Variety is the price, not just the spice, of life

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2007

Wherever humans have lived for thousands of generations they have had a choice of hundreds of different kinds of plant and animal foods. Why are we squandering such abundant variety? A more important question: can we afford to ignore the cornucopia that nature meant for our nourishment?

Ninety percent of the worlds' food supply comes from only 17 plant species. When we discarded the rest we also lost the diversity of protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that a varied diet produces, to say nothing of scores of different flavors.

Our nutritional decline began more than 10,000 years ago when our very distant ancestors figured out that it was easier to raise animals in a pen than to chase them around the countryside and when the deliberate planting of grain kernels near the homestead saved hours of walking to find them and lug them home.

The downside was that only a few animals can be domesticated easily and there didn't seem to be any point in raising scores of different kinds of plants when a couple of grains or root vegetables seemed to provide adequate nourishment.

Nature doesn't usually come down on the side of convenience and the human race, having never really figured that out, has paid an enormous price. Around the globe, wherever hunter-gatherers switched to farming and animal husbandry, major indicators of population health took a nose-dive. Age at death declined. Life expectancy, which is largely determined by infant mortality, went down as fewer children made it through the perilous first year. Poor dentition, iron-deficiency anemia and infectious diseases rose above pre-agricultural levels.

As an example, corn is easy to grow, gather and store. The perfect crop but not the perfect food. It is so lacking in niacin (vitamin B3) that where people eat corn almost exclusively a disease called pellagra occurs. Pellagra occurred in epidemic form in southern Europe in the late 19th century and in the American Southeast in the early 20th century.

Dwarfism caused by zinc deficiency is well-known in the Middle East among people who subsist almost entirely on grains. It doesn't take much variety to fulfill our need for zinc but grains interfere with our ability absorb it. A moderately varied diet that includes meat, nuts and beans will eliminate zinc deficiency.

There's a reason why leafy plants, fruits, berries, nuts and roots produce more than 4,000 phytonutrients known as phenols, flavonoids, saponins, etc. Over millions of years plant species evolved defense mechanisms to protect them against environmental toxins and free radicals generated by oxidation, radiation and their own metabolic processes. Humans were subject to these same hazards and the plants we ate protected us from them. In the last few decades medical science has rediscovered this fact of nature and one cannot read a newspaper or magazine without being engulfed by articles and advertisements about antioxidants. The science is correct: lack of proper nutrients in the diet is largely responsible for chronic diseases that we thought were simply the result of aging.

The next time you cruise through the produce section of the supermarket, try something unfamiliar. After all, it's what you were designed for.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at