Looking for Health In All The Wrong Places

A critique of the food industry, conventional agriculture, and nutrition research

What do animal behavior and nutrition have to do with humans?

Nourishment summarizes what animal behavior researcher Fred Provenza has learned (thus far) during his life. You might not think that a person who has spent many hours watching goats and sheep decide what to eat would have any relevance to your life. But you’d be wrong. For example, Provenza’s insights into food selection by goats helps us understand what we humans eat and why.

Most humans probably regard goats and other livestock, such as sheep and cattle, as dumb. However, these animals possess nutritional wisdom that enables them to select plants that perform essential physiological functions. By eating specific plants in certain amounts, goats can thwart parasites or bring calcium in their blood back into its healthy range. Alas, many of us humans have lost (or at least misplaced) our nutritional wisdom, having been born to mothers who ate junk foods and fed them to us in our early years. Ultra-processed food now accounts for the majority of calories that American youth and adults eat. The manufactured foods (with precise combinations of sugar, fat, salt, and flavors) we eat cloud our nutritional wisdom by stimulating our brains’ reward system, which overrides the portions that foster mindful eating. We often pay more attention to health authorities than to our own body’s feelings and sensations. Provenza notes that goats have more nutritional wisdom than nutritionists. 😊

Unfortunately, ultra-processed foods are so appetizing and presented in such alluring ways that many of us can’t resist overeating them. The food industry’s goal of cutting food production costs to remain competitive in the marketplace has reduced the quality of our food (lower concentrations of phytonutrients, tasteless tomatoes). Agricultural operations that house livestock in crowded conditions, feed animals “complete rations” that eliminate any choice of what to eat, and use antibiotics prophylactically to prevent disease essentially treat these living beings with minimal ethical concern.

Our modern food bears little resemblance to what Americans ate in the 19th Century. The nutritional profiles of modern vegetables and fruits do not compare favorably with those of our grandparent’s era. This unintended consequence reflects plant breeding that rewards higher yield, transportability, and disease resistance and ignores nutrition and flavor.

One of Provenza’s key insights involves the roles that plant secondary compounds (aka phytonutrients) play in animal and human nutrition. Thousands of these complex organic chemicals exist. Groups include terpenes (they give sagebrush its characteristic odor), tannins (used in the past to tan leather, plants use them to discourage animal browsing), and phenolics (help create the distinctive flavor of locally produces Gruyere cheese).

These and other phytonutrients send signals (such as, don’t eat any more of this) to animals before and after eating regarding the nutritional composition of plants. Animals adjust their intake of certain plants accordingly, particularly if the animals have access to pastures with high plant species diversity.

We modern humans have a hard time seeing over the horizon to foresee the long-term consequences of our present actions. Certain changes happen so slowly that we can’t apprehend them during our short life spans, especially if we don’t spend much time in any one place. We’re prisoners of a system that features quick-fix gratification, yet entails major, long-term adverse consequences for our health and well-being. If we Americans were simply to eat better, we’d save billions of dollars in avoided medical care costs.

Just look at the Greek island of Crete that harbors an abundance of centenarians. The number of 100+ year-old residents of Crete reflects a way of life rather than one or two healthy choices that these folks make. Their way of healthy living evolved over time and may not be directly transferable to other locales. In our reductionist approach, we tend to want someone’s “top three” ideas for healthy living and forget that healthy living involves a host of factors that may be place-specific.

How did this state of affairs come to pass? Provenza identifies a cadre of actors, including the food industry, conventional agriculture, and nutrition researchers as key players. The food industry (including manufacturers and chain restaurants) has spent hundreds of millions (maybe billions) of dollars figuring out how to induce us to eat more ultra-processed foods. And they have succeeded. Manufactured foods have numbed our nutritional wisdom. Provenza notes that, “we are just beginning to appreciate the value of soil health and plant diversity in the diets of herbivores, and the implications for the health of soil, plants, herbivores, and humans.”

Conventional agriculture, as noted above, has focused on yield, transportability, and disease resistance, while letting nutrition and flavor go by the wayside. But Mark Schatzker, in his book The Dorito Effect, offers some hope that non-traditional plant breeders are developing tomatoes and breeds of chickens that actually taste good.

Nutrition research has millions of dollars investigating single nutrients in isolation from other aspects of what we eat. According to Provenza, the reductionist emphasis of studying single nutrients in isolation limits researchers’ ability to see the forest for the trees. Nutrition research has demonized fat and cholesterol based on flimsy data and has led to a profusion of low-fat (but high sugar) foods that may have created more problems that it solved. Of late, nutrition research has begun studying combinations of foods people customarily eat (or might eat).

In the end, Provenza urges that we expand our sphere of ethical concern to include a wider swath of humanity, the animals whose bodies we may eat, and the rest of creation. Provenza offers suggestions for doing a better job of living harmoniously. Such as spending mindful time in nature (without the ear buds that cut us off from nature). Such as developing more close relationships with other people, which may help defuse the adverse effects of widespread chronic stress. Such as finding purpose in life that many of us seem to lack. Nourishment provides plenty of healthy food for thought.

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