And the beets go on…

I’m sad this morning. After a bountiful 2013 crop, all but a handful of wild mulberries remain on the trees that line one of my favorite routes. Only weeks ago, the branches were heavy with fruit and – quite literally –drooping down, an easy grab for handful after gluttonous handful of warm, sweet, black goodness. There were more than enough to share with the multitude of birds that flock in the adjacent cornfields – but for the birds and I, wild mulberries are now but a fleeting memory.

Mulberries, like so many other berries, are not only refreshingly delicious, they are also nutritious as well. Low in calories, they are an excellent source of the phenolic flavonoid phytochemical anthocyanin. I geek out on research sometimes, but when it comes to anthocyanin, a little geeking out can easily be forgiven. What we’re coming to understand is that anthocyanin may have a potentially dramatic health benefit in terms of net effects against cancer, aging, heart disease, neurological and bacterial diseases – and diabetes. And as a diabetic, I naturally enough tend to be quite interested in even the most anecdotal connections between nutrition and health.

I am not a food Nazi, but I am keenly aware of those things I ingest and their relationship to exercise. My daily mileage, nutrition, times and amounts – all of these contribute to my healthful well-being, and I am fairly diligent about charting the associated numbers in order to compare them against a twice-daily blood glucose level measurement. I’ve become quite adroit at pairing foods and am acutely aware of the ratio of complex carbs to proteins that I need to consume, and in what quantities, in order for me to maintain an acceptable and – importantly – consistent body sugar.

In many ways, my world centers around this vital balance, between carbs and proteins, exercise and intake, nutrition that meets my personal and specific needs – and flavor. Barring anything unusual, I know how many meals I’ll eat each day (six), what time I will eat them, the size of portions (small), and the specific nutritional proportions for each of them (1:1 proteins to carbs). I know what foods work for me (i.e., won’t raise my blood glucose levels). And I am painfully alert to those that will do.

Recently I came across an interesting book about nutrition. If you’ve seen one title laboring under the delusion that it’s providing the reader with a profound insight heretofore never read, you’ll have seen thousands. (This is not an exaggeration, health and wellness titles provide a staggering volume of fodder for publishers and the buying public.) What caught my attention about health writer Jo Robinson’s Eating on the Wild Side is the background she provides on many of the most healthful of the fruits and greens we might find upon our sideboard. She tracks down many of the ancestral plants from which common-to-us plants hail – carrots, potatoes, corn, strawberries, etc. – and then takes us on a journey, often thousands of years in the making, of food that has evolved through human intervention; often, having done so, flavor and nutrition have been unknowingly left behind in favor of greater bounty, larger size, more convenience, and attractive appearance.

For me, the evolutionary tract by itself was an intriguing story to follow. But Robinson doesn’t stop with the history. She provides a contemporary context, discusses heirloom and other varieties that more closely mimic some of the original higher nutrient plant forefathers, provides information for those inclined to grow their own and also suggests where to find them if one is not so inclined. Every chapter has recipes and storage/preparation suggestions; she clearly lays out how to maximize the greatest nutritional advantage through those recipes, storage, and preparation suggestions. I learned, for instance, how to take advantage of beets – a root vegetable that I despise. Let’s just say that I’ve prepared and enjoyed roasted beets twice in the week since I finished the book! (And instead of throwing away the green tops I was sufficiently impressed with the information I read to search out a recipe and further enjoy an incredibly satisfying side dish of sautéed beet greens. Suggestion: blend in some kale along with the beet greens.)

Now I’m not for one moment suggesting that we should all go out to our backyards, pluck and eat a handful of dandelions – well, not unless you wanting to get “twice as much calcium, and three times as much vitamin A, five times more vitamins K and E, and eight times more antioxidants” as spinach (Robinson). But there are some topics worthy of further consideration in this book, and it’s certainly changed how I shop at the Saturday morning farmer’s market.

For more information, read or listen to the NPR interview here.

Eating on the Wild Side, 407 pages, was written by Jo Robinson and Andy Styner

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