Food isn’t the same as it once was. And the transformation happened long before industrial farming changed the way that we grow food in the last 50 to 100 years, according to author Jo Robinson, author of “Eating on the Wild Side: the Missing Link to Optimum Health.”
Our food supply shifted around 10,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers developed agriculture. Through the centuries, valuable nutrients have been lost as we’ve bred our food to taste milder, sweeter and less fibrous. Spring seems like the perfect time to talk with Robinson by phone from her home in Vashun Island, Washington.
Style: Can you talk a little bit about the nutritional loss in our food system?
Robinson: The main thing we’ve lost is phytonutrients. These are compounds in plant-based food that the plants produce to protect themselves from disease, from predation, from insects, from drought, from heat and flooding. We didn’t know until very recently that these phytonutrients are highly advantageous to our health. … A lot of phytonutrients have a sour, astringent or bitter flavor, and we have been choosing food, breeding food, not to have those flavors, very intentionally. Only now do we understand the consequences.
What do you think of the paleo diet?
Research shows that eating the types of foods we consumed as hunter-gatherers — lean meat, seafood, nuts, seeds, complex carbohydrates and wild plants (but little or no grain, rapidly digested carbohydrates or refined sugar) reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity — all of the diseases of civilization. However, many of the modern versions of paleo diets now being promoted do not include fruits and vegetables that are equivalent to wild plants in terms of phytonutrient content. That’s a big failing. Many contain high amounts of saturated fat, which was not a part of our hunter-gatherer diet. I believe that a diet that truly replicates the hunter-gather diet is the ideal way to eat in terms of our health. Few people are willing to make such an abrupt shift, however. Next best is to eat lean meat from animals raised on pasture — or no meat — and high-phytonutrient fruits and vegetables with low amounts of saturated fat, sugar, and refined carbs.
How should we approach shopping, then? What should we do when we’re on the produce aisle?
I don’t expect people to forage in the wild. First of all, they wouldn’t like a lot of what they were eating. It’s difficult — you can’t look at a plant and know how many vitamins are in it — you have to go with a list. The same with phytonutrients — I’ve come up with the wild equivalents. For example, bold-tasting onions — the hot red ones are very much like wild onions and very high in phytonutrients. We need to choose those over sweet onions, something we developed ourselves, not knowing they have one-tenth of the phytonutrients as the more natural, strong-tasting onions.
One thing I found really interesting in your book was that if you sliced carrots after cooking, they’re more nutritious. And that lettuce develops more phytonutrients if you tear it before storing it in the fridge. Do you have any more tips like that you could pass along?
[You need to] treat garlic in such a way that you have all of the cancer-fighting compounds in it. The way you do that is press it, chop it or slice it and then set it aside for 10 minutes before you before you put it in anything that’s hot. …Frozen orange juice is better for you than the premium, never-frozen juice that costs three, four times as much. The premium juice can be up to six months old.
I also like to point out that you don’t need to have a lot of money to have a high-phytonutrient diet. Some of the most nutritious foods in the grocery store are canned beans, in particular black beans, red beans and kidney beans. Many poor people live in food deserts where they just don’t have access to all that fresh [specialty] produce, but that needn’t stop them from having an optimal diet.
Jo Robinson will be in town for the upcoming River City Health Summit. Visit gethealthyrichmond.com for the date and more details. And if you’d like a list to take shopping with you, Robinson has assembled a downloadable one at eatwild.comCORRECTION: This article originally stated that agriculture began 100,000 years ago. It has been corrected.