I’ve mentioned that I recently read Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health by Jo Robinson. Robinson argues that humans have chosen badly in terms of what fruits and vegetables have made it into our modern diets. Hundreds, probably thousands, of things that our ancestors ate are no longer available to us because we chose for sweetness or portability instead of nutrition. Modern agriculture has made things even worse because corporations are more concerned about profitability than health. Robinson attempts to study the history of various types of fruits and vegetables, and then recommend to the reader which varieties are the most nutritious to grow and buy at the farmer’s market or grocery store. It has pervaded much of my food-thinking and purchasing lately, so I thought I would share a little here of what I learned in case you’re convinced of the premise of the book, as well.
I love lists, so I thought I’d do a little “top eight” (I tried to keep it to just five, but I couldn’t!) take-aways from Eating on the Wild Side:
- Eat your colors. In most instances, the darker or more colorful a vegetable is, the healthier it is. This is especially true with reds and purples. Instead of green leaf lettuce, we’re buying red leaf lettuce these days (side note: the more loose leaf varieties of lettuces are more nutritious versus lettuces with tightly formed leaves like iceberg and romaine because the sun hits more of the leaves, which means the leaves are able to synthesize for vitamins and minerals).
- Garlic is a superfood, which is helpful because I. Love. Garlic. However, I’ve been preparing it all wrong. The miracle nutrients in garlic are alliinase and alliin, but, on their own they don’t do much good; together, though, they form allicin, which has tons of health benefits. In order for the allicin to form, Robinson recommends that you mince/chop the garlic and let it sit ten minutes before cooking it. So these days, my first step in the kitchen is to peel and chop a few cloves of garlic and let them sit on the cutting board until I’m ready for them. It doesn’t take any longer – it is really just changing up my routine a bit.
- Eat vegetables that are as close to their wild ancestors as possible. We don’t put chemicals in our yard, so when all of the sorrel and dandelions pop up in March (if spring ever gets here!), I’ll be sending the kids out to pick those for our salad greens because they’re outrageously nutritious (and tasty and free). Green onions/scallions are quite close to wild onions and super nutrient-dense (which is convenient because they’re about the easiest thing to grow in your own garden). Today’s artichokes are also very close to their ancient ancestors and are one of the most nutritious vegetables (an exception to the color rule above, obviously). Robinson found that the canned variety are as nutritious as the fresh variety, so we’ve been adding these to our salads and other dishes.
- Not all apples are created equal. We eat a lot of apples around our house in the fall and winter months because they store so well. J and I love Pink Lady apples, but Robinson found that they’re basically a huge sugar rush (which is probably why we like them so much!). Far better choices include: Granny Smiths, Fujis, and Braeburns.
- Cooking (properly) some fruits and vegetables actually makes them more nutritious than their fresh counterparts. This is true for carrots, tomatoes, and blueberries, especially. Cooking properly includes roasting, steaming, and sauteing. Boiling vegetables in water leaves most of the nutrients in the water, so that is to be avoided.
- Eat the skins. The skins of many fruits and vegetables are the most nutritious part of the fruit or vegetable. This is where it is important to buy organic because the skins are also where the chemicals are most concentrated in conventionally-grown produce. I rarely, if ever, peel skins of potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, apples, beets, and other fruits/vegetables that recipes typically call for skins to be peeled (so long as I’m working with organically-grown produce). I just scrub the fruit/vegetable well and proceed with the recipe without peeling. I actually find that the skins add some texture to many recipes that I would otherwise miss.
- Eat as seasonally and as locally as possible. Eating on the Wild Side only further strengthened my resolve to eat by the seasons and buy as locally as possible. Local farmers pick the produce they grow based on taste, so they grow a much more diverse array of fruits and vegetables (which are often closer to their ancient relatives). The produce is fresher because it is often picked within a day or two of the consumer purchasing it, and the fresher the produce is, the more nutrient-dense it is. Eating by the seasons ensures that throughout the year, you’re eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and thereby, consuming plenty of different vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and probably all sorts of other good-for-you-stuff that science hasn’t even figured out yet.
- Grow your own. At the end of each chapter, Robinson gives a “best of” list for each category of foods that she discusses in the book. The most nutritious varieties are nearly always the ones that you either grow yourself or find at a farmer’s market. I’ll be using my copy of Eating on the Wild Side for my seed purchasing this year to ensure that we’re growing stuff that 1) we can’t find at the grocery store and 2) is the most nutritious stuff to be eating.