You Are What You Eat Eats, Too


Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

In my recent post explaining the rationale for why we are what we eat, I promised I would follow up with a post explaining why we are what we eat eats, too.  Here it is, my friends!

In his book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” investigative journalist and author Michael Pollan (one of my role models!) writes that not only we are what we eat, but we are what we eat eats, too.

It is a bit of an awkward phrase, but it is something we too often forget these days with a food culture that allows us to forget where and how our food is produced.  What this phrase really means is that when we eat food, we are literally eating the products of the diet that these plants and animals had throughout their lives. Let me explain further.

Plants (Fruits, vegetables, and grains):
Take a moment to picture a tomato plant with roots reaching down into the soil and it’s leaves happily soaking up the sun. This tomato plant uses this sunlight to create energy that is then used inside the plant to help it’s roots soak up nutrients and other substances from the soil.  These nutrients and other substances from the soil are used by the plant to form the very structure of the plant—including that juicy, red tomato. Therefore, when you eat this tomato, you are eating the nutrients and substances that once was part of the soil, which are absorbed through your digestive system and become part of you! Crazy, right? The same goes for all other plants—the grains that make the bread in your sandwich and the lettuce in your salad.

Animals (Animal flesh and animal products):
We can follow the same rationale for animals and animal products, only it is a little bit more complicated. Much like the fact that humans are what humans eat, a cow is what a cow eats and a chicken is what a chicken eats. As mentioned before, plants are made out of the nutrients and substances that once were in the soil. These plants are eaten by animals and form the structures of the animal’s bodies (i.e. muscles, fat, or organs) or the products that their bodies make (i.e. milk or eggs); therefore, when we eat the animal or its products, we are eating what the animal ate, which then forms the very structure of our own bodies. This means, for example, that when we eat beef, we are inheriting the diet of the cow which that beef came from.

I realize that I have slightly over-simplified the food chain and nutrient cycling, but hope this helps you understand that you eat what you eat eats! This fact highlights how important it is that we think about where our food comes from and how it is raised or grown. I hope my words have helped you see that the way your food is produced can, in fact, have an impact on your health.

There is a lot of current debate about where you should get your food from and what it should say on the label. But here is my evidence-based, health-focused opinion: Due to the facts that (1) we are what we eat, (2) we are what we eat eats, and (3) wild plants and animals, grass-fed animals, and organically produced plants and animals come from richer, healthier soils, we should eat plants and animals that are organic, wild, or grass-fed when we can (when it is available and we have the funds to purchase it).

Because these organic, grass-fed, or wild foods are produced from higher quality, nutrient-rich soils, it only makes sense that studies have found these foods to be generally richer in naturally occurring nutrients.  Here are some findings from the current research on this topic that support my point:

  • Hundreds of recent studies have found that organically grown plants have substantially higher levels of antioxidants.
  • Some studies have found higher levels of certain minerals and vitamins in organic produce.
  • Grass-fed beef and poultry are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised poultry (due to the availability of fresh forage in the diet).
  • Many recent studies have found that organic dairy products have significantly higher quantities of protein and an overall healthier fatty acid profile, with one study finding up to 62% more omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk than conventional milk.
  • Organic farming practices reduce human’s exposure to pesticides, pathogens (including antibiotic-resistant pathogens), and heavy metals.

There are so many more factors and important issues surrounding this question of where our food comes from and how it impacts our health than what I have written about here. The current state of our food system not only directly impacts our health, but human and animal rights, economics, as well as the sustainability of the earth.  I have just barely touched the surface here; however, I will continue to touch on these topics in the future because I believe fixing our broken food system in the U.S. will be one of the biggest factors in healing our nation’s health in the coming years.


Because this is such an important topic, there is a lot of great content already out there from people with careers and degrees focused on these topics. I have listed some of the content here that I’m aware of for you to check out if you’re interested!

Michael Pollan is a professor, investigative journalist, and author about food, nature, culture, the environment, health, and much more.  Check out his website, which includes his many books and articles (all are worth the read!) plus other great resources.

Marion Nestle is a professor and an author whose work focuses on the politics associated with our food system.  Check out her page for resources and links to her books and other work she has done.

Civil Eats is a great daily news source on the U.S. food system.

The Lunch Tray is a blog/website of a writer/mom who posts current, insightful articles on food.

Sustainable Table is a website packed with resources and information on sustainably produced food.

Slow Food USA is a grassroots movement focused on the culture, joy, and pleasure in food while also protecting the environment.

100 Days of Real Food is one of my favorite blogs with great recipes and thought-provoking articles on the food system.


Here are some resources to help you select and cook the best food possible.

Eat Wild lists local suppliers for grass-fed meat and dairy products.

Eat Well has a directory of sustainably-raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs.

Organic Consumers Association promotes the interests of organic consumers and is a great source for all things organic.

Cooperative Grocer is a comprehensive directory of food co-ops.

Culinate is a fun site with recipes, articles, and links on sustainable cooking.

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service provides a listing of farmers’ markets all across the U.S.

Fix.com provides an awesome guide to choosing seafood that’s sustainable and better for our bodies.

Local Harvest allows you to search for CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) locations and farmers’ markets near you.


AND finally, here is a list of books I recommend if you feel like curling up with an informational, yet inspiring book.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World by Joel Salatin

Fat Profits by Bruce Bradley

The Onmivore’s Delimma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle

Where am I Eating: An Adventure Through the Global Food Economy by Kelsey Timmerman

The World According to Monsanto by Marie-Monique Robin

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser

Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection by Catherine Price

 

References:

1. Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (New York: Penguin, 2006).

2. Hunger and Environmental Nutrition dietetic practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Organic Talking Points,” September, 2014.

 

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