There’s something inside all of us that wishes we could get back to our roots - that we could eat the way our ancestors did. We know that eating whole foods from the earth would fill us with energy, vitality, and happiness the way no bag of chips, bowl of ice cream, or fast food ‘happy meal’ could do.
Our ancestors did not experience the “civilization diseases'' we do in modern, westernized societies. Chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, and many others were rare if not non-existent. And this is not to mention our severely increased rates of mental illness such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar.
Our diets play a major role in these physical and mental ailments that affect so many of us these days. (1),(2) Research shows a direct correlation between the westernized, modern diet and our “civilization diseases”. (3) There is also a great deal of evidence to show that our health, especially that of our gut, has a direct impact on the health of our brain.(8)
In our modern society, we are fortunate enough to have solutions to many infectious diseases that we once had no cure for, as well as access to surgeries that can save our lives. While westernized medicine has been largely responsible for these miraculous interventions over the last hundred years, not much can be said for the overall physical and mental well-being that has resulted in large part due to our westernized diet.
To understand the impact of diet on our physical and mental health, it is important to look at how our priorities as a society have changed over the last 60 years.
While our value for flavor, convenience, and saving time have all gone up over the last several decades, our value of quality, whole nutrition has not - at least generally.
“In 1960, Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food and 5.2 percent…on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped: Spending on food has fallen to 9.9 percent, while spending on health care has climbed to 16 percent of national income.” - In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan (3)
While infectious diseases were once at the top of the list for human deaths in the 20th century, we now experience diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer as the major causes of death in the 21st century. (1)
We need vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to keep every single one of the systems in our body functioning properly. If we do not, things go awry. In America, many of us unfortunately are not getting all of the micronutrients we need to support a thriving and abundant state of health.
Did you know as much as 23% of people in the U.S. are low in vitamin C? (4) Vitamin C is crucial for the production of energy, repairing of body tissues and organs, the assimilation of iron, brain development, and much more. If we are low in Vitamin C, it can result in issues with hair, skin, fatigue, depression, and more.
Did you also know that as much as 75% of Americans are not meeting their recommended daily intake of magnesium? (5) What can result from low levels of magnesium? Mental health disorders, weak bones, fatigue, high blood pressure, and even jumpiness and a sensitive startle reflex.
One of the greatest factors we tend to overlook is that the phrase “You are what you eat” is not accurate. Rather, you are what you absorb. Issues with digestion and nutrient absorption cause many health problems, physical and mental.
Unfortunately, our westernized diet tends to be high in inflammatory foods, which can cause issues with absorption of nutrients. Inflammatory foods including dairy, processed sugar, gluten, artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated vegetable oils, preservatives, and more. These can all cause digestive issues and malabsorption.
One in five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness.(7)
Diet has a significant impact on mental health. The correlation between mental illness and nutrition becomes clear when you consider the impact that inflammatory foods have on digestion, and in turn the correlation between poor digestion and mental illness.(9)
Digestion takes place in the gut - home to our stomach, intestines, and colon. These organs contain what is called the ‘gut microbiome’ - an ecosystem of over 100 trillion bacteria. If our gut microbiome is lacking good bacteria and overwhelmed by bad bacteria, mold, or fungus, then we will not properly absorb nutrients.
Inflammatory foods disrupt the bacteria in our gut, leading to decreases in good bacteria and increases in bad bacteria. We rely heavily upon gut bacteria for our assimilation of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters.
Contrary to popular knowledge, our gut - not our brain - produces about 90% of the serotonin used by our body.(6) This is one of the main neurotransmitters involved in regulating mood. When we do not properly metabolize serotonin, this can lead to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
Without a balance of gut bacteria, we can suffer low levels of many neurotransmitters, including serotonin.
Our gut is also responsible for producing many hormones. Hormones, as most of us know, are the chemicals involved in regulating our emotions.
Our gut also holds a vast majority of our immune cells. If our immune system is constantly under attack from inflammatory foods and toxins, and lacks the vitamins and minerals necessary for proper functioning, this can put our body and brain in a constant state of high alert. This is correlated with anxiety and other mental health disorders.
Our modern, westernized diet is high in inflammatory foods and low in beneficial, nutrient-dense foods like fruits and veggies. If we could change this, we might see a major decrease in mental illness, and an increase in our energy, focus, and overall well-being.
We can minimize our risk of disease and mental illness by getting back to our roots.
The key is to change our nutrition. We need to modify our decisions to include more whole foods and an abundance of plant foods, especially fruits and vegetables, to make our diet more like it once was thousands of years ago - to get back in touch with the earth and our place in it.
Civilization diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmune, and many others are rare or absent in hunter-gatherer and other non-westernized populations. (1)
In 1982, a research study was done involving 10 middle-aged, overweight, and diabetic Aborigines living in Western Australia. These 10 Aborigines had left their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle and culture 10 years previously, replacing their traditional, natural diet with a standard westernized diet that included fast food, refined carbs, bad fats, soda, and beer.
All ten men had developed type 2 diabetes and showed signs of insulin resistance and risk factors for heart disease.
For this study, these men agreed to spend 7 weeks back in “the bush”, leading their native hunter-gatherer lifestyle. During these 7 weeks, they would live off the land and be observed and tested for changes in health. They would subsist on seafood, turtle, crocodile, bird, kangaroo, yams, figs, wild bush honey, and fatty larvae of a local insect.
After seven weeks in the bush, the Aborigines had lost an average of 17.9 lbs and their blood pressure had dropped. In addition, all of their triglyceride levels had fallen to a normal range and all metabolic issues related to type II diabetes had either significantly improved or completely disappeared.
Seven weeks living off the land is all it took for these ten men to overcome their symptoms of Type II Diabetes and their risk factors for heart disease.(3)
It’s incredible what eating natural food from the earth can do for our bodies.
While we often subscribe to the modernized philosophies of nutritionism - reducing complex and ancient foods down to specific components - food isn’t as simple as that.
Food is founded on tradition. It’s founded on a relationship that has been around for millions of years - the relationship between us and the earth. Such a complex and ancient relationship can hardly be reduced down to biological components.
When we eat fruits and vegetables, in a sense we become “at one” with the earth. Fruits and vegetables strengthen our mind and body, leading to a happier life and more capacity to do the things we want to do. Fruits and vegetables are the medicine of the earth - they’ve been there since before we came around, and they are here to help us.
So do what your mother told you - eat your fruits and vegetables. Your fitness, performance, energy, and mood will thank you.
The larger variety of plants you get in your diet the better off you will be. One of the reasons for this is that all of the different fibers and micronutrients in fruits and veggies feed different types of good bacteria in your gut, and these bacteria impact literally every system in your body! Read more about this in our article The American Gut Project: Why You Should Eat 30+ Different Plants Per Week.
So your mom was right. Fruits and veggies are one of the number one things that will make you big and strong.