From Leaves to Seeds

What We Eat – November 2010

By Heather Donley

That a plant-based diet is a healthy way of eating is one point most nutritionists agree on.  Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, endorses this same advice in his short answer to what he says is “the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.”  In summary, he suggests, “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  As I plan my meals for each coming week, I take his information to heart, especially the eating food part, which requires avoiding the countless food products offered in the supermarket and instead making more from scratch.  I could definitely improve on the not too much rule.  This takes willpower on my end and some attention to just how much food a body of my type and age requires.  But, mostly plants is the one piece of advice that’s on my mind lately and in a big way.  As a result, my weekly meal planning has included more and more vegetarian cuisine, which has meant excluding meat, poultry, and fish.  Typically, I prepare dishes that use whole grains, numerous colorful vegetables, eggs, and of course cheese.  And while this all sounds fabulously nutritious, Michael Pollan got me thinking that I could take it one step further.  Yet, if a plant-based diet is regarded as the utmost healthy diet, what could be healthier?

It seems that not all plants are created equal, some deserving more room on our plate than others.  Michael Pollan qualifies his mostly plants rule by advising us to focus more of our attention on leaves rather than on seeds or grains.  In fact, he states that “the shift from a food chain with green plants at its base to one based on seeds may be the most far reaching of all” the changes to our food system.  Most nutritional scientists focus on different nutrients, citing, for example, too many refined carbohydrates or too many bad fats as the source of the problem of modern diets.  Yet, Pollan argues that it may well be this single ecological change from leaves to seeds that is at the root of all of these biochemical changes.  So, just what are the ramifications of changing from a leaf-based diet to one of seeds?

The shift from leaves to seeds has had extensive effects on the modern diet, accounting for the drought of many micronutrients, the increase in total calories, and the flood of refined carbohydrates.  First of all, leaves provide numerous important nutrients a body simply cannot obtain from a diet of refined seeds (think breakfast cereals, hot dog buns, and pizza crust). For example, antioxidants, phytochemicals such as beta-carotene, fiber, and essential nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids can all be acquired from a diet rich in leaves.  Many studies support a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, which has shown to reduce the risk of dying from all Western diseases, supporting the notion that an undersupply of vitamins, minerals, and other compounds known as micronutrients may be just as serious a threat as an oversupply of macronutrients defined as carbohydrates, fats, and protein.  Plant foods, not including seeds, are less energy dense than most of the other foods we eat, so that a plant-based diet allows us to consume fewer calories, which provides protection from many chronic diseases.  In addition, the eating of refined seeds in products such as crackers, chips, pasta, and baked goods has become commonplace, leading us into further trouble when we eat them to the exclusion of the rest of the plant.

This change in diet, though, not only applies to us but also to the animals we’re eating, for their feed now comes primarily from grains.  For example, when ready for finishing, typical beef cattle are fed a diet that is 85% grain.  Keeping in mind that you are what you eat eats, too, means that in eating grain-fed beef, pigs, and chickens, in addition to eating the products that come from them such as cheese, eggs, and milk, we’re also consuming more grain, as well, and in turn less leaves.

While eating plants doesn’t seem like new dietary news (and it isn’t), the shift from leaves to seeds in the modern diet is one change that apparently needs careful evaluation, in light of the possible harm we might be doing to our bodies.  According to the USDA Food Pyramid, the recommended number of daily servings of vegetables is 3-5, which can be fulfilled by eating 3-5 cups of raw leafy vegetables.  A 2005 report from the CDC stated that only 27.2% of adults consumed vegetables 3 or more times per day, which indicates that adults are, in fact, eating a whole lot from the other food groups (could it be the grains?).  So, I for one would like to do better and follow Michael Pollan’s advice to “Eat food. Not too much,” and focus heavily on “Mostly plants.”  Eating more vegetables is just good, healthy advice, so why not?

Tabouleh, What We Eat, Gallup JourneyTabouleh
Servings: 3-4

Ingredients:
4 bunches of Italian Parsley (Go leaves!)
3 ripe tomatoes
1 medium yellow onion
salt and pepper
1 tsp. seven spices
juice of 3 lemons
2-3 tbsp. olive oil

Directions:
1.     Dice tomatoes into ½ inch pieces or smaller, and put into a medium bowl.
2.     Finely mince the onion, and add to the tomatoes.
3.     Salt and pepper the tomatoes and onions.  Add the seven spices.
4.     Finely chop the parsley, the smaller the better.  You should not be able to recognize whole leaves or stems.  Rinse parsley several times using a strainer.   Drain well, and add to the bowl.
5.     Pour in the lemon juice and olive oil.  Toss well.  Add more salt and pepper if needed.
6.     Chill and enjoy!

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