These days, almost any store that sells food also offers a large selection of pills, extracts, powders, and other combinations that are neither medications nor food. Marketed as dietary supplements, the sheer variety of these compounds, while perhaps intimidating, often rivals that seen at nineteenth-century fairgrounds in the United States. Generally speaking, they contain substances that may be extracted from plants and food (or maybe not), they are perhaps concentrated to a certain degree, and they purport to address dietary and physiological deficiencies. Or they may have some form of nonspecific therapeutic effect that is due to their special processing.
There seems to be a great need both to identify what is missing from what we eat (and, to a larger extent, what is missing from our lives in general) and to employ the most recent discoveries in bioscience to drive that investigative journey (to say nothing of attempts to profit from those discoveries, which is a whole other story). We are learning more and more details about our physiology almost daily, and it is exciting to think that the latest advances represent a potent and effective way to help us feel better, more whole, more comfortable.
Of course, this is usually not the case. It takes years to develop a framework and context for any discovery and, even then, effective therapy may never materialize. Additionally, as we have seen with the Western dietâ€™s heavy reliance on highly processed, nutritionally reenriched foods, it can be problematic to translate laboratory science into safe and healthy ways to feed ourselves. Our food is not cheaper, cannot seem to be produced sustainably, and certainly has not succeeded in making us healthier (or even keeping us as healthy as our parents).
So back in the food store, are supplements that are primarily made from combinations of isolated chemicals really the key to enriching our lives? Can they truly correct the deficit that is making us feel tired, unfocused, sad, empty? After observing the growth in this market over the last twenty years, we might be tempted to answer, â€œMaybe, but only until the next thing comes along.â€ To me, this is troubling and indicates that we may never understand what promotes â€œwellnessâ€ by pursuing this approach.
How, then, do we get there? Certainly, at baseline, we have to begin by eating real food. There is a growing consensus on this point. In Vermont, where I write as summer begins, farmersâ€™ markets and restaurants bring us real vegetables, meats, eggs, milk, grains, breads, and more every day. This makes it easy, as Michael Pollan asks us, to â€œeat food, not too much, mostly plants.â€ This is actually happening all over the United States, and the rebuilding of a whole-food cuisine is helping to improve not only our health, but also our culture, our community, and our environment.
But perhaps this is not quite enough, because it seems that the stores selling the most of this whole, local food also have the largest sections devoted to supplements. As we think about creating a new Western diet, we might need to identify whether or not there are any specific components, other than whole sources of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, that are essential to the healthy functioning of our physiology. Admittedly, this is what nutrition science and the supplement industry are trying to doâ€”but I am skeptical that they will ultimately succeed in a comprehensive way.
What might we be missing, and could we add it to our lives in the context of a whole-food, local, sustainable diet? This is the central question of this book. And the answer will turn out to be surprisingly simple, because all traditional cuisines and healing systems have laid it out for us: consume certain kinds of plants, every day or almost every day, sometimes less, sometimes more, as part of your eating and drinking. To be more specific, I will try to define three simple classes of plants that can easily be added to whole-food diets as part of daily life, but that can also be employed in more directed ways for safe, understandable, and effective preventive health. In the end, we may find that a less complex approach to reaching wellness actually turns out to work better……………….