8 Things You Need to Know About Food

Lessons from What Your Food Ate

You already know how important what you eat is for your health.

But have you ever thought about what your food ate?

That is the core question in today’s book I’ll be sharing some lessons from, “What Your Food Ate” by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé.

They argue that the health of the soil we eat from has a profound impact on our own health, and that the way we farm our land is directly linked to the quality of the food we eat.

It’s already changed how I think about what food I eat, and it will probably do the same for you.

The book cites over 1,000 scientific papers and is full of useful information to better nourish yourself and the earth, but here are eight lessons I think were particularly useful or insightful.

And as always, if you want to listen to the audio, subscribe to the Nat’s Notes podcast on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts by searching “Nat’s Notes.”

1: Organic Foods Have More Nutrients

Buying organic doesn’t just help you avoid consuming pesticides, herbicides, and other potential toxins. Organic foods actually have more vitamins and nutrients and are healthier for you.

Because of the use of aggressive max-yield farming practices, nutrient levels in U.S. crops have dropped by 5 to 40 percent in the last fifty years. (p 26)

And returning to a more natural farming style can help return the nutrients to food. By switching wheat away from conventional practices, one farm saw 18% to 56% more essential minerals like iron, magnesium, and copper in their wheat.

How does that happen? Here’s one passage from the book:

“Chemical fertilizers undercut the work of soil fungi and bacteria, compromising their delivery of micronutrients critical for plant nutrition and thus the health of crops and livestock and people. He intuited that mycorrhizal fungi partnered with plant roots in some way, although he and others at the time didn't fully understand how.” 

p. 35

So if you want to have the most nutritious food possible, buy organic.

2: Plowing Can Destroy the Nutrient Quality of Foods

Plowing kills earthworms which help deliver nutrients to plants:

“Plowing is a natural disaster for earthworms. The effects can be dramatic, with tillage depressing worm abundance even more than chemical fertilizers or pesticides. For example, a 20-year comparison of soil quality under conventional and notill farming in New Zealand found conventionally farmed fields had virtually no worms, while no-till fields had almost as many worms as permanently unplowed pasture, which also had two to three times more microbes.” 

p. 49

It also disrupts essential mycorrhizal fungi colonies, which like earthworms, help provide plants with the vitamins and nutrients we want to eat.

“Tillage also is hard on mycorrhizal fungi. It slices through their extensive network of root-like hyphae, cutting off deliveries of everything flowing through them-minerals, water, and other compounds that benefit their plant partners.” 

p. 49

And this damage can be done insanely quickly.

25 years of conventional tillage decreased soil organic matter to less than a fifth of the amount in native soils. But soil organic matter recovered almost fully just two decades after switching to notill, cover crops, and diverse rotations.” (Page 52)

So if you want the most nutritious food, look for food from “no till” sources.

3: Glyphosate is Bad News

Glyphosate, commonly called RoundUp, is one of the most common herbicides, and its found in conventionally farmed soybeans, corn, and wheat, among many other foods.

But it pulls essential minerals out of the soil like copper, iron, magnesium, and zinc, which means the plants aren’t absorbing those minerals, and aren’t delivering them to you. Maybe you’ve heard that everyone is magnesium deficient, well, this is part of the reason.

It’s also a potent antibiotic. It destroys bacteria in the ground that feed the plants and bacteria in your body that you need to thrive.

“Monsanto's second patent on glyphosate was for use as an antibiotic (U.S. Patent 7,771,736). With a flood of research and evidence showing how critical microbiomes are to their plant or human host and how antibiotics alter microbiomes, troubling implications come to mind.”

p. 60

But how do you avoid glyphosate? There usually isn’t a glyphosate-free sticker you’ll find on food, but if you’re eating organic then you should be safe from it.

4: Artificial Fertilizers Don’t Nourish Plants as Well as Manure

Plants can’t create the same amount of vitamins and minerals from artificial fertilizers that they can create from natural fertilizers like manure.

So even organic food that’s artificially fertilized may be devoid of essential nutrients. This makes processes like “hydroponics” potentially harmful, since you could be consuming more empty calories than you would get from naturally farmed plants.

Artifical fertilizers are deceptive too because the plants might look the same and might even grow more, but be lacking the vitamins and minerals we’re hoping to get from them.

“Their… experiment involved feeding two groups of rats identical, vitamin B-deficient diet for 18 days and then adding seeds grown on manured soils to the diet of one group and chemically fertilized seeds to the diet of the other group. After a week on the vitamin B-deficient diet both groups began to lose weight. The group that then received manured seeds recovered rapidly and began to grow normally. The group that received the artificially manured seeds kept declining. By the twenty-first day they were wasting away and covered with unsightly bald patches. With death looking imminent for these unfortunate rodents, Rowlands and Wilkinson switched their diet to manured seeds. Within a day, the rats revived and began growing normally again. Apparently, the pig manure passed vitamin B to the soil, and the crops absorbed it and passed it on to the rats.”

p. 68

5: Brown Rice Really Is Much Better for You

I always thought the benefits of brown rice vs. white rice were overblown. But this book changed my mind.

First, white rice has significantly fewer nutrients compared to brown rice.

“Pigeons fed a white rice-only diet developed beriberi-like symptoms and rapidly progressed toward death. Yet they fully recovered within hours if simply fed the bran and germ that had been removed from the white rice they'd been eating. McCarrison's pigeon experiments demonstrated the nutritional inferiority of white rice. He considered it no accident that areas of India where people consumed brown rice reported ten times fewer beriberi cases than those where people ate polished white rice.”

p. 72

And eating white rice can dramatically increase your risk of diabetes.

“Eating white rice five or more times a week increased the risk of diabetes by almost 20 percent compared to eating white rice less than once a month. Eating brown rice at least two times a week decreased the risk of diabetes by about 10 percent compared to eating it less than once a month.”

p. 73

I pretty much stopped eating white rice since I read this. I’m glad I know now.

6: Pesticides and Herbicides can Increase Your Risk of Chronic Disease and Mental Health Disorders

First, it seems like there could be a link between pesticides and ADHD.

“A 2010 study of over a thousand children representative of the general U.S. population found that those with higher-than-average exposure to organophosphate pesticides had roughly twice the odds of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”

p. 171

But it gets worse. Pesticide exposure could also increase your risk of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease, endocrine-related disorders, reduced fertility, and more.

“Moreover, pesticide residues have been associated with a wide range of gastrointestinal, neurological, respiratory, and reproductive effects and may contribute to the development of various types of cancer beyond non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as well as Parkinson's disease and endocrine-related disorders. A 2013 review concluded that abundant evidence supported considering typical pesticide exposure a risk factor for certain chronic diseases. A paper in the journal Science even reported that exposing female rats to high levels of fungicide resulted in three generations of male offspring with low sperm counts and thus reduced fertility.”

p. 171

Another reason to eat organic, responsibly farmed food.

7: Cow’s Milk is an Amazing Food if the Cow is Fed a Proper Diet

Almost no food in the human diet has as complete of a nutritional package as whole cow’s milk.

“It's a complete protein source, meaning it contains the nine amino acids our bodies must have but cannot synthesize. Milk also contains a significant amount of water-soluble B vitamins, as well as fat-soluble vitamins A and E. As for bodybuilding minerals, milk tends to have a lot of calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, as well as some zinc and selenium.”

p. 199

But the quality of milk varies dramatically based on what the cow ate.

“…And just as for grains and vegetables, the vitamins and minerals in milk vary, reflecting soil health and farming practices used on the pastures and crops cows eat. And the fat and phytochemical content of both milk and meat reflect what the cow ate.”

p. 199

And unfortunately, most cows are fed an awful diet.

“Most American dairy cows eat total mixed rations, or TMRs, the ruminant version of an MRE-the "meal, ready-to-eat" developed for the U.S. Armed Forces. There is an important distinction though. The engineered mixtures of protein, carbohydrate, fat, minerals, and vitamins in bovine TMRs often include appetite stimulators, antibiotics, and growth hormones.”

p. 203

So don’t write milk off entirely, make sure you’re getting it from a responsible source. I’ve switched to getting raw (yes, unpasteurized) full-fat milk from a local farm and it’s remarkable how different it is from grocery store milk.

8: Unhealthy Animals have Unhealthy Fat

The research that cast a negative light on saturated fat and cholesterol left out some important information:

“Those with the highest rates of heart attacks and fat consumption-the United States, Canada, and Australia-also consumed the most sugar and omega-6-rich seed oils. The two countries with the lowest fat consumption and rates of heart attack were Japan and Italy. Diets in these countries were low in omega-6s but high in other fats. The fish-centric Japanese diet delivered a lot of omega-3s, and Italians ate impressive amounts of olive oil rich in unsaturated omega-9s.”

p. 217

So it might be fine to have a higher fat diet, so long as you’re getting a higher ratio of omega-3 and 9 and less omega-6. But that’s a problem because animals raised on poor diets have a much higher concentration of the more toxic omega-6 fat.

“The grass and legume-finished and organic-certified, grass-fed steaks had ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 of between 2:1 and 4:1, whereas the grain-finished steaks from the research facility had values of almost 6:1. At over 15:1, the feedlot-finished USDA Choice steaks from the big-box store had the highest levels of omega-6s.”

p. 224

And if you think eating fish is automatically a safe choice, think again. Factory-raised fish also have dramatically lower levels of healthy fats.

“It seems that today you'd have to eat twice as much farmed salmon to get the same amount of long-chain omega-3s as a few decades ago.”

p. 230

Thank you so much for reading.

If you learned something, please forward this to a friend who would enjoy it.

I’ll return next week with another fascinating book to share.