|Whole foods contain active enzymes and
complex, living microbiomes
Health and wellness experts usually agree whole foods are the best source of nutrition. Yet here in the US, we support an enormous dietary supplement industry, and many of those supplements offer only one or a few nutrients in a single pill? For example, one product may offer Vitamin D, another only Vitamin C. Why? Why do consumers buy supplements that provide one or a few nutrients at a time, instead of focusing on whole foods that provide hundreds to thousands of biomolecules at a time? Do we prefer swallowing pills over eating dinner? Or are truly “whole” foods too hard to come by in the United States?
The complete answer includes many factors, but today I will focus on the availability of whole foods. It is time we admit that most Americans simply do not have access to foods that contain complete nutrition. When it comes to having access to nutritious food, many Americans simply are not there. Sure, we have access to calories. We have access to processed foods in attractive packages. But we don’t really have access to fresh, whole foods grown in healthy soils. In fact, if we are willing to define food security as access to enough safe and nutritious food to live a healthy life, most Americans are simply not there.
I know some people will consider this absurd-that people in one of the richest countries in the world are food insecure. After all, most Americans live within reasonable distances of a store they can enter and purchase foods some would define as “whole.” When measured as a percentage of their total income, most Americans would pay less for these foods than people in other countries pay. We have a tremendous variety of foods available. The produce aisles in typical supermarkets contain apples, grapes, bananas, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, and more. We can buy eggs defined by USDA as fresh, we can buy USDA inspected meats, and milk that is legally labeled “whole.” But despite the government definitions, can we really label a food as whole when it no longer contains the entire complement of nutrients, active enzymes, and microorganisms that are associated with whole foods in nature? Let’s elaborate:
Take, for example, an apple. In the natural world, the apple would be filled with, and surrounded by, living microbes. Most of these would be beneficial or commensal microbes that interact to render the “germs,” or pathogenic microbes, inactive. Each of these diverse microbes would contain enzymes that synthesize unique biochemicals, nutrients, and enzymes-molecules that an apple tree alone simply cannot manufacture. These living microbes, along with their genes and enzymes, would contribute to the flavor, nutrition, and disease resistance of the apple. When you ate such an apple, these microbes would provide you with vitamins, nutrients, and biomolecules that would interact with nutrients and enzymes in your own body to support metabolism and detox. They would strengthen your immune system, and work with it to defend your body from an overabundance of disease causing organisms or conditions. Some of them might even take up residence in your intestines, where they themselves would synthesize nutrients and and support digestion long after the apple itself was gone and forgotten.
However, in the world of government regulated, industrialized agriculture and food processing, we treat our soils, our crops, and our harvested foods with synthetic chemicals and mechanical processes that drastically disrupt the balance and function of these natural microbial communities, or micro-biomes. Furthermore, we rely on elimination procedures (sterilization, pasteurization, or chemical disinfectants and antibiotics), rather than nutritional and ecological balancing, to protect ourselves from food borne diseases. These choices result in widespread distribution of foods that appear whole, but lack much of the nutrition necessary to support our health. The cost of these decisions is high. We live in a country that is being crippled by chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Diseases that are associated with inadequate nutrition. Half of our adult population is sick (2018 update: 6 in 10 adults in the US have one or more chronic diseases, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed December 16, 2018), and growing numbers of experts recognize disruption of microbiomes as a contributing factor.
The good news is that restoring your own microbiome can be safe, natural, and affordable. The logical approach is to reduce your own use of synthetic chemicals and start eating whole foods. You will want to reduce your use of synthetic chemicals because they typically create imbalance, supporting a few kinds of microbes while killing many others. Obviously, you will want to discuss this with a health care professional, preferably one who understands microbial ecology and microbiomes, to develop a safe plan for altering your use of prescription drugs. By eating a complex diet complete with the nutrients present in hundreds to thousands of unique species of microbes, you can attract and retain microbes from your surrounding environment that naturally restore your microbiome. Here are some good ways to get the whole foods you need.
- The first, and best way is to eat a variety of locally grown organic foods. One reason we support the development of 21st century Victory Gardens is because when families become competent at growing their own organic fruits and vegetables, fresh whole produce is both accessible and affordable. When foods are grown organically in a well managed soil, they attract natural microbiomes that support health. These plants consistently prove to be more nutritious and more flavorful than plants that have been treated with chemicals, shipped long distances, and stored for long periods of time. Farmer’s markets can also help connect consumers with producers of local organic foods.
- The second way is to take dietary supplements that offer complete and balanced mixtures of essential nutrients. I look for products that contain the nutrition derived from whole plants, whole microbial communities, or where possible, entire ecosystems, and I check to make sure that in addition to key vitamins, these products contain the mineral nutrients essential for good health. Why the emphasis on mineral nutrients? Because the mineral elements are components our own bodies cannot synthesize. Neither can the trillions of microbial cells that make up our microbiome. So if we need a mineral element, we simply must get it from our diet. Yet most of our foods today are being grown on soils that have been treated with chemicals that chelate mineral nutrients, and fertilized only with those elements that boost plant yields or minimize plant disease. Little attention has been given to the concept of growing food for it’s nutritional value to humans. This is why we cannot rely on whole foods from the produce isle, the meat counter, or the dairy section of the supermarket (much less from the processed foods sections) to meet all our nutritional demands.
- Minimize exposure to chemicals, including pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and household or workplace chemicals, and even highly purified plant extracts like white sugar, that can offset the nutritional balance within your cells.
- Maximize consumption of raw, whole foods. Sure, you will want to cook those foods that are of high risk for food poisoning. But many common fresh fruits and vegetables can and should be eaten without cooking. Fresh salads can be loaded with active enzymes, nutrients, prebiotics, and even probiotics may be lost in the cooking process.