The Great Nutrient Disappearance
Let’s Start with Some Controversy
The question of whether or not micronutrient supplementation is important to human health is ongoing in the public health and healthcare fields. Experts from both sides stand on opposite sides of an increasingly divisive question: Should the public be supplementing their daily food intakes with multivitamins and other nutritional supplements?
Obviously, we at Wholesome Story are firmly in the pro-supplement group. Today, we’re going to share with you why we believe that supplementation can be an important part of a wholesome, healthy lifestyle, and it all comes down to what we put on our plates…or rather don’t put on them.
We’ve Got News for You
You may have heard things on social media like, “You have to eat 10 tomatoes today to get the same amount of nutrition that your grandfather got from eating just one tomato,” or “Eight oranges have as much vitamin A today as one orange did just 70 years ago.” While we couldn’t find any evidence to corroborate such drastic claims, we certainly found enough to warrant concern.
Depending on where your food is grown and the variety of fruit, vegetable, grain, egg, etc. you choose, you may be getting as much as 30-50% fewer of certain key nutrients in each serving than your grandparents did when they ate these foods 50-100 years ago.1 Research across the world has shown that in recent decades, our crops have become steadily less nutritious than their historical counterparts.1-4 Oh yay, another marvel of modern civilization.
Recent decades have brought to light an increasingly concerning trend in our global food supply, an overabundance of carbohydrates in conjunction with decreasing amounts of important micronutrients such as iron, calcium, magnesium, B-vitamins, vitamin-C, and more.1-4 What this means is that for various reasons, our foods, both plant and animal sources (since animals get their nutrients from plants), are becoming less nutritionally dense, while at the same time our toxic, industrialized environment is increasing our need for protective nutrients to help our cells cope.
A large study published in 2020, showed that wheat, the second most consumed food in the world after rice, has changed drastically in the last few decades. According to this research, the protein content of wheat has decreased by a staggering 23% since 1965, while the carbohydrate content has increased by 7%.2
Another recent study out of Australia showed that important crops such as red-skin potatoes, sweet corn, and cauliflower, all important crops in the western diet, have between 30-50% less iron today than they did in 1930.1
Perhaps most notably, a landmark study in the U.S. that looked at various types of vegetables found the amounts of important nutrients such as iron, calcium, riboflavin, vitamin C, and protein had all decreased over time.3 Importantly, the amount of riboflavin in many fruits and vegetables was found to have decreased by as much as 38% overall, which is bad news since this vitamin is important for the metabolism of fats and drugs, two things that are endemic to our western lifestyle.3-4
These discoveries are especially concerning in light of the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which showed that 15% of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of iron, 35% don’t get the recommended amount of magnesium, and 19% don’t get the recommended amount of vitamin C.5 Globally, we know that many populations struggle to get enough zinc, iron, iodine, and vitamin A.5 These nutrients are all included in the lists of those on the decline in our food sources.1-4 So, the big picture is that an ever-growing global population is losing access to vital nutrients it already doesn’t get enough of.
Why Is This Happening?
There are several reasons for these nutritional alterations, including soil depletion, a preference for high-yield crops, inundation with fertilizers, increasing CO2 levels, and a taste preference for high-sugar, low nutrient varieties.1-4 You see, as monoculture crops continue to be the preferred method of cultivation, farmland soils are increasingly depleted of micronutrients for plants to take up. High-yield crops mean more food per square foot of land, but that also means less soil nutrition per pound of produce. Fertilizers can encourage plant growth in the absence of a wide variety of micronutrients which can produce big, beautiful, and nutritionally depleted crops. Increasing CO2 levels in our atmosphere have accelerated plant growth and have caused a shift in crop composition to increasingly higher levels of simple carbohydrates and lower amounts of protein and other important nutrients. And of course, humankind’s preference for sweet, starchy foods has created a market for high sugar, low nutrient varieties with an abundance of glucose, but with a markedly depleted amount of health-enhancing bioactive molecules including vitamins and minerals.1-4 Ah, the wonders of modern science.
Where We Stand
Because of the nutrient depletion in our food systems, we at Wholesome Story believe that people ought to do all they can to increase their intake of nutrient-dense foods. Make no mistake, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are still quite nutritionally dense.1-5 Whole foods are the best sources of vitamins and minerals, even when those foods don’t have as much nutrition as they used to. This is because many nutrients benefit from synergistic relationships with other nutrients that exist in the food and may not be replicated in supplement form. In short, getting nutrients from food increases the amount you can absorb and use, generally speaking.
We believe though, that supplementation can play an important role in this ever-changing nutritional puzzle. A well-chosen daily multivitamin can help bridge any gaps you may have in your dietary intake of micronutrients. You can also talk with your health care provider to find out what their opinion of your nutritional intake is, and maybe discover potential gaps that could be rectified with diet or supplementation.
For example, women between the ages of 18-50 have the highest iron needs of any population because of their regular blood loss due to menses. For this demographic, prioritizing high-iron foods is very important, and supplementation is often needed. Likewise, calcium is an incredibly important mineral for children and women in particular. Knowing what your calcium needs are, what your average intake is, and making sure to supplement if there is a gap, can help to keep you healthy and strong since calcium is important in heart and bone health as well as many other bodily systems.
Suffice to say, no person’s body operates 100% perfect 100% of the time and we can all use all the nutritional help we can get as our bodies work to overcome the constant barrage of emotional, chemical, and environmental stressors that permeate 21st-century living.
I Need Specifics. What Should I Do?
Choose nutritionally dense foods. This is the most important thing you can do. Many of the foods we prefer are low in health-promoting nutrients. Iceberg lettuce, sweet corn, instant mashed potatoes, refined grains such as white rice and white bread, and commercially produced eggs, just don’t have the same amounts of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals available in other forms of these foods. So, when possible, opt for dark-colored greens, heirloom corn varieties, brightly colored root vegetables, whole grains, and free-range eggs. The basic rules for nutritious food are color and exposure to nature.
Another option to help increase your micronutrient intake, as previously alluded to, is supplementation with multivitamins, minerals, and health-enhancing herbs. While this option should not replace the advice given above, it certainly has its place in our busy, toxic world. When choosing supplements, look for third-party tested products, since they will be the cleanest and most effective. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider to ensure that any new supplement you wish to take will not cause any problems with your current health conditions and/or medications.
Our final suggestion is probably the most poetic, and admittedly for many people, the least practical, and if done on a large-enough scale, the most beneficial. Grow a garden. Growing some of your own food means you can control what goes into the soil and onto the produce. It means you can choose to grow nutritionally dense varieties and harvest them at their peak ripeness for immediate consumption. You can turn your yard into an urban micro-farm or just keep a pot of basil growing on your kitchen windowsill. Anything you can do to make clean, fresh food available to you and your family is a win in our book!
Don’t let our increasingly toxic world dictate your nutrient intake. Know that things are changing, and not in our favor, but also know that there are options to help you live a wholesome, healthy life.
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plant foods, is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to. If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such a Naturopathic Doctor, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.
- Eberl E, Li AS, Zheng ZYJ, Cunningham J, Rangan A. Temporal change in iron content of vegetables and legumes in Australia: A scoping review. Foods (Basel, Switzerland). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8750575/. Published December 27, 2021. Accessed July 5, 2022.
- Mariem SB, Gámez AL, Larraya L, et al. Assessing the evolution of wheat grain traits during the last 166 years using archived samples. Nature News. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78504-x#Tab3. Published December 11, 2020. Accessed July 5, 2022.
- Davis DR. Declining fruit and vegetable nutrient composition: What is the evidence? hortsci. https://journals.ashs.org/hortsci/view/journals/hortsci/44/1/article-p15.xml. Published February 1, 2009. Accessed July 5, 2022.
- Colino S. Fruits and vegetables are less nutritious than they used to be. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment-and-conservation/2022/05/fruits-and-vegetables-are-less-nutritious-than-they-used-to-be#:~:text=Mounting%20evidence%20from%20multiple%20scientific,that%20were%20grown%20decades%20ago. Published April 29, 2022. Accessed July 5, 2022.
- Drake VJ. Micronutrient inadequacies in the US population: An overview. Linus Pauling Institute. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/micronutrient-inadequacies/overview. Published April 14, 2022. Accessed July 5, 2022.