Moving Away From Leaves for Seeds
Diets favouring seeds, like the wheat found in bread, is typical in the modern world.
Before the emergence of the so-called Western diet and the large-scale industrialisation of our food production, both of which are penetrating even some of the most remote parts of emerging economies, we tended to eat more leaves and fewer seeds.
And the seeds we did eat were left relatively unrefined, so they were still packed with nutrients and fibre.
Moving to the city, though, shifted how we used plants – our main source of nutrients – and not necessarily for the better. The leaves of plants (think: spinach) spoil a lot faster, and are more easily damaged through handling and shipping, than seeds (think: wheat or mealie kernels).
Since we city folk need food to travel further, last longer on the shelves and be able to withstand more abuse along the journey from field to fusilli, we have moved away from leaves and started eating a lot more seeds.
We have also started feeding our cows, sheep and chickens more grains, over grasses.
This is acceptable if you want to make sure that the city keeps its belly full. But it does not necessarily mean it keeps the city well nourished.
Omega 3s and Omega 6s
One of the implications of shifting away from leaves in favour of seeds – particularly as our seeds go through more and more refining processes – is that we are replacing nutrients with often empty calories. And here is just one example of how our greater distance from our source of food, and our shift to seeds, is making as fat and sick.
The leaves of plants are packed with nutrients in different shapes and forms, including the group that is known as the omega-3 fatty acids. Plant leaves produce lots of O-3s to allow the cogs of photosynthesis to turn. Seeds, on the other hand, are packed with more of the other essential fatty acids we talk about so much, omega-6s, and this is where the plant banks away its energy stores.
These two types of polyunsaturated fats perform very different functions in the plant as well as the plant eater. Our bodies cannot produce any of these fatty acids, so we are entirely dependent on plants as the headwaters of these fats, which then trickle down through the entire food chain.
O-3s drive our neurological development and processing as well as our ‘visual acuity, the permeability of cell walls, the metabolism of glucose, and the calming of inflammation. O-6s, on the other hand, store fat, keep cell walls rigid, help with clotting and drive the inflammation response.
The Ratio Between O-3s and O-6s
Women making bread to sell in the Northern Cape.
It seems the ratio between omega-3s and omega-6s in the diet might be more important than the absolute quantity of either fat. Too much omega-6 may be just as much a problem as too little omega-3, and, if we get the ratio of O-6s to O-3s wrong, we increase our risk of heart disease dramatically. The ratio of O-6s to O-3s in the typical American today stands at more than 10 to 1, whereas a hundred years ago it was more like 3 to 1. But it is this very omega-3 in the leaves of plants that makes them perish so quickly, because it oxidises fast, compared with omega-6s, which last longer.
This has driven the modern food industry to select plant varieties that are higher in O-6s than O-3s, so they can get a longer shelf life out of their commodities. That is also why these plants are processed in such a way that the more perishable O-3s are stripped away. Modern wheat refining shreds away the bran (with its high fibre) and the germ, which is the really wholesome part of the seed (it is loaded with protein, O-3s, vitamin B, carotene and the like) but is packed with volatile oils which make it go off easily. With the O-3s and nutrients stripped away, what is left is an organically more stable but less nutritious endosperm where much of the seed’s protein and starch are stored.
Rather Fat Than Hungry
The result of stripping away perishable O-3s is refined foods with a long shelf life but not necessarily that much else. So the processed foods we consumers are taking off most supermarket shelves may be giving us some of the main macronutrients (some fat, protein and carbohydrates), and filling us up in the process, but they are not giving us the micronutrients we need. There are plenty of calories, but not much substance. So we are getting more energy than we can burn off, and yet we are withering away from a nutritional perspective.
Another important point, linked to why this diet could be implicated in making us so much fatter, has to do with the fact that omega-3s boost cell metabolism. They allow the body to draw glucose from the blood faster, helping us to use energy more quickly, which keeps us slimmer. Omega-6s do not. A faster metabolism increases the need for food and therefore the possibility for hunger, which is a much less agreeable condition than being over-weight. You cannot really be more succinct than that: we would rather be fat than hungry.
By Leonie Joubert