Broccoli Was Twice As Nutritious 50 Years Ago — A Doctor Explains Why
It’s a pretty general notion that vegetables are good for you. While the hierarchy of veggies remains contested among health experts, it's safe to say vegetables are always a healthy staple to have on your plate.
However, according to functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, M.D., vegetables aren't as good for us as they were in the past.
"The nutritional density of plant foods is 50% less than it was 50 years ago," he tells me on the latest episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. "So in 1970, broccoli was more than twice as nutritious as it is today."
According to Hyman, our agriculture isn't providing us with food as nutritious as it once was. But before we go blaming the nine-headed monster that is climate change, Hyman suggests we take our own actions into account. He explains that we have the power to restore our agricultural health (and our own, for that matter) and get those vintage veggies in.
Here's what we're getting wrong when it comes to our food system and exactly what we can do to fix it, according to Hyman.
Here's the ugly truth: We're depleting our soil of essential nutrients.
And we're not being so kind to the environment, to boot.
According to Hyman, our current agricultural methods are destroying the soil by killing its microbial life (which is pretty important: "In a thimbleful of really good soil, there's more life than there have been humans ever to exist on the planet," Hyman says).
Because we're putting chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides on our soil, the vegetables we grow suffer—they can't extract the healthy minerals and nutrients they need from the ground. That said, the vegetables we end up eating aren't as nutritious as they could be if we weren't destroying that critical microbial life.
Over-tilling our soil is particularly destructive, says Hyman: "It's like ripping the skin off somebody every day," he notes (ouch). Essentially, we're ripping the nutrients out of the ground and expecting to grow healthy food that will sustain us. In other words, we're overusing the soil without replenishing it with what it needs or giving it a necessary break.
It's kind of a Catch-22—we might not realize that our methods of growing food are not only destroying our environment and leading to climate change, but they're also destroying the quality of our produce as well.
As Hyman says, "We're in this terrible cycle of extracted destructive agriculture that produces food that kills Americans. Eleven million people die every year from eating the food that we grow in this way."
Can we fix our food system?
In short, yes. But it'll take some major reorganizing from everyone involved.
The key here, according to Hyman, is to implement regenerative agriculture, which, as we know, is a specific type of growing food that restores the health of our soil and helps reverse climate change. Rather than destroying the soil (and the nutrients in our food), regenerative farming practices replenish it with microbial life and biodiversity.
"Regenerative agriculture actually restores the ecosystem," Hyman agrees. "It brings back microbial life, plant life, animal diversity in the ecosystem, and it produces much more nutrient-dense food."
Whether we start inter-cropping, which brings together different crops (think chickens with hazelnut forests, says Hyman) or crop rotations that put different nutrients in the soil, regenerative agriculture may just be what we need to ensure truly nutritious vegetables again.
"Our current method of growing food is bad for the environment, for the climate, for humans, and for the animals. It's just bad news—but it's totally fixable," Hyman adds.
It seems that regenerative agriculture is the silver lining in terms of fixing our food system. Hopefully then we can revert to that oh-so-nutritious 1970s-era broccoli. In the meantime, be sure to get your fill of the most healthy vegetables, or consider supplementing your diet with a veggies powder.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.