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Regenerative agriculture should join the conversation on ancestral health and evolutionary medicine

Looking around Cole Hall at the University of California San Francisco Medical School, I realized how familiar I’d become with a very non-mainstream crowd. I asked my dear friend sitting in the lecture hall beside me, how comfortable she felt in a room of mainly very strong, fit, vibrant people sporting tattoos, barefoot shoes, caring Kleen Kanteen water bottles, plaid shirts, dreadlocks and some very unusual piercings. She laughed. “Right at home,” she said. Although cutting-edge, I found a big piece missing from the conversations of the day: how we grow our food. Regenerative agriculture needs to be part of the discussion about nutrient-dense food, the health of our micro biome and how we live.

Spencer spent the day with our new friends at Soul Food Farm in Vacaville teaching a holistic management and soil health workshop, I headed out to the other side of the Bay (and consequently the other side of this eating equation we are so intimately involved in) to spend a day with consumers of the highest quality, most nutrient-dense food available including grassfed and finished meats. While Spencer spent the day with farmers and producers discussing how to increase soil health, I spent the day with people seeking a steady supply of nutrient dense food.

The ancestral health symposium

The event was designed for health practitioners. My friend, Diana Tole, a chiropractor in Morgan Hill, California, my college roommate and fellow Cal Poly animal science alum met me at the event. Most attendees were like me or Diana. They had come because they are working on healing their own condition, or they were helping others heal using an integrative, functional approach.

Dr. Akil Palanisamy from Sutter Health’s Institute for Health and Healing hosted the event with the Integrative Medicine Network at the University of California, San Francisco. It was held on the UCSF campus. This meant I drove our one-ton truck from Vacaville to the narrow, hilly streets of San Francisco, into a parking garage that it barely fit into, in order to attend the event. After the wide open, country roads in Modoc County, driving in San Francisco required some adaptation.

Begin with anthropological observations

Robb Wolf, ancestral health, paleo, holistic management, regenerative agriculture

Robb Wolf at University of California, San Francisco

It was well worth it. I left Cole Hall with fascinating factual tid-bits and new larger concepts to mull over. Robb Wolf, who is on the Jefferson Center’s board and very involved in the regenerative agriculture movement, spoke first. He encouraged us to form hypothesis in medicine from an ancestral health framework.

“Anthropological observations are where we should start,” he said. Robb reminded us that there was no one Paleo diet, that macronutrient availability varied widely throughout the world. However most all people were free from modern disease. He explained that modern foods contain compounds that interfere with the body’s hormone signalling (lectins interfering with leptin signalling), which means they can have a pharmacological effect on the body without passing the blood brain barrier. Another problem with our modern lifestyle is the level of inactivity today. Being inactive can actually activate  disease-promoting proteins and turn off disease prevention proteins.

Nutrient-dense food

The discussion of food–nutrient-dense food in particular continued with Dr. Palanisamy’s talk that referenced his book The Paleovedic Diet, which helps people customize their whole food, nutrient-dense diet to their individual needs using the ancient practice of Ayurveda. I bought the book for my mother-in-law and already learned more fascinating information about how obtain the most nutrients from our food.

He explained that in Ayurveda (which literally translates into the science of life), each person has a unique combination of the three Doshas, which are the biological energies that govern all processes in the body and mind. True health is a restoration of the individual balance of doshas in the person–in other words, a restoration to a person’s true nature.On the drive home to Surprise Valley, we completed the questionnaire to determine Spencer’s dosha constitution. He was a Pitta (no surprise!), but a very strong Vatta too. To balance these doshas he should eat cooling, raw foods (to balance the Pitta fire) and warming, salty foods such as soups and stews (to balance the Vatta air). He despises anything that comes out of a crockpot and salads aren’t his favorite, so this may be a hard sell.  However, Spencer is a fan of fun facts.  Dr. Palanisamy  provided plenty about nutrient-dense food.

  • A wild apple (the smaller, natural varieties unaltered by breeding or genetic manipulation) is 47,500 percent more nutrient dense than a modern apple found in the supermarket.
  • Liver (from grassfed animals) is the most nutrient dense food, period.
  • Scallions have 140 times more phytonutrients in them than a white onion.
  • “Wounding” lettuce (bruising or tearing the leaves) doubles the phytonutrient content in the leaves.
  • Select vegetables and fruit with intense color as this is a sign of nutrient density.
  • Eat the skin and the flesh right beneath the skin of fruits and veggies as these areas contain the most nutrients.
  • Use these spices on a regular basis: turmeric,ginger, cinnamon, fenugreek, clove, fennel, coriander, allspice, black cumin, ajwain, saffron and curry leaf.

Umami…mmmm

Michelle Tam, creator of Nom Nom Paleo, prepped us for lunch with an explanation of the 5th taste, umami, or savory flavor. Umami represents protein, so just like sweetness, we are hardwired to recognize it (and enjoy it). Some veggies that are high in umami include:

  • mushrooms (dried are tastier)
  • coconut aminos
  • cabbage
  • potatoes
  • tomatoes
  • kimchi
  • carrots

She shared a simple Chinese soup filled with umami: homemade chicken broth, napa cabbage, leeks, shitake mushrooms, seasoned to taste. Some other recipes she recommended from the blog are:

The gut microbiome

Nutrient-dense foods are important not just for their inherent qualities, but how they feed our microbiome. Justin Sonnenburg is an associate professor at Sanford Univeristy’s School of Medicine. He studies what microbes are doing, which after his presentation, sounds like a really fun way to spend the work day. He and his wife Erica Sonnenburg, wrote The Good Gut after realizing how they were adjusting their lifestyle and parenting based on their study of the microbiome. Justin described our bodies as complex ecosystems (which sounds a lot like holistic management conversations). Just as high biodiversity in soil allows for healthy plants that can resist and defend against disease, high biodiversity in our gut microbiome is correlated with health (and low diversity is correlated with disease). How do we achieve high diversity, a process Justin describes as “re-wilding the gut?”

  • Eat lots of whole fermented foods: kefir, kimchi, sourkraut, kombucha, lacto-fermented foods (probiotic supplements are transient, they have to be fed properly to stay)
  • Eat lots of fiber in the form of fruits and veggies and eat a wide variety of plants

Sadly, due to our modern lifestyle of extreme sanitization, antibiotic use, c-sections and a diet of highly refined, sterile foods, we are starving our microbiota. When they are starving, they turn to the only source of carbohydrates available, which is the mucus lining of our intestines. When this is eaten down too far, inflammation and disease result. The bacteria we evolved with is basically missing from the American microbiome. With our fascination with biodiversity and complex ecosystems, we are adding The Good Gut to our reading list in the Smith household.

 

The optimal foraging equation

When Stephan Guyenet spoke to us about the economics of eating, I thought his claims were quite obvious. We are obese as a culture today because we eat too much.

Hum. Ok.

However, how this plays out in our day to day decisions, how those decisions actually process in our brains and the larger implications of public health management is fascinating. Viewed through an evolutionary health lens, it makes sense. We are hard wired to select foods with the most calories. We actually don’t select for macro or micro nutrients. Our eating decisions are driven by the optimal foraging equation, which is value(gain/profit) = calories gained – calories expended divided by time. We are hard wired to want the “good deal” maximum benefit for minimum effort. If we understand this, then we can properly work with the current health problems we face. On a simple, personal level, if you want to lose weight, make those calorie dense foods hard to obtain (increase the calories expended to get them), even the smallest barrier such as putting treats on a high shelf to increase the effort needed to obtain these calories. On a public health level, if we increase the barriers to unhealthful foods, perhaps like smoking, it will make eating them too expensive (literally) and we will see a decline in diseases caused by eating excessive junk food. The cost of food today is too low. We have unrestricted access to calories. Given the way we are hard-wired, this is wreaking havoc on our health. Consider that these are the top six sources of calories in the US Diet:

  • Grain based desserts
  • Bread
  • Chicken dishes (Fried)
  • Sugar water (soda, energy drinks)
  • Pizza
  • Alcohol

No wonder the American microbiota are starving!

Do you really need a Vitamin D supplement?

Chris Masterjohn helped us understand the pathways in our bodies that use Vitamin D and how low levels of 25 (OH) D do not always mean a Vitamin D deficiency. It is important to also look at Parathyroid Hormone levels.

 

Where’s the conversation about regenerative agriculture?

One audience member did ask. During the panel discussion with Robb Wolf, Chris Masterjohn, Chris Kresser and Stephan Guyanet, a woman asked if they believed the paleo diet was sustainable. She was a former vegan (as many in the crowd–even Robb Wolf–were) and received criticism from her friends that eating meat is not sustainable. The conversation went quickly to that narrow place where water consumption is compared between crops and food items. Robb did say that row crops are unsustainable because of the top soil they errode. He quoted Allan Savory in saying that our top agricultural export is top soil. The meat vs. veggies debate/conversation totally misses the point. And from a panel of otherwise whole-system thinkers, I am surprised this wasn’t mentioned.

The truth is we must produce food from regenerating soils for any of this to matter. Any of it. If we are seeking nutrient-dense food but mining land to get it, we are not sustainable. So it is a short-term conversation at best. If we want to feed our gut micobiome the food it recognizes and evolved with, we must manage the land food comes from with equal awareness. This means recognizing that soil, plants and animals evolved together. It really doesn’t matter if you are eating the plant or the animal as long as both are able to play their role in the ecosystem that is regenerating. And folks, they need each other. If we want health, and everyone in that sold-out symposium sought health so deeply that they changed their lives, jobs, location (and heck, even spent a Saturday in a lecture hall) to get it, we must invest in regenerative agriculture. Next year, I hope this topic gets it’s rightful place in the spotlight.