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Are You Starving Yourself of Nutrients While Eating Healthy?

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

When you dig into a big salad, you expect to be flushing your body full of essential vitamins and minerals. And while this may have been true even 30 years ago, the same cannot be said today.

Our fruits, vegetables, meats, and eggs have all suffered from significant declines in nutritional value over the past several decades. And while most people immediately point to the decline in nutrients within the soil as the root of the problem, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

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Declining nutrients 101:

In our previous blog, on the importance of taking supplements, we briefly discussed how humans today are gleaning fewer nutrients through their food. Referred to as the “Great Nutrient Collapse”, researchers are finding that dozens of vegetables, fruits, grains, and even meats are rapidly declining in nutritional value.

A meta-analysis of several studies found that in 12 types of fresh vegetables,

  • Calcium levels dropped by 27%

  • Vitamin A levels dropped by 21%

  • Iron levels dropped by 37%

  • Vitamin C levels dropped by 30%

Did you know? You would have to eat 8 oranges to derive the same amount of vitamin C as your grandparents would have gotten from just 1.

In all, researchers conclude that the overall decrease in mineral content of fruits and vegetables is between 20 and 30%. Essentially, as crops have gotten bigger and grow faster, they have turned into junk food, providing empty calories and little nutrients. With these new, nutrient-deficient crops, it has become possible to gain weight while starving yourself of nutrients.

Scientists and researchers have several theories behind the Great Nutrient Collapse. But the two main theories we will discuss are the declining nutrients in the soil itself and the excess carbon dioxide plants are being exposed to through pollution.

Less nutrient in the soil:

For decades, this has been the assumed culprit behind the diminishing nutrients in fruits and vegetables. In a natural soil ecosystem, the nutrients in the soil remain steady, as the plant materials are eventually recycled back into the soil as they decompose. But in modern farming, plants still remove nutrients from the soil, but these nutrients are not supplemented back. Harvesting plants prevents them from revitalizing the soil with nutrients as they are meant to do. Other modern farming practices like leaching and the addition of pesticides and herbicides have prevented the soil from returning to its lush, nutrient-rich state.

But other research has suggested that nutrient levels in the soil have not declined enough to result in the steep declines we have seen in fruits and vegetables. One study goes so far as to “definitively” conclude that nutrient levels are not the cause of diminishing nutrients in crops. They point to the natural regression and progression of nutrient levels within the soil as the explanation for the low levels we are seeing today. These researchers suggest that other, more serious problems are to blame.

Regardless if the soil is to blame for declining nutrient levels, the dangers of eating crops grown in soil sprayed with toxic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides should not be underestimated. These toxins accumulate in the colon, decreasing our beneficial bacteria, increasing inflammation and permeability. This can then lead to a slow spread throughout the body. Cancer, Alzheimer's Disease, ADHD, and birth defects have been linked to pesticides. Regardless of nutrient levels, the soil we farm in today is very different than it was 30 years ago.

Rising levels of carbon dioxide:

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the earth’s atmosphere had around 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. In 2017, that number skyrocketed to 400 parts per million. Researchers assume that in the next 50 years, we will cross 550 parts per million. Nearly twice the amount of carbon dioxide present when Americans first started farming with tractors. The most under-acknowledged effect of this great increase of carbon dioxide is the effects on our crops it will have. This excess carbon dioxide may be the reason we have fewer nutrients in our fruits and vegetables today.

This theory arose from a 1998 study in which zooplankton was fed a diet of either algae grown under normal conditions or in an atmosphere with excess carbon dioxide. Researchers correctly assumed that algae grown with excess carbon dioxide grew faster and larger. But researchers did not expect that the zooplankton eating these algae would suffer from nutrient deficiencies.

Somehow, despite the larger size of the carbon dioxide-rich algae, they contained significantly fewer nutrients than the regular algae. The excess carbon dioxide revved up photosynthesis in the algae, but it also caused the plants to pack in more glucose and other carbohydrates at the expense of nutrients like zinc, iron, and protein.

These findings were supplemented by a 2018 study that found that 18 different strains of rice grown in environments with heavy carbon dioxide all saw a decrease in many essential nutrients. Significantly, this study was the first to demonstrate that B vitamins and folate, two vitamins critical for human health, dropped by as much as 30% as a result of excess carbon dioxide.

Similar studies have found that crops like wheat, soybeans, maize, and peas contain significantly fewer amounts of protein, zinc, and iron grown under higher carbon dioxide levels. The alarming part of these studies is that the higher level of carbon dioxide used is the level expected by 2050.

Nearly 130 varieties of plants and over 15,000 samples collected from 30 years of experiments have all shown the same effect. Valuable minerals and vitamins like calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and iron are diminishing in our fruits and vegetables. And while these nutrients decrease, carbohydrates and sugars in our crops skyrocket.

Where to find nutritious foods:

Research has demonstrated the only way to truly eat fruits and vegetables with the nutrients they are supposed to have, is by eating organic. While organic foods will inevitably be grown in the same carbon dioxide-rich environment as conventional crops, they are held to much stricter growing guidelines. To have their products labeled as “organic”, farmers, producers, and ranchers must show documentation as to how they grow, raise, and process their products. Organic vegetables are defined as those that are grown on soil with no prohibited substances like synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. Organic meats must be fed 100% organic feed, not given hormones or antibiotics, and must be raised in conditions that support their natural behaviors (like grazing). Essentially, organic food is as pure as possible, with no exposure to chemical or metal toxins.

Organic foods have also been found to contain lower levels of cadmium and other heavy metals. Such heavy metals are linked to health conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic kidney problems.

Further, organic foods have been found to contain more nutrients than conventionally grown crops.

  • Multiple studies have found that organic foods have more antioxidants.

  • A meta-analysis found that, on average, organic produce contains 21% more iron, 29% more magnesium, 27% more vitamin C, and 13% more phosphorus than their conventionally grown counterparts.

  • Organic meat and dairy have been found to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

The benefits of eating organic cannot be understated. A recent review of 35 studies found that individuals who ate a diet high in organic foods saw a reduced risk of:

  • Elevated cholesterol

  • High blood pressure

  • Allergies

  • High body mass index

  • Metabolic syndrome

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Pre-eclampsia

While we recommend eating all your food from organic sources, we understand that is not financially feasible for everyone. A great guide to gauge what types of food you must buy organically is the 2021 Dirty Dozen list.

Final thoughts:

The lessening amount of nutrients in our fruits and vegetables will have a domino effect throughout our entire diet. We can expect cows and pork fed less nutritious vegetables to have meat with fewer vitamins and minerals. Eggs laid by chickens fed vegetarian diets will inevitably also contain less nutritional value. Dairy from cows fed diets of corn will contain less calcium and other minerals. The lack of nutrients in our food today will soon begin to be evident in the declining health of people around the world.

This is why it is more important than ever to supplement your nutrient intake by taking supplements of the vitamins and minerals your body needs to achieve optimal health. Click here to learn more about our supplement recommendations.

At the Johnson Center, we only advocate and recommend the highest quality supplements to our patients. Many of the supplements are used by Dr. Johnson herself. We would never recommend a supplement we don't trust! If you're interested in ordering supplements through the Johnson Center, contact us!

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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