The Evolution of Nutrition

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Nutrition has come a long way, over many years, to the point where it is finally starting to get the attention it deserves in terms of its ability to determine if a person can achieve good health and avoid chronic disease and premature death. Around 400 BC, the Greek scientist Hippocrates gave food a lofty goal when he proclaimed, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”[1]

It has taken over 2400 years for that famous quote to be taken seriously, and the journey, especially over the past 100+ years, is worthy of examination. If we can appreciate how we arrived at our current understanding about the importance of food, perhaps we can better understand how we can best continue this journey of exploration, education and health improvement.

Early Farming Influences

About 10,000 years ago, farming began to take the place of hunting and gathering as the primary source of food for many people.[2] Planting crops allowed farmers to begin to make changes in the variety of plants grown, as well as to experiment with interbreeding to create more productive hybrids. Almost immediately, farmers began to create hybrids that were sweeter in order to accommodate human taste preferences, with the negative consequence of food becoming less nutrient dense.[3] Monocultivation (one crop per area) also contributed to the gradual reduction in nutrient levels in the soil. While crop rotation and better fertilization were eventually introduced, the concept of growing as much as possible, at the lowest possible cost, was firmly established.

With the introduction of chemicals, like pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, this concentration on productivity and profitability took on a heightened level of importance. The introduction of corporate farming pushed this manipulation of plant genetics and economical farming practices to extreme levels with serious consequences for the nutritional value of our food. To illustrate how serious this problem is, consider these three examples of wild plants compared to their commercially grown (non-organic) counterparts:

• Dandelions have 700% more phytonutrients than spinach.[4]
• Wild purple potatoes from Peru have 2800% more cancer fighting anthocyanins than farm grown russet potatoes.[5]
• One species of wild apples has 10,000% more phytonutrients than the orchard-grown Golden Delicious Apple.[6]

The USDA has studied the deterioration of plant nutrition over the past 25 to 40 years and identified the following declines in key nutrients in the (non-organic) foods we eat – ie. deficiencies due to nutritionally depleted soil.[7]:.

• Calcium in broccoli is down 50% (1975 to 2001)
• Iron in watercress is down 88% (1975 to 2001)
• Vitamin C in cauliflower is down 40% (1979 to 2001)
• Vitamin C in sweet peppers is down 30% (1963 to 2001)
• Vitamin A in apples is down 41% (1963 to 2001)
• Magnesium in collard greens is down 81% (1963 to 2001)
• Potassium in collard greens is down 57% (1963 to 2001)

In addition to depleted nutrients in our soil, there is also significant nutrient loss due to early picking, and here are just a few examples[8]:

• Cherries can lose half of their vitamin C if picked too early.
• Blackberries can lose up to 75% of their cancer-fighting anthocyanins if they are picked too early.
• Tomatoes have twice the vitamin C and beta-carotene when they ripen on the vine, compared to being picked green.

Other nutrient depletion factors:
There have been many other changes in farming over the past 100 plus years, and most of them have resulted in a loss of nutrients. These include synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetic modification, storage of foods for later use, shipping foods long distances and not replacing all of the nutrients depleted with each crop. The quantity of food available at lower prices has been one positive factor leading to more availability of food for people with limited financial resources. However, considering the overall depletion of nutritional value, this increased quantity is probably not very beneficial in the long term.[9]

During the past century, while science was making steady progress in the understanding of what nutrients are in our foods, and how they impact our health, we have been transforming our daily eating behavior based on many influencing factors. For example, a recent study by the University of Colorado found that the nutrient density of our food has declined considerably over the past 100 years. Food today has over 50% fewer nutrients compared to the foods eaten by our grandparents. Not only is food less nutrient dense, we are also eating less of the really healthy foods. Our grandparents consumed an average of 131 pounds of homegrown vegetables every year, compared to 11 pounds today.[10]

Another surprising comparison is the amount of sugar consumed today, compared to 100 years ago. Our grandparents consumed about 63 pounds of sugar every year, while we now consume over 150 pounds per year. It should be no surprise that we are suffering an epidemic of obesity and chronic disease. We are eating way too much sugar and considerably fewer fresh vegetables.[11]

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