Growing Your Essential Nutrients

Chrissie Sugden
Saturday, 1st April 2017

Nutritionist Chrissie Sugden explores how much land we need to provide all our essential nutrients.

I have been growing food for many years. It’s fun, therapeutic and I love knowing exactly what I’m eating.

I am also aware that there are more pressing reasons to be growing food, such as unexpected weather events, as evidenced in a recent news headline: “A combination of flooding, cold weather and poor light levels in southern Europe is said to have created the perfect storm of poor growing con-di-tions. The effects of shortages are particularly pronounced in Britain, which imports an estimated 50% of its vegetables and 90% of its fruit.”) Also, another economic crash might make food unaffordable, and oil depletion will have repercussions  on the food supply.

If I could no longer get to the shops, or the shelves were empty, how would I manage?

Whilst gardening advice is easy to come by, I have yet to find a website or book that answers key questions such as:

What could I reliably grow, pick and store in my locality that would meet all my nutritional needs (and those of my family and community) all year round for years to come if necessary?

How much land would I need to grow all that food?

Which foods should take priority if I can’t access enough land? 

What would fill the nutrient gaps? 

Should I be stockpiling anything?

What Do I Need to Grow/Forage to Avoid Deficiency Diseases?

First a few caveats:

There is no such thing as an average person. Nutritional guidelines were developed by studying groups of people so are useful at a population level, but we also need to remember ‘biochemical indivi-duality’; sufficient vitamin B3 for one person may not prevent another from experiencing deficiency symptoms such as pellagra or psychosis.

An adequate intake of all the essential nutrients (see right) is needed to main-tain health and activity, but extra are needed for growth, pregnancy, breast-feeding, during stress and illness. Needs also vary by age, sex and physical activity level.

Not every nutrient contained in a plant may be bio-available (i.e. able to be absorbed by your body). Also some nutrients interact in the body such that an excess of one causes a deficiency of another.

And last but not least, the mineral levels in your food will be entirely dependent on their availability in the soil in which they are grown; they cannot be manu-factured by plants or animals. So beware of articles that tell you that some wild plant is a good source of this or that (it depends where it’s growing!).

Everything You Know about Food 
is Wrong

OK, that’s an exaggeration of course. However, it is true that many people have become confused by seemingly ever-changing dietary advice.

Take the much maligned ‘calorie’, for example. Calories are simply a measure of the energy that your body obtains from consuming and metabolising food. Whilst it’s true that eating too many will make you overweight, that’s unlikely to be a problem in the scenarios I’m considering here. Quite the opposite. Ensuring that we can consume enough calories all year round to stay healthy and active will be quite some challenge. Likewise for the dreaded ‘fat’. Fats (both animal fats and seed oils) are a dense store of energy, containing more calories per gram than either carbohydrates or proteins. They also contain the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, as well as ‘essential fatty acids’ (EFAs) which, as the name suggests, are indeed essential for health but will be challenging to come by.

Setting Priorities

Whilst thinking about foods for ‘healthy survival’, I have differentiated between the nutrients that can be stored in our bodies and those that we need to consume every day, since ensuring a supply of the latter will be priority number one. Those that can be stored can be eaten less frequently (but in greater quantities to ‘catch up’) if necessary.

Group 1
Needed every day are:
Calories Even though they are stored as fat, we need a minimum number per day to feel well enough to garden, hunt and forage!
Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, C and folic acid

Group 2
Nutrients that can be stored include:
Vitamins B12, A, D, E and K
Minerals Calcium, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorus, Potassium, Selenium, Sodium, Zinc, Iodine, and various trace minerals.
Essential Fatty Acids Ω-3, Ω-6

Listing the Foods

I first listed the foods I know grow well here (Argyll, Scotland), and which store well over winter. (I discounted grains, as even if I could grow them in quantity, they are very difficult to store safely in the absence of fossil fuels.)

I then looked at which foods are a good source of calories, since without energy we won’t survive, never mind thrive. The best sources of energy turned out to be potatoes, parsnips and squash. I was somewhat surprised (well, horrified actually) to see how few calories other fruit and vegetables provide, and also the quantity of potatoes I will need to eat daily if I only have the garden to rely on.

The good news is that those three foods eaten daily – in enough quantity to provide the bulk of the calories I need – also provide sufficient group 1 vitamins, apart from B2. Who knew potatoes are a superfood?

(SEE TABLES IN FULL ARTICLE IN PM92) Here’s a section from my garden produce Winter Diet Sheet as an example (based on the needs of ‘a female aged 60+ carrying out medium activity’, who needs 1,766 kcals per day). Columns 4-11 list the percentage of daily needs provided by that sized portion of food (so the column total needs to be at least 100!).

As you can see, even if I eat 800g of potatoes every day, and everything else on the list, I will not meet my calorie or protein needs in winter, nor B2. I will also be deficient in B12 and D (0%), calcium (44%), selenium (33%), sodium (18%), zinc (79%) and EFAs (not listed here).

Apparently not everyone loves numbers as much as I do, so here is a graphic that shows an approximation of the same information. (SEE ARTICLE IN PM92) Think of each column as a glass that needs to be filled every day. To keep it simple, once the column was full I didn’t include other foods that also supply that nutrient:

This looks like a promising start until you include the group 2 EFAs, other vitamins and minerals:

I don’t have room here to list the deficiency symptoms and diseases that would arise from such an inadequate diet, but they would be severe. So what else could I eat? If the chickens are still laying I could add an egg to boost B2 and B12 (but what will they eat?). Adding some pasture fed red meat, or sheep’s milk (richer in B12 than goat’s), would help provide variety and boost protein, B2 and B12. (Incidentally, chicken meat is low in B12.) Lamb would also boost EFAs, selenium and calcium, and sheep’s milk adds calcium too.

The ‘Hungry Gap’ isn’t our Only Concern

Whilst a greater range of foods and nutrients will be available in summer, it turns out there will still be gaps. To cut a very long story short, the nutrients that will be difficult to find enough of are:

Essential fatty acids (ironically, diets rich in processed foods tend to be low in Ω-3, and high in Ω-6, but the imbalance will reverse)
Vitamin B12
Vitamin D
Sodium (also ironic as processed foods supply excessive sodium in the form of salt)
Iodine (if you live away from the coast)
What’s more, just to grow enough potatoes, I’ll need to plant 118 square metres for each adult I’m hoping to feed.

A Few Solutions

Vitamin D is synthesised in the skin by exposure to sun, so get a good tan while the sun shines.

1g of finely ground egg shell provides 400% of daily calcium needs.

Add seaweed to your soil now to build up a store of selenium and iodine.

Learn about deficiency diseases so you can recognise their physical and mental health symptoms and adjust your diet accordingly, if possible.

Seeing with New Eyes

Researching the answers to these questions as I compile them into a book has forced me to face up to some hard realities, transformed my appreciation of the humble potato, and made me even more aware of how much I take for granted as I wander through a supermarket (why on earth are seed oils so cheap?). I sincerely believe we have much to learn, and no time to waste. I wish you a happy, and healthy, future.

Chrissie Sugden (MSc Nutritional Medicine), grows organic fruit and vegetables, and has recently acquired some lambs. She is also the author of one of PM’s website’s most popular articles, ‘How to get planning permission on non-development land’.

Don’t forget to check out our website for articles on various crops, their nutritional and medicinal uses, as well as how to grow them.