Plant foods epitomise all that is good for us don’t they? Articles about nutrition and diet are usually adorned with overflowing bowls of fruit, water-sprayed salads and colourful vegetable displays at markets or supermarkets – and indeed, many of my articles are similarly adorned. BUT there is a cost to be paid if we are to benefit from nutrients from plant foods.
As is my thing, I have looked at these plant foods with the back-drop of our (and their) evolution. Everything on Earth is here for a reason and for that reason, everything on Earth has efficient life-preserving and pro-creation systems in place. If this were not the case, then animals (including humans) and plants would just die out. Yes, I know there are more species that have become extinct, than exist today but at least in part this is to do with nature and how it selects. The rest is down to us, but I won’t step on that mine-field now! We and many other animals have hormones that allow us to progress the species. We also have hormones that allow “fight or flight” when we are in danger. We can regulate our temperatures so that we don’t cook in the sun or freeze during winter. Our skins brown in the sun to prevent our bodies becoming sun-damaged and we have immune systems that help protect us from pathogenic infections. We have more life-preserving tricks too which adds to why we are so successful as a species.
So what of plants? They too got to this point by evolution. Because they need it to thrive, some live in shade, some in full sunlight. Some like dry sandy soil and some like deep loamy soils. Some like moist conditions and some like dry. Plants are very clever with perpetuating their species and many have more than one way of doing this. Take strawberries – plantlets grow on runners but they can also be grown from seed. Raspberries and roses spread by their root-systems, throwing up suckers in the grass, to our annoyance! They too can be, but aren’t usually grown from seed. Many plants can produce “children” simply by a piece of the parent being broken off. These sections will root very easily – such as the willow tree. My grandmother had a huge willow tree in her garden and it grew from a willow washing-line prop! Plants have another form of defence too – they contain chemicals to discourage animals from feasting on them.
We have called these chemicals collectively, anti-nutrients. There are many – digestive enzyme inhibitors which can interfere with the digestion of our food; various acids such as phytic and oxalic which prevent uptake of certain minerals, especially calcium; glucosinates which prevent the uptake of iodine – vital for thyroid function; even eating lots of fibre, such as bran (which also contains phytates), can hasten food through the gastro- intestinal system preventing some valuable nutrients from being absorbed.
We have evolved alongside plants and as any gardener will tell you it is a constant battle to get them to do what we want them to do! They want one thing, we want another which is why so many vegetable and fruit growers create artificial conditions and use artificial chemicals to nourish the plants and destroy pests. I suspect that we ate very little vegetation until we were able to cook. Most plants would have been too tough, unappetising and too indigestible prior to the advent of fire. Our taste-buds would have told us if our digestive systems could cope with what we put in our mouths. There is speculation about how long we have had fire but it dates back to at least 400,000 years ago and it was that event that made some foods more palatable and digestible. Even so, our choice would have been limited to the foods that could be wrapped in leaves and cooked in the embers – it was a long, long time before we had cooking pots! Remember too that the leaves, roots and fruits we see in the supermarket now are the result of hundreds of years of selective breeding and (disastrously), genetic modification. These actions have made them bigger/sweeter/more attractive/have a longer shelf-life/etc. – but the anti-nutrients persist.
Weston A. Price researched the diets of people the world over during the early 1900s and found (plus many other things) that amongst primitive people, health and diet often went hand in hand. They usually inhabited remote places but all were growing, rearing and preparing their own food. They were (and some still are) the picture of health. Some were vegetarian but due to their preparation of grains, beans, nuts and roots, they were able to destroy most of the anti-nutrients prior to consumption. Their methods are not complicated but they do take some time – obviously they had to plan, which is something we are all so bad at now! Grains, beans and roots were soaked with the addition of acid – vinegar, lemon juice, yogurt, whey etc. for a day or so. Only then were they suitable for cooking. Al dente is not something they knew of (especially as it is Italian!), because these foods need lengthy cooking to destroy even more anti-nutrients. Possibly all they knew was that the foods were more digestible but what they had actually done is make the nutrients more bio-available and therefore their food gave them more positive nutrition. I must stress that the vegetarians that were studied also ate raw dairy products and eggs too. Some will remember the “raw” phase that gripped the 1970s. Many jumped on this bandwagon and ended up very ill. Raw beans were responsible for many people being rushed to hospital with severe stomach pains. There is lots more on the preparation of beans, grains and nuts here.
One of the worst foods for us is soya. There is some very interesting reading here and whilst this is someone’s opinion, it is one I and many others share. Just to add insult to injury, about 90% of the soya produced is genetically modified and fed not only to us but to animals, making them sick too.
These are just some of the battles that we have to do with plant foods. There are more – foods belonging to the nightshade family for example – tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, aubergines etc. If we wish to eat plants, we take on this fight!
Just to put all this into perspective, organic, free-range meat and raw dairy have no anti-nutrients and make almost perfect nutrition for humans!