You have probably heard the famous quote by Hippocrates, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” It is a quote meant to inspire us to eat healthier, but how many of us actually live with this mindset and believe that what we eat can be our medicine? Most of the time, when we choose what we should eat, we choose based on pleasing our taste buds or just quickly filling our stomachs so we can keep moving. It seems rare these days to find someone who will put together a meal where they will actually be thinking of all the nutrients their body needs to function to its best ability, never mind prevent disease.
That said, what if we did start thinking of food this way? Food would not only be our fuel to keep us going, but also serve us in the prevention of disease. We might then look at a carrot as a source of beta carotene that becomes vitamin A in the body which is extremely important for skin and tissue healing as well as helping strengthen our immune system. We might see tomatoes as skin protectors for their lycopene content and kale as a blood builder for its iron and folic acid content. Onions and garlic would be used regularly for their liver supporting and cleansing sulphur-containing amino acids, and fermented vegetables would be on the side of every meal for their digestion supporting probiotics and enzymes. Salmon might even become a staple in households for its eye protecting antioxidants and heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Would knowing these things make you look at your food differently?
Even if you eat this way you could still be missing many vital nutrients. That’s right! Our food has changed in its nutrient content so much over the past 50 years that it would take eating 8 oranges to be equal to one orange that your grandfather ate. Researchers from the American College of Nutrition collected data from the USDA archives that showed vitamin and mineral levels of fruits and vegetables from 1950 and 1999. What did they find? “Reliable declines”, as they put it, in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron and riboflavin as well as magnesium, zinc, and vitamins B6 and E. Other nutrient data analyses published in the British Journal and from Kushi Institute also found declines in these vitamins and minerals as well as vitamins A and C and potassium averaging a nutrient decline of 25%. What does this mean for us? We have lost, on average, 25% of the amount of nutrients in our fruits and vegetables in only 50 years! One of the most noticeable losses is in magnesium which is deficient in most North American people. It is important for bone structure and more than 300 cellular reactions in the body. A low intake of magnesium, or poor absorption of it, is associated with the development of many different diseases including osteoporosis, hypertension, atherosclerotic vascular disease, cardiomyopathy, diabetes and stroke. One of the most common symptoms of magnesium deficiency is restless leg syndrome. Supplemental magnesium is then used to help treat these ailments because it’s deficiency from the beginning has contributed to their development. This is one small example where nutrients are medicine.
So what happened to our valuable vitamins and minerals and where did they go? Our convenient modern world happened to them. Farming practices focus on producing more at much faster rates while using fertilizers. The fertilizers typically used only contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium which are geared more toward rapid growth while leaving out many important nutrients mentioned above. The practice of monocrop farming pulls nutrients out of the soil because it is done without practicing crop rotation to replace those nutrients. This depletes the soil. Also, the use of large equipment compacts the soil so it cannot irrigate properly nor allow nutrients to breakdown. Our food is then picked before it is ripe, shipped across the world to end up in our local grocery store where it can be days or weeks old before we even buy it. The longer the food sits, the more it loses its nutrients. It does not end there because when we take it home and cook it, we then lose more of those delicate vitamins and enzymes through the heating process.
So, the question remains, can our food be our medicine? When we choose our food conscientiously, and with a little help from high quality supplements and superfoods, it can be. By choosing organic, local and seasonal foods, we will ensure higher nutrient density in our fruits and vegetables. Organic food does not just mean the packaging has a fancy label that allows them to charge higher prices. It means the farmer has to go through a lengthy certification process where they have to abide by strict practices. One of those obligations is to practice better soil sustainability. Rich, healthy, sustainable soil means the fruits and vegetables grown in it will have more nutrients. More studies are also coming out showing the difference in the nutrient density of organic versus conventional crops. Choosing local and seasonal also means your food does not have to travel as far to get to your plate which will help it maintain its nutrients. One way of ensuring you intake the foundational nutrients that are lacking in some of today’s foods is looking for a high quality supplement. This means you do not have to eat those 8 oranges every day. Including superfoods is a great whole food way to get in extra nutrients daily. Foods like goji berries are high in immune boosting vitamins A and C, while cacao powder (raw cocoa) is rich in magnesium and iron, and the blue-green algae spirulina is high in protein, iron and B12. Superfoods are also rich in phytonutrients which multivitamin and mineral supplements often do not contain because researchers are still uncovering many different types of phytonutrients and their benefits. These phytonutrients are also found in our everyday fruits and vegetables which make eating whole foods very important. Eating a whole food diet and including proper supplementation ensures your body is receiving the nutrients it needs. One cannot replace the other, but rather they work hand in hand.
Our food today may be very different from the food that Hippocrates made his quote about years ago, but the important nutrients found in whole foods still remain our medicine today. We may have to take them in different forms than thousands of years ago but the truth remains the same. Providing our bodies with the right amount of nutrients helps us to prevent and treat disease today and in the days to come.
-This column is sponsored by Good N Natural in Steinbach –