Can you eat enough to be healthy?
That seems like a ludicrous question until the reality sinks in that the answer is:
“No, if you are eating from the typical American grocery store or restaurant, you can’t eat enough to be healthy.”
But people are eating a lot of food. It’s no secret that obesity is on the rise around the world.
In fact, we are eating so much that for the first time in human history, the number of overweight people rivals the number of underweight people. According to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based research organization, “the world’s underfed population has declined slightly since 1980 to 1.1 billion, while the number of overweight people has surged to 1.1 billion.”
It is clear that people are eating. But are they healthy?
Disease, and especially chronic disease, is on the rise. It’s estimated that about one-half of the U.S. population suffers from a chronic disease, and a third of Americans suffer from multiple chronic diseases. The impact of these higher rates of disease is reflected in the numbers showing that life-expectancy is dropping. I fully believe that those numbers will soon plummet.
So even with the abundance of food, our health is dropping.
Malnutrition is the essence of the problem.
So much of agribusiness has been focused on quantity versus quality that we are at the point where there is essentially no quality in the food. And it is killing us—slowly.
No one likes to think that Americans, Mexicans, or people from Qatar—the richest country in the world—are in the same health category as Haiti, Chad, or Kenya.
Both the overweight and the underweight suffer from malnutrition.
“The hungry and the overweight share high levels of sickness and disability, shortened life expectancies, and lower levels of productivity—each of which is a drag on a country’s development,” said Gary Gardner, co-author with Brian Halweil of “Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition.”
About 20 years ago, I saw an interview with a top executive from Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a global food-processing company. The ADM executive basically said that the future of the food industry was the new market segmentation related to the quality of food. He cited the “organic” brand as a grassroots development that was the beginning of the differentiation in food quality.
In the prior decades, a carrot was just a carrot. Going forward, people would begin to make more discernments about the purity, taste, and nutrition of carrots.
Just how much nutrition is in the food supply?
The nutrition in food has been dropping for decades. And the rates of chronic diseases are proportional to the loss of nutrient density.
This chart of nutrient density versus disease from 1920 to the present really summarizes the situation nicely:
Can you get enough nutrition if you eat only organic food?
While “organics” are definitely a step in the right direction, it is difficult to tell if you’ll really get enough nutrition if you eat only foods grown this way. There have been numerous studies comparing the nutrient density of organic versus conventional foods, and they generally find that, yes, organics do have higher amounts of nutrients.
And organically grown foods also have fewer “anti-nutrients” like pesticides, hormones, and GMOs.
But the improvements in nutrient density of organics do not come close to compensating for the enormous drop compared to foods commonly available about a century ago.
Personally, I am very concerned about the whole “organic” brand. Many small producers of quality foods have been bought out by bigger mega-corporations, and the standards have dropped.
“It’s very common that when an organic food brand is acquired, that the new parent corporation reduces its commitment to organic ingredients and seeks out cheaper substitutes,” says Michigan State University professor Philip Howard, who has tracked the consolidation of the industry over the decades.
My heart has been broken time after time as I’ve seen great organic brands get swallowed up—and their quality get diluted—by bigger corporations.
Here are just a few examples:
- General Mills bought Cascadian Farm in 1999.
- Coca-Cola bought Honest Tea in 2011.
- Clorox bought out Burt’s Bees in 2007.
- Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000.
- Kellogg bought out Kashi in 2000.
- Colgate-Palmolive bought Tom’s of Maine in 2006.
And the list goes on.
Most recently, we’ve seen Whole Foods Market swallowed up by Amazon. The Organic Consumers Association has taken the lead in pointing out that since being acquired by Amazon, Whole Foods is trying to renege on its promise to label GMO foods sold in its stores.
And, of course, there is outright fraud in organically labelled food.
It’s got to be so tempting to grocers.
Adding that little sticker to the tomatoes means you can charge at least double the price. The grocery business has super-thin margins, and I am sure a little boost to the bottom line in the produce section has occurred on many occasions.
Do you really believe that the “organic” food from China sold at Wal-Mart is up to the same standards as, say, foods produced under the Oregon Tilth Organic program?
The USDA Organic standards are continually being watered down.
An acquaintance of mine is an organic wheat farmer. He told me that he regularly sees his small crop of good grain dumped into a big railcar full of other non-organically grown wheat and— voilà!—magically the whole shipment is now considered organic.
Can you use supplements to get the nutrition you need?
I will totally confess that I use supplements from time to time. But this is an area riddled with even more fraud than organic food, so I am extremely picky about where I source them from.
It seems like everybody and his brother has a supplement line. Being in my position as the leader of The Grow Network, I’ve gotten access to behind-the-scenes information, and I’ve been shocked at the poor quality of ingredients in supplements offered by some famous health experts.
It seems like single vitamins or minerals become like movie stars and the Web gets filled with the latest research on how this one nutrient is the key to your entire health.
Even if the supplements were made well, it isn’t as simple as just taking a pill.
The more I learn about nutrition, the more complex it gets. A while back, I realized that focusing on individual vitamins or minerals isn’t very wholistic. Basically, our bodies expect nutrition to come in the complex combinations found in real foods—like fruits, vegetables, nuts, meats, and all the rest.
Focusing on single, isolated, and often synthetic nutritional components is probably more toxic and dangerous than the malnutrition you were trying to fix in the first place.
Say you’re low on calcium. You decide to take a supplement to fix the deficiency . . . . But calcium needs to be accompanied by vitamin D so that your body can properly absorb it, as well as vitamin K2 (but not K1). Oh, and make sure you’ve got enough magnesium, as well as enough vitamin A to protect you from possible vitamin D overages . . . .
Basically, you end up trying to recreate through chemistry what nutrient-dense whole foods have in them naturally.
Are the supplements derived from whole foods better? Maybe. I’m not sure.
There definitely are professionals who are very knowledgeable in nutrition and in sourcing quality supplements. And I am proud that there are many highly skilled nutritional therapists who are members of The Grow Network (check out the Forums 😊).
I have relied on numerous different nutritionists or naturopaths over the years for advice.
But the waters are treacherous.
Do you remember some of those old sci-fi movies where the characters never ate meals but only took pills for their nourishment? I always felt sorry for them, as eating is truly one of the joys in this life.
It really is crazy to think your body, which has been optimized for eating whole foods over your entire ancestry, could now sustain itself on pills.
It is absurd to think you can eat junk food and compensate for it with supplements.
If you are eating whole foods that are as high quality as you can afford, yet you know the nutrient density isn’t there, will supplements help you get or stay nourished?
Eating the highest quality foods possible and taking some carefully selected supplements could be the best option for most people.
And, there is another, ultimately healthier option: growing your own food in nutrient-rich soil and trading with neighbors who are doing the same.
To your health,
Marjory Wildcraft is the founder of The Grow Network, which is a community of people focused on modern self-sufficient living. She has been featured by National Geographic as an expert in off-grid living, she hosted the Mother Earth News Online Homesteading Summit, and she is listed in Who’s Who in America for having inspired hundreds of thousands of backyard gardens. Marjory was the focus of an article that won Reuter’s Food Sustainability Media Award, and she recently authored The Grow System: The Essential Guide to Modern Self-Sufficient Living—From Growing Food to Making Medicine.