We like to think that if we eat our recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables, we're doing right by our bodies. Think again, says health writer Jo Robinson.
In her new book, Eating on the Wild Side, Robinson argues that our prehistoric ancestors picked and gathered wild plants that were in many ways far healthier than the stuff we buy today at farmers' markets.
But this change, she says, isn't the result of the much-bemoaned modern, industrial food system. It has been thousands of years in the making — ever since humans first took up farming (some 12,000 years ago, more or less) and decided to "cultivate the wild plants that were the most pleasurable to eat," she writes. More pleasurable generally meant less bitter and higher in sugar, starch or oil.
"Basically," Robinson tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, "we looked around at all this wild food that we had been eating for millennia, forever, and we kind of said to each other, 'We're getting tired of eating this bitter, chewy, fibrous, low-sugar food, and we can do better than that!'"
But over the centuries, Robinson says, those choices in human agriculture led to a dramatic loss in the nutrient value of the plants we eat most commonly — something she says we had no way of knowing until recently, when modern technology made it possible to do so.
But Robinson isn't arguing that we should all go back to foraging for our dinner. Rather, she calls her book "a field guide to nutritious food." Drawing on hundreds of scientific studies, she uses her book to lay out which commonly available foods offer the best nutritional bang for the bite.
We learn, for example, that longer cooking can boost tomatoes' health benefits. And that broccoli begins to lose cancer-fighting compounds within 24 hours of harvest — that's why it's one of the foods that Robinson suggests people eat "as fresh as possible."
On prehistoric bananas
"To peel them you had to get a machete or something similar to that to take off the skins, so we looked around and one of our remote ancestors came upon a mutant banana. This was nature's mutant — nature is making mutations all the time — and that's how we get all of the varieties that we have in our fruits and vegetables. Well, this particular mutation did away with the seeds, so that the seeds had been diminished to tiny black dots, and if you look at the bananas in our supermarket, that's what you'll see: no viable seeds but just these little dots."
On her focus on 'phytonutrients'
"These are molecular nutrients; they're not macronutrients, and the reason that I'm focusing on them is that we're just beginning to realize that these plant compounds — the technical name for them is 'polyphenols' [but] I call them 'phytonutrients' — they play a role in every cell and system of our bodies, and every month, new information is published showing these phytonutrients are really essential for optimum health. ... [T]hese are the things we've reduced more than any of the other nutrients."
On why we should eat dandelions
"[G]o out and find a dandelion leaf, rinse it well, and take a bite, and pay attention to your senses. For the first 10 seconds you won't sense much at all, except you'll notice that the leaf is hairy, and quite dense, quite chewy. Then, this bloom of bitterness [will] come at the roof of your mouth and go down your throat, and it's going to stay there for about 10 minutes. And many of the wild plants that we used to eat had levels of bitterness similar to that dandelion. ... Compared to spinach, which we consider a superfood, [a dandelion] has twice as much calcium, and three times as much vitamin A, five times more vitamins K and E, and eight times more antioxidants."
On maximizing the nutrients in lettuce
"If you take your lettuce right from the store and rinse it and dry it and then, if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it, you're going to increase the antioxidant activity ... fourfold. The next time you eat it, it's going to have four times as many antioxidants."
On which produce you should eat as fresh as possible
"There [are] fruits and vegetables that also burn up their antioxidants and their sugar at a really rapid rate, and they happen to be those superstars of nutrition that we're all encouraged to eat. So I'm just going to give you a list of things you should get as fresh as possible, perhaps from a farmers' market, which ... is going to be probably fresher than from the supermarket, and eat as soon as possible. So it would be artichokes, arugula, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, lettuce, parsley, mushrooms and spinach. ...
I think you should have an 'Eat Me First' list on your refrigerator of those [foods] that you should eat the day you bring them home, or the next day. It could [make] a measurable difference in your health."