Caution: Eating (Anything) is Hazardous to Your Health

As some of you know, I listen to a lot of podcasts (they make me smart and informed and occasionally a little flabbergasted).  Recently, Tony Federico of Paleo Magazine Radio attended the Ancestral Health Symposium at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  It sounded like a great conference and I was very glad he attended and was able to broadcast some of his conversations with a lot of the people at the forefront of this discipline. (I even enjoyed the Pokemon Go report- lol!)

One of the most recent talks he recorded covered a topic that really knocked me for a loop: it was the idea that plants were not intended to be part of the human diet (PMR #139).  Let me say that again a different way: humans are not made to eat plants.  My initial reaction: ?!WTF?!  Really.  I think this qualifies as news to every vegetarian I’ve ever met (including my sister) as well as the books I’ve read on the topic that point out that obligate carnivores (like cats) have a much shorter digestive tract than opportunistic omnivores (like humans) because decaying animal matter (the mouse the cat ate) needs to be metabolized and eliminated from the body a lot faster than decomposing plant matter (like the broccoli you ate for dinner) which is why the human digestive tract is so much longer.  It’s also why cows have four stomachs and chew cud; it takes a long time to break down grass and extract its nutrients, hence the longer digestive tract in plant-eating animals.

However, these speakers (J. Brett Smith, Guillermo Ruiz, L. Amber O’Hearn, Nick Mailer, Esther Nederhof and George Diggs) had some interesting points of view and in the interests of fairness, I listened with an open mind (or tried to anyway) and I really have to credit Tony for doing the same.  I think they reminded most people of some very basic facts about plants, but I also think they started with a faulty premise.  They seemed to think that people believe that plants want to be eaten.  I really don’t know where this idea came from but this was their starting point.  I think it may have come from the idea that since plants are quite literally rooted to the spot, in order to broadcast their seeds, they usually house them in something that an animal will ingest and pass the seeds, which will then take root where they are deposited.  Think eating a cherry and spitting out the pit. Ideally, a new cherry tree will grow wherever that pit lands.  Humans, animals and birds have done this since the beginning of time.  Scientists think it’s why fruit evolved: to house the seeds which then get spread by unsuspecting animals like us.

However, the point was made that plants, which don’t have feet to run or teeth and claws to defend themselves, have evolved toxins to defend themselves against ingestion.  These toxins are their evidence that the plants are not made to be eaten.  You all know I’m certainly no botanist (if my house plants are still alive by the time I post this, it’s a miracle!) but I am very much aware that certain plants are toxic. I make a point of checking out any plant I bring into my house because my little rugrats might eat it!  My friend has oleanders in her yard, which are highly toxic, but my dog doesn’t eat them and I am careful to remove any of the sticky leaves from his fur.  Frankly, we eat some parts of plants that are very toxic, like tomatoes, which are nightshades.  I know people say that you can actually eat tomato leaves, but I wouldn’t.  Some people are very sensitive to nightshades (which also include chiles, FYI).  The same is true for things like rhubarb.  Some parts of the plant are not edible and others are.  Really, I love cherries, but I sure don’t want to gnaw on a twig or the leaves, and as much as I love potatoes (another nightshade), I won’t be chewing on those leaves any time soon!  These experts concluded that plants have various and sometimes vigorous defense mechanisms which are obvious evidence that they did not intend to be eaten.

I think that’s a great point.  Really, I do.  So, I guess that means humans are only supposed to eat those things that want to be eaten.  Great!!  Tell me what those things are and I will gladly eat them!  How about that cow?  The one with the horns and hooves that runs away or tramples me?  (If any of you think a cow is not a dangerous animal, try getting between a mama cow and her calf- NOT FUN!)  What about that pig with the big teeth? Or how about that fish that keeps swimming away from me? That rabbit I can’t catch?  Frankly, people, NOTHING on this planet wants to be eaten! As I heard Robb Wolf say in one podcast (Paleo Solution UCSF Evolutionary Medicine talk), anything that doesn’t run away or defend itself is known as a “snack!” And that includes us humans!  We certainly neither intend nor want to be eaten any more than the rabbit or the rhubarb but the truth of the matter is that we are just one more link in the food chain.  We eat the plants and the rabbits and the cows and other predators like lions, bears, and sharks eat us!  If we don’t run away or defend ourselves, we end up as lion chow!  (Didn’t any of these people watch Zoo this summer?  Yeah, it’s fiction, but frankly that cow looked mightily p*ssed off when I got too close to her calf!)

“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”~ Hamlet

This is a fact of life: you are either the predator or the prey.  You eat others or are eaten by others, and that includes plants.  This is part of the circle of life (my apologies for the Lion King song stuck in your head now), but it’s the truth. This is true even among the plant world.  What do you think plants ingest through their roots?  They ingest the remains of other plants and animals!  When anything dies, its body decomposes and is taken in by plants through the roots and becomes a part of that plant and anything it produces, like a tomato or a peach, which is then eaten by an animal.  Where do you think we get expressions like “pushing up daisies?” A coyote dies on the prairie and becomes part of the compost, which fertilizes the grass, which is eaten by a bison, which is eaten by a human.  Everything on this planet is recycled in some form or another, from water to nutrients and minerals.  Nothing wants to be eaten, but this is how life perpetuates itself.

I think these experts make some interesting points when it comes to whether humans should be eating plants, but I think the fact is that humans are opportunistic omnivores, much like a Queensland mix I had many years ago.  That dog ate several things that by all rights should have made her sick, but they didn’t.  I used to call her the “shark” because if she ate it and it stayed down, it’s FOOD!  (If it came back up, NOT FOOD!) We pretty much follow the same guidelines: if we eat it and it doesn’t make us sick, then it’s food and the rest of the tribe will also learn to eat it.  Even though we are thousands of years removed from the Paleo hunter gatherers we used to be, most of us learned what to eat the same way as babies: mom or dad gave us something to eat and if we liked it and it didn’t make us sick, we ate it over and over again.  It became part of our regular diet.  Things we didn’t like or made us sick, we learned not to eat.  This is true with plants (I really do not like arugula and don’t eat it) and it’s true with animals (my dad hates lamb and won’t even let me cook it at his house).  I think if plants were really so indigestible for humans, we wouldn’t still be eating them but I think these speakers make a good point. The fact that  so many people have digestive problems with corn, soy, peanut and gluten (wheat) could be an indication that maybe humans shouldn’t be eating those things.  (They are not part of the Paleo diet FYI.) I personally don’t have problems eating any of those things, and they actually make up a big part of my sister’s vegetarian diet with no problems, but I did notice that my arthritis is much better now that I’m not eating the corn and wheat.

While I admit my first inclination is to think these speakers were nuttier than peanut brittle, I think they do have some good points regarding our evolving eating habits.  We definitely need to pay more attention to what we are eating and any nutritional value we gain from it, but honestly, there is nothing on the planet that wants to be eaten.  It’s why bulls have horns, roses have thorns and rabbits run away.  Eat or be eaten is the law of the jungle and humans are not exempt from it.  Either we eat something else or we are eaten ourselves.