Why the Plants We Eat Need to Have Overcome Invaders
As we crunch into the perfect apple or carrot (often conveniently peeled, sliced, and wrapped in plastic) we become smug in the thought that we have increased our intake of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. We are keeping our bodies healthy by eating nature’s bounty. We have not killed any animals; there were no worms or larvae in the apple to start with.
Most of us give little thought to how producers can manipulate nature to such a degree as to give us perfect fruit; nor do we think about the impact this manipulation has on the nutritional quality of what we are eating or on the Earth. We have bought right into the message heralded by the smiling face entreating us to eat fruit from Mrs. X’s Apple Farm.
Plants In the Modern Human Diet
I am not about to decry any “diet”. In my thirty-plus years as a Functional MD it has been my experience that there is no one optimal diet for all humans, nor is there one diet that will benefit a human throughout their entire life. I may prescribe the carnivore diet for a period in those with severe auto-immune disease. I may modulate the quantities of carbohydrates and fat in those wanting peak performance. Aside from nutrition, however, I prescribe plants for medicine.
- Ahh, a relief; I knew eating fruit was healthy.
As with all things in life, however, there is more to it.
- Arrggg; Not another thing I have to think about.
Unless we want to give away our minds, health, and money to those who wish to control us, thinking is what we need to do.
Human Evolution Alongside Plants
It has been suggested that early humans were “hyper-carnivores”. However, our early ancestors likely used plants as medicine.
Self-medication using plants has been seen in non-human primates, elephants, rats, and artiodactyls. As an example, Chimpanzees self-medicate with bitter leaves to protect against parasites. Researches suggest that in primates, self-medication is associated with longevity, brain size, and body mass. In other words, it is likely that the last common ancestor that we share with primates self-medicated with plants, allowing us to continue to evolve into modern-day H. sapiens.
In more recent times, traditional foods often contained plant material (bitter leaves or spices) that helped to protect against spoilage. Humans went on to develop a liking for the spicy, sour, and bitter tastes of the medicinal herbs and spices that we add to our food today. Adult humans also develop an attraction to bitter plants such as bitter greens, Brussel sprouts, and coffee to which children turn their noses up.
While our early ancestors were feasting on mammoths, they were also likely using plants as medicine and spices as anti-biotics.
Vitamins and Minerals
Traditional diets consisting only of meat and fish have been shown to contain adequate levels of Vitamin C. Meat is a good source of all other vitamins and minerals, except Magnesium and possibly Calcium. During winter and periods of low plant produce, it is likely that early humans obtained their Magnesium and Calcium from water.
So if we don’t need plants for their vitamin and mineral content, what is it in plants that provide medicinal value?
Secondary Plant Metabolites
Secondary plant metabolites are chemicals that plants can survive without, yet produce in varying quantities. From an energy viewpoint, it seems inefficient to produce compounds not needed for survival. So why do plants do this? To make them fitter and stronger, just like when we expend energy exercising when our immediate survival does not depend on this.
Primary Plant Metabolites are the sugars, proteins, and chlorophylls found in plants. These Primary Metabolites then provide the starting compounds for the synthesis of the Secondary Metabolites in the plants. Secondary Plant Metabolites are made in response to the plant’s environment. This may include being eaten by herbivores, invaded by mold and bacteria, and in response to insects with which they live symbiotically; the so-called “stress and defense responses”. These metabolites also attract pollinators and encourage growth.
The most common of these chemicals are known as phenolics. These compounds play a vital role in the growth, reproduction, and defenses against viruses, fungi, and parasites. It is what gives fruit and vegetables their color. You may recognize some of the names of compounds such as Flavonoids, Resveratrol, Quercetin, and Caffeic acid (yes from coffee). After much searching of the literature, I have come up with the following classification of Phenols. Feel free to geek out.
Non-phenol Secondary Plant Metabolites include fiber, carotenoids, alkaloids, alliums (from garlic), and phytosterols.
Plants produce a mind-boggling number of chemicals. Humans having evolved alongside plants have developed receptors where these plant compounds can dock and work their magic in our cells. Of course not all Secondary Plant Metabolites are good for us. Some of these can poison us. We are concentrating on the good bits.
Secondary Plant Metabolites have an impressive array of effects. They are involved in everything from dampening down free radicals and inflammation, regulating our hormones, repairing our DNA, preventing cancer, and helping us detoxify. Many of these effects are enacted via the bacteria the live in our gut.
In turn, this helps to prevent most of the chronic illnesses of modern life, from cardiovascular disease to diabetes to dementia to cancer. Plants can thus help us to stay healthy in the toxic world we are now living in. A world where inflammation, free radicals, DNA damage, and hormone disruption cannot be escaped. Children who have a low toxic burden are not drawn to these bitter plant compounds the way adults are but these tastes slowly develop with increasing age.
Plants have thus developed alongside us and benefit us. However, our human trait of manipulating nature may be yet another stepping stone to our ill-health and misery.
Growing the Most Plants
We thought this was progress, but we have decreased the very compounds in plants that provide us with health.
It is almost impossible to avoid messages about healthy eating. Big food has joined the narrative, seemingly now converted to caring about the environment. Processed food companies need large amounts of raw material. For food growers, this means the maximum amount of yield that can be forced repetitively from the earth. We as consumers demand perfectly shaped and colored produce.
Large-scale agriculture creates an environment where less and less stress is placed on the plant, so it will grow quickly and be attractive to consumers. This means no pockmarks from insects, no mold, and no asymmetrical shapes where fruit has had to grow around obstacles. To achieve this pesticides are used to keep the insects, bacteria, and fungi away. We thought this was progress, but we have decreased the very compounds in plants that provide us with health.
Furthermore, the use of fertilizers, leading to mineral depletion in soil, makes it harder for plants to produce Secondary Metabolites. We have not even begun to address the impact of fertilizers, pesticides, and intensive mono-cropping on soil microbes.
Mass production of plants for human consumption is resulting in fewer Secondary Plant Metabolites and destroying the soil, thereby hurting ourselves and the Earth.
On the contrary, organically grown food has been shown to contain higher levels of Secondary Plant Metabolites — good for the plants and good for us. Taking this further, regenerative farming practices are aiming to heal the Earth through soil enrichment, crop rotation, and managed grazing.
Ancient Plant Medicines as Food
We can make a difference by thinking about our health and by not giving our money to the billionaires. When we think about our health, we automatically align with the health of the Earth.
As a patient said to me if insects won’t eat the fruit, neither would she. We can attend local food markets, seeking out real organic and regenerative small growers. Eating plants as they occur in nature with minimal processing and composting the inedible bits is good for us and the Earth.
Plants do play a role in the modern human diet but they are largely not essential for vitamins and minerals. Instead, they are required as medicines in a toxic world. While our ancestors may have been able to go for long periods as hyper-carnivores, they were not living in a world where they were constantly required to withstand toxic assault.
In the modern world, plants grown organically and regeneratively contain magical compounds that they have used to overcome invaders and that can help us survive and thrive.