Life is perpetuated by the energy of the sun. Every living thing, even creatures that dwell in deep caves in the bowels of the Earth rely on something coming into that cave from the outside, thus bringing the energy to them. The sun’s energy is then bound to the earth and stored.
A calorie is how much energy is released from anything that will burn when you burn it. A calorie is a measurement of sensible energy. The energy from burning is radiated in the form of light, and convected by air or molecular motion to adjacent objects. Food calories are determined by burning foods in a calorimeter. The process of burning, of course is different than the process of digesting. It is totally different. Both are chemical reactions, both produce both solid and gaseous wastes, each may produce heat and light. Burning can be closely observed and all of the reactions can be documented. Digesting takes place in a location that is, so far, impossible to observe or document. There are many things that happen between something going in your mouth and your taking a stride on a treadmill to produce heat and motion that are unknown. The basics are known, but there are undoubtedly very important details still hidden from our view.
The entire process of energy transfer in our foods is likewise not known. By that I mean from the very beginning of the food chain we are still at the infancy of our knowledge of what parts of it are truly important to us at the far end of the same chain.
Everything in the world that burns was once a living thing. Water and rocks don’t burn, but both are contained in things that do. The simplest life forms can absorb the energy of the sun or geothermal energy and utilize that energy to turn simple elements into more complex ones. The simplest life forms can live off of rocks. As they consume inert matter, they are consumed by more complex creatures. After a thousand steps from the beginning of the chain, plants whose roots and leaves magically transform soil and sunlight and air into products that an animal can eat create foods that we can eat. An animal eating a plant is getting the energy of the sun in a way that it has no other way of obtaining. It is easy to see that the sun’s energy is captured by the plant, stored by the plant for it’s own uses at a later time, and then used either by an animal in it’s diet, or by bacteria in the decay process if the plant is never eaten. The energy captured by the sun is never lost from the planet, it is recycled over and over until it is burned. Once it is burned the energy of the sun is then released back into the universe.
These relationships are easy to see, but there are others that are not so easy to see. We cannot live by eating soil. If you tried to eat the things that plants do you would live for a few more weeks and die of starvation. Plants have a process for turning soil into life, and that process is at least as complex as the mysterious process that takes place in our roots, or intestines. The relationship between all of the living things in soil and the roots of the plants are mostly unknown. We can see though what happens to one end of the food chain if the other end is eking a pathetic living. A study was done by a British agricultural scientist, Sir Albert Howard, where the young men drafted for World War I into the Army of the US from Northwestern and Southeastern Missouri were compared. It was a good time to conduct this comparison, because in 1918 people in the US ate foods from their neighborhoods. Back then fresh foods were not carted all over the planet, you ate what was raised near you. In the study they looked at the draft physical results and it was noticed that men living in the Ozarks, where the soil is poor, were smaller and more prone to deficiencies that prevented them from being physically qualified for the Army. In the Northwest of the state, where the rich bottom lands of the Missouri river maintained a healthy soil, the men at the top of that food chain were also healthier. It makes sense that if the food chain starts from a weak foundation that the entire chain will be weak.
Back in the 40s there was a lively debate about what effect fertilizing plants would have on the soil, and thus on us, at the other end of the food chain. Artificial fertilizers contain some of the essential ingredients that a plant would need to thrive. By boosting these ingredients in the soil plants are enticed to grow quickly, which would seem to be a good thing with no downside. If you think about it though, if this were the obvious good thing that it seems, then why, after billions of years of evolution isn’t nature already doing this? Well, it turns out after decades of experience we can see some of the disadvantages. One disadvantage is that for some reason plants that grow very quickly are more prone to diseases and pests than plants raised with natural fertilizers only. Plants that are fertilized require pesticide and herbicide. They require more water than natural plants. The nutrient composition (of nutrients we know how to see) is better in a naturally raised plant than a fertilized one. It looks as though, perhaps, the soil is damaged by the use of fertilizer. On up the food chain, animals that eat fertilized plants are not going to be getting all of the nutrition that they would be getting from a good, healthy soil. Cattle that graze on pasture grass, for instance, are able to pass on to us the healthy omega 3 oil, instead of the unhealthy omega 6 oil that corn fed beef do.
There are those who say that it takes seventeen pounds of vegetable matter to create a pound of meat or eggs. I would say to that, “It is true that it takes seventeen pounds of vegetables to create the meats that I eat, but for the most part if they are left to their own choices, these animals will eat vegetables that I cannot eat myself. This process passes to me at the top of the food chain nutrients that I otherwise have no way of obtaining from my diet.” Grasses eat things that I need but cannot eat. Meat producing animals eat things that give me things that are good for me that I cannot get any other way.
Knowing as little as we do what the things are in our foods that are beneficial to us, it is the height of folly to think that we can process natural foods into foods that are anywhere near as good for us. Even as unnatural as modern corn is for us, we harvest it, process it into scores of different ingredients to put back into processed foods. Most of the corn we eat isn’t even in the form of corn grains, but perhaps in a sweetener or an emulsifier. The closest you will get to eating the corn raised on the bulk of farms in the US will be that which is passed up to you in your factory chickens or pork.
I guess the moral of this meandering story is that you, when you are choosing what to consume, you should choose foods that are from the most natural of environments. Obviously, using this criteria eating the dead products of the processed foods industry would be last on the list. Eating meats that are fed unnatural diets, and that from fields of unnatural grains which are living in soil of unnaturally enhanced composition would be next on the list to go. This leaves us with naturally grown meats and vegetables. Since naturally grown meats would be eating vegetables, too, even the vegetables would not be required in the ideal diet.