Your life depends on nutrients. The seven major groups of nutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and water. They are all essential to keeping you alive and functioning on a day-to-day basis. However, modern processed diets tend to be rich in carbohydrates and fats, essentially empty energy, while being disproportionately low in the other vital nutrients. This abundance of energy density at the expense of everything else is a major factor in the current, ongoing, and worsening global obesity epidemic. Nutrient dense foods are the opposite of the modern diet. Instead of focusing on empty calories, they instead have dense quantities of protein, fiber, enzymes, minerals and other critical elements your body uses every day.

In this excerpt from the book The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Foods by James A. Duke and Bill Gottlieb, CHC the authors explain nutrient dense foods and how to create a diet that focuses on maximizing healthy nutrients while minimizing harmful additives like pesticides.

Making the Most of What You Eat

Once you’re committed to adding more healthful foods to your diet, you’ll want to get the maximum amount of nutrients possible from each food. That only makes good sense. But you may be surprised to learn that many of our basic assumptions about how to do that are false.

For example, many people assume that raw vegetables offer the most health benefits. After all, cooking only breaks down those helpful nutrients, right? While it’s true that eating foods raw is optimal in many cases, especially if you’re after enzymes, there are a number of foods that are actually better for you when cooked. What’s more, some foods need to be combined with a little fat to give you better absorption.

Similarly, not all raw fruits and vegetables are created equal. In fact, I’ll really go out on a limb here and say that in some instances, nonorganic foods may actually trump organic ones—at least medicinally. Ditto for dried, canned, or frozen vs. fresh. In each case, some phytonutrients are increased and others diminished.

Not All Foods Are Created Equal

Modern agriculture and transportation are amazing things. Never has such an abundance of fruits and vegetables been available right at our fingertips whenever we want them. But while this is undoubtedly a positive development, it does have its downside. The more that scientists and farmers engineer and breed our foods to be sweeter, juicier, bigger, and better looking, the less nutrient dense they often become.

Several researchers have looked into this trend, and the evidence seems pretty clear. One Canadian study found that potatoes have lost 100 percent of their vitamin A, 57 percent of their vitamin C and iron, and 28 percent of their calcium over the past 50 years. Several other fruits and vegetables, including oranges and broccoli, showed similar drops. In the United States, Donald Davis, PhD, a biochemist at the University of Texas, reported similar findings. He says that in the past 50 years, 6 of 13 major nutrients showed significant declines—calcium, iron, phosphorus, protein, riboflavin, and vitamin C. No wonder the government keeps increasing the recommended daily intake of fruits and veggies.

When you think about it, none of this should come as a surprise. Most of the good taste of produce often comes from more fructose (sugar) and more water. That’s why fruits and vegetables that are smaller and not as tasty may sometimes be better for you. Another problem with modern foods is how far they often have to travel. Pick up any produce during the winter months (and sometimes even in summer), and there’s a good chance that it came from some exotic, faraway destination such as Argentina, Australia, Chile, or China.

This is a problem, because many of the healing compounds in foods are volatile chemicals, which means they quickly lose their potency. So the fresher the food, the more volatile compounds it’s going to retain. A freshly picked pomegranate, for example, has a lot more going for it than one that’s been on a truck for several days. To test this theory, smell some freshly picked mint, then let it sit for a couple of days and smell it again. Not only will the aroma’s strength have diminished, but it will have a different quality.

Think Globally, Eat Locally

Luckily, the dual problems of overbreeding and long journeys can be solved in the same way: by buying as much produce as you can locally. This is why the proliferation of farmers’ markets in the past decade has been such a great thing for our health and well-being. We’re also beginning to see local produce show up in a growing number of supermarkets.

The fruits and vegetables found in farmers’ markets are often not as over-bred as their mass-produced supermarket counterparts, so they’re likely to retain more of their healthful nutrients. They also go on sale shortly after they’re picked, which is the best way to ensure the highest nutrient dose. You also get a tomato that tastes the way a to mato is supposed to, not a mass-produced Frankenstein bred to travel better rather than taste better.

Of course, there’s one way to get even fresher produce than you can purchase locally, and that’s to grow it yourself. Granted, not everyone has a six-acre farm like I do. But you’ll be amazed by how many healthful fruits and vegetables you can grow in a modest yard or a few containers. Even growing a small herb garden indoors can contribute to getting significantly more nutrients in your diet!

The Organic Argument

Farmers’ markets also feature a variety of organic foods, which most people perceive as being a more healthful choice. I can certainly agree that organics are worth buying and eating simply to avoid harmful pesticides, which may cause cancer in humans. But I have a somewhat unorthodox viewpoint on organic foods. At the risk of angering organic supporters, let me try to explain.

All plants are actually made up of two kinds of compounds—primary metabolites, which are normal nutrients, and secondary metabolites, which are often the ones we use as medicinal compounds. Organic plants as a whole receive more care when they’re growing, so they produce more primary metabolites, making them a healthful choice— especially since they contain no synthetic and possibly carcinogenic pesticides! I emphasize that last point because there’s little question in my mind that synthetic pesticides are causing cancers, and you should avoid them at all costs.

Pesticide-free, however, is a relative term. My farm has not been sprayed in 35 years, but I’ve seen the characteristic herbicide curl of my grape leaves when neighbors sprayed on a windy day. The leaves contort like gnarled arthritic hands.

However, as someone interested in the medicinal properties of plants, I think it’s worth noting that a plant that is less “pampered” generally produces more secondary metabolites. I’ll even generalize that almost any kind of stress in a plant increases levels of secondary phytochemicals (read medicinals) at the expense of primary metabolites (read foods). Fungal diseases are one type of stress on plants. If a soybean plant gets a fungus, its production of estrogenic isoflavones may go up a hundredfold. The same holds true for a fruit that gets bitten by a bug. Drought also increases the proportion of secondary metabolites, as does injuring a plant

Now I’m not advocating that you eat fungus-infested soybeans or bruise your apples before you eat them—and I’m not trying to disparage organics. I just thought you might be interested in knowing that organic foods don’t necessarily have more “medicine” in them than nonorganic ones. In fact, in many cases, the opposite is true.

Still, I believe the threats posed by pesticides are real, and for that reason, it’s probably a good idea to choose organics in place of the most pesticide-heavy fruits and vegetables. For help with this, see the sidebar below.

The Most Pesticide-Heavy Foods

The biggest advantage of organic foods is the absence of potentially harmful pesticides. The biggest drawback? Most people say it’s the price. If you can’t decide whether to go organic, an approach many experts advocate is to replace some of the most pesticide-heavy foods with organic options. The Environmental Working Group compiles yearly a guide to the amount of pesticides in foods to help you do just that. Here are some of their findings:

Dirty Dozen

(from the highest load on down)

  • strawberries
  • spinach
  • kale
  • nectarines
  • apples
  • grapes
  • peaches
  • cherries
  • pears
  • tomatoes
  • celery
  • potatoes

Clean 15

(produce least likely to contain pesticide residues)

  • avocados
  • sweet
  • corn
  • pineapples
  • onions
  • papayas
  • frozen sweet peas
  • eggplants
  • asparagus
  • cauliflower
  • cantaloupes
  • broccoli
  • mushrooms
  • cabbages
  • honeydews
  • kiwis

For additional advice on proven natural remedies for common health conditions, purchase The Green Pharmacy from

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