consideration of farming methods. Conventional farming techniques including the use of genetically modified seeds, monoculture crops, poor soil quality, picking before optimal ripeness, and long term storage of fresh produce all contribute to their decline in nutrient density. Prioritizing buying food from local farms ensures the freshest possible produce picked at peak ripeness. When possible, seek out farmers who practise organic, or better yet, biodynamic farming, which prioritize heirloom and organic seeds, soil quality, crop rotation, organic composting, and treat and respect the farm as a whole living organism. All of these practises increase the nutrient density of the food, as well as protect the environment in which the farm resides.
Another missing key factor in the modern diet is the inclusion of foraged plants, fungi and algae in small but frequent doses. Our ancestors were hunter gatherers, and while this is not sustainable nor practical for the modern human, we must not lose sight of the importance of these foods.
As eluded to, the flavour of a food is often predictive of its nutritional value. Herbs, for example, tend to be quite strongly flavoured – spicy, robust oregano; cold, acrid peppermint; bold, camphorous rosemary. Wild foods usually tend towards these stronger flavours, as these flavours are a mechanism of the plant protecting itself from its environment. And the highly evolved palette of an animal (or human) is wise to this – while you may revel in the taste of a rosemary-infused beef jus, you would not eat a rosemary salad. Likewise, these small doses of the alkaloids present in a wild herb are very beneficial to create cellular resilience, many wild plants in high doses can be toxic. Wild greens also fall into this category, offering bitter or astringent flavours to stimulate hydrochloric acid, enzyme secretion, and bile flow, which promotes proper digestion and assimilation, and is protective of the liver.
Beyond wild plants, we can also look at other kingdoms, including mushrooms and fungus from kingdom Fungi, and algae, kelps and seaweeds from kingdom Protista. Both of these categories of food are vast and versatile, and while the culinary and medicinal uses of mushrooms are becoming more widely recognized, wild algae are still very under utilized as a food source and as an extremely good source of macro and trace minerals, water soluble vitamins, and nucleic acids.
All of these wild foraged foods – herbs, greens, mushrooms, algae – are used as more of a condiment than a staple, but provide a diversity of nutrients and intensity of medicinal compounds that are simply not found in cultivated foods. Prioritizing the consumption of a few favourites from each category is a very effective strategy for broadening your nutritional profile and optimizing nutrient density.
Likewise, modern animals foods have a different nutrient profile than those of wild animals. For example, grass fed cows that are allowed large pasture areas to wander and forage are have body fat and provide milk that is significantly higher in omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin K2, vitamin D, and butyric acid than conventionally raised, grain fed cows. Farm raised salmon is significantly higher in pro-inflammatory omega 6 and 9 fatty acids, lower in omega 3, and lower in the red-pigmented antioxidant called astaxanthan which protects cell integrity and promotes cell function. Furthermore, wild animals such as large game animals and wild birds have muscle tissue that is composed of different proteins than that of domesticated livestock, and a different fatty acid profile in their body fat. As animal foods are frequently (misguidedly) demonized, these key differences in nutrient profiles between wild animals and livestock deserve a place in the discussion for the inclusion of animal foods in a nutrient dense diet.
Nose to tail eating has taken a back seat as mild, tender cuts of muscle meat are widely available and inexpensive to the consumer. Unfortunately, eating only muscle meat and shunning organs, bones and fat mean less nutrient density and an imbalance in amino acids methionine and glycine. The highest concentrations of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K2) are found in traditional animal fats (lard, suet, tallow, raw butter), far surpassing the quantities and bioavailability found in the next best sources.
Organs are an excellent source of highly absorbable water soluble vitamins. The king of offal – liver – is particularly dense in folate, choline, and B12, and macro and trace minerals, including iron, zinc, and copper. Organs, not unlike wild plants, also contain unique compounds that have specific and powerful health benefits. For example, heart is the primary source of CoEnzyme Q10, a cellular energy-promoting, cardiovascular protective antioxidant. Gallbladder contains bile acids, a digestive secretion produced to digest fats. Adrenal gland contains both vitamin C and cortisol, both essential compounds for supporting our own adrenal glands and our endogenous stress resilience. According to the theory of homostimulation, or “like supports like”, we can support our own organ systems by consuming the corresponding organ from a healthy animal source. This provides nutritional building blocks similar to the composition of the organ in need of repair.
Bones are a robust source of macro minerals, including calcium and phosphorous, plus trace minerals including zinc, manganese, and boron. The marrow within the bones are a dense source of fat soluble vitamins and highly nutritive fatty acids. Broths have been used as a staple in traditional cultures for millennia, as it contains unparalleled nutrient density and encourages the digestion and absorption of both plant foods and muscle meat.
While many contributing factors play a role in the decline of nutrient density in the modern diet, it is wise to base the diet on a foundation of seasonally appropriate whole foods from local sources whenever possible. Wild foods can be introduced as a means of supplementing an otherwise domesticated diet to the benefit of both the physical and spiritual health of the individual, and to the environment. Nose to tail animal products should be used liberally, favouring organs, fats, broth and marrow, and raw dairy over the use of lean muscle meat.
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.