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Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom With Fred Provenza

Apr 4, 2019

Renowned animal behaviorist Fred Provenza spent his academic career researching how animals respond to an intricately tuned system of flavor-feedback relationships at the cellular level—a nutritional wisdom that guides them to eat the appropriate combinations of foods to meet their dietary needs. But what about us? Do humans still possess the wisdom to select nourishing diets?

Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom
Credit Chelsea Green

The following highlights are from a conversation with Fred Provenza about "Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom." To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast. 

Fred Provenza: The body’s built-in wisdom has been hi-jacked by food systems.

And what are the effects?

Obesity, diabetes, diet-related diseases are all outcomes of hi-jacking the wisdom of the body.

Your book is a conversation between science, culture, and a greater spiritual or cosmological umbrella, but you begin with a scientific debate around whether animals and humans have “nutritional wisdom.” Can you start by defining nutritional wisdom?

We can think of it as three legs to a stool, if any one of those legs is broken, you’re not going to get nutritional wisdom.

The first part is what we call the flavor-feedback relationships. The idea is that cells and organ systems, including the microbiome, are feeding back to get their needs met and they’re changing our liking for the flavor of food as a function of their needs.

The second leg to the stool is the variety of wholesome foods. For the animals we studied on extensive landscapes, there may be 50, 100, 150 different species: that becomes nature’s pharmacy and nutrition center. We can think the same for human beings. When we’re talking about food systems hi-jacking our dietary habits and leading to diseases, what’s happening is that the variety of wholesome foods is going down. We have lots of processed foods that are desirable to human beings—as opposed to wholesome foods: vegetables, meats, and nuts.

The third part is the whole social-cultural part of things, and that begins in the womb. So the foods the mother’s ingesting, the flavor of the foods, are getting into the amniotic fluid, the young little water creature is already learning what is and what’s not food. After birth, flavors from the mother’s diet gets into the milk, and that again cues, and then of course mother as a model of what and what not to eat and all that then becomes structured within the culture. So the whole social-cultural part of things is absolutely essential, not only for cattle, sheep, goats, and many wild species, but obviously for humans as well.

Basically, we’ve broken all three of those legs.

Break

As a culture, Americans are so preoccupied with health and diet and exercise, and yet no one would argue that we are, by and large a healthy society. . .

What comes to my mind is a friend I correspond with in France. His name is Michel Meuret; we use one another as sounding boards. When it comes to this issue of diet—and this has been pointed out in studies that compare people in the US to people in other countries, like France—they think about wholesomeness of foods and variety of foods. They’re not hung up on nutrients, you know, what nutrient is it? How much Vitamin C? Am I getting my Vitamin D? What’s the doctor telling me about all these things?

It’s just a totally different way. We really took off on the reductionist approach toward thinking about the specificity of how particular nutrients work, which has added great insight, and we appreciate that. But even something like Vitamin C, as I talk about in the book, when they purified that to simply Vitamin C, there was no effect anymore. Because it’s synergies that take place and so we just got so hung up on trying to think about the daily allowances.

We yield to authority, when we should really be looking inward, physically and spiritually into the wisdom that’s in our own bodies. . . That’s really the kind of things “Nourishment” is about. It’s not so much about comparative food selection, nutrition, and health. I use that as the vehicle to try to tell this other story that is far more meaningful.  

About the Book:

Renowned animal behaviorist Fred Provenza spent his academic career researching how animals respond to an intricately tuned system of flavor-feedback relationships at the cellular level—a nutritional wisdom that guides them to eat the appropriate combinations of foods to meet their dietary needs. But what about us? Do humans still possess the wisdom to select nourishing diets?

In Nourishment, Provenza extends his theory of nutritional wisdom to human food selection and our health, calling into question blind adherence to academic, corporate, and political authorities. He embarks on a paradigm-shifting exploration of an eternal wisdom that can nurture the human body and spirit in a world of perpetual change.

Fred Provenza
Credit Chelsea Green

About the Author:

Fred Provenza is professor emeritus of Behavioral Ecology at Utah State and is one of the founders of BEHAVE, an international network of scientists and land managers committed to integrating behavioral principles with local knowledge to enhance environmental, economic, and cultural values of rural and urban communities. He is also the author of Foraging Behavior and co-author of The Art & Science of Shepherding.