Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom
By Fred Provenza
Chelsea Green Publishing
For every book I review, I read two, three and sometimes four other titles (or start to read them and quickly realize that they are not going to make the cut). So, when I praise the books that make it into Wise Traditions, it is for good reason. Nourishment came along as a surprise entry, a last-minute substitution for another book with a delayed release. I wondered whether I could navigate such a massive tome (almost four hundred pages) in just a week. Thankfully, Fred Provenza had me fascinated right from the start and until the very end—to the extent that I spent more time reading this dense but engaging text than I thought I had available.
Provenza states up front that while dining conjures up images of plants and animals nicely arranged on platters and served in fine restaurants…“eating is participating in endless transformation as plants and animals are grown, killed, cooked and consumed. As I eat, the energy and matter in plants and animals become this entity I call ‛me’—which will in the flicker of a cosmic eye return to plants and animals. Every act of eating is an act of creating.”
With this philosophical orientation laid out, Provenza’s thesis is simple: Is there such a thing as animal and human nutritional wisdom, and if so, what has happened to it? Why do animals and people eat the way they do, and why do we no longer eat properly? As the data show, we have lost our nutritional way, and many of the available guides and guidebooks are not helping us recover it or our health. Provenza states, “Many scientists don’t believe humans have nutritional wisdom. They cite as evidence the obesity crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projects that 70 percent of people in the United States today will die of diet-related diseases. Humans ostensibly can’t do what wild or free- ranging domestic herbivores do without a bit of advice from dieticians. Perhaps that’s why some people write—and other people read—an endless stream of articles and books that tell us what and how to eat to stay well.” Provenza asks, “Have we become so maladapted culturally that we no longer know how to enable the nutritional wisdom that resides within our bodies or those of the animals we care for? Can herbivores help us rediscover nutritional wisdom?” Nourishment seeks to help us find our place once again in relation to plants, animals and planet.
This isn’t your typical book but rather a well-organized series of essays—filled with stories, research, observations and anecdotes that touch on many similar themes. Each essay ties back to the book’s main thrust: Can we relearn how to manage our nutritional needs and understand what disrupts our ability to care for ourselves by studying how herbivores manage (or don’t manage) their nutritional needs?
Provenza repeatedly highlights the role that artificial foods and isolated supplements play in disrupting our ability to learn to feed and care for ourselves. Why do we give domesticated animals various supplements in varying quantities, when the animals’ ancestors instinctively consumed an optimal diet with no supplements needed? Why do animals avoid consuming nutrient-rich, juvenile plants, instead often preferring older, less nutrient-dense forage? Why are our modern foods so much less flavorful, and therefore less favored when we open the fridge? Provenza observes that after “the food industry learned how to combine synthetic flavors with fats and refined carbohydrates,” the resulting flavor differences became “distinct enough to give consumers a false sense of variety, which stimulates food intake, despite the genuine nutritional monotony.”
Nourishment seeks to interact with these and dozens of other important questions again and again across its pages. Perhaps some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with the relationship between behavior and nutritional deficiencies. Provenza points out, “Noted nutritionist E.V. McCollum showed that changes in diet invoke compensatory behavioral responses, a demonstration of Cannon’s concept of ’the wisdom of the body.’ This wisdom in animals in now well studied and established, albeit not always obeyed by those who raise them.” In animals, this results in surprising behavior, especially among so-called herbivores. For example, “In the wild, sheep, caribou, and red deer rectify deficits by eating lemmings, rabbits, and birds—live or dead; sheep eat arctic terns and ptarmigan eggs, white tailed deer dine on fish; and deer gnaw antlers.” Perhaps a better classification for many of these animals would be “opportunistic omnivores”? When it comes to food choices, nutritional need is king.
This isn’t just an issue for animals. As Dr. Weston Price pointed out, nutrient deficiencies have an often deleterious impact on people’s behavior as well. Conversely, Provenza includes a number of beautiful and informative examples of traditional wisdom at work. Just as animals take care in selecting foods to deal with antinutrients, when given the opportunity to develop nutritional wisdom, humans do the same. Provenza cites the example of cassava: “With cassava we come full circle ecologically, economically, and culturally. . . . Through the development of a cultural practice—the wetting method—women reduced cyanide to safe levels. Such social rituals around food gathering and cooking to decrease secondary compounds and increase digestibility of fiber, now rare in cultures, were once the norm.” (See the article on proper preparation of cassava in the Winter 2017 issue of Wise Traditions.)
Provenza’s book wanders far and wide in unpacking its main focus. Primary topics such as the relationship between how the primary and secondary compounds in animal forage affect animals’ food choices give way to a discussion of how organ transplant recipients’ food preferences shift post-surgery—the donor literally lives on in the recipient’s altered dietary preferences! What does all this mean for us? Well, a helpful first step is to grasp the fact that the food industry understands us better than we do but uses that knowledge for ill. As Provenza states, “The food industry takes advantage of our propensity to generalize from past experience to train people to eat artificially flavored foods with equally toxic, though long-delayed aversive effects.” He again makes the point that the food industry has cleverly masked the “nutritional sameness” of man-made foods through the use of “a multitude of synthetic flavors with feedback from energy rich fats and carbohydrates”—all of which “stimulates appetite intake.”
These questions lead to additional questions about how we raise our food, what we offer our animals as food, what we eat ourselves and our relationship to the ecosystems that sustain all parties involved. Several thought-provoking questions stood out for me. For example, do most supplements cause people not only not seek the foods that contain needed nutrients in their proper forms (with all their cofactors and other supporting compounds) but at the same time cause double trouble by actually being harmful and often unnecessary? Second, by building our animal ag system around the constant relocation of animals from ecosystem to ecosystem and farm to farm, are we deleteriously shaping their ability to learn and pass on nutritional wisdom, thereby decreasing their health and increasing costs? Third, by medicating animals, do we alter their eating habits and reduce or remove their ability to learn to self-medicate via the diverse plants and forages that healthy landscapes provide? What if one reason “forest medicine” benefits people so much is because we take in the forest while we are there—the secondary compounds, microbes and a host of other things—and they become part of us, healing us from the inside? Finally, instead of fences and forced movements, could farmers and ranchers learn to use various animals’ innate social instincts in organization to create “rotational grazing without fencing”? If you are a farmer, foodie or thinker, I don’t think you will walk away from Nourishment disappointed, nor without having learned a great many useful things and having even more to think about. While you may not agree with everything in such a long work, you will be well rewarded by engaging with the depth of wisdom, knowledge and experience that Provenza shares in the book’s pages. Two thumbs up.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2018.