Nutrient Dense Foods

Fall 2012
John Gagnulo
John Bagnulo. Photo by Joanna Bagnulo.

By Polly Shyka

John Bagnulo is a naturalist and nutritionist. With a master’s in public health and a doctorate in food and nutrition sciences, he has a nutrition practice in Belfast and has taught nutrition for the past 12 years. He lectures widely on nutrition and health and has helped hundreds of patients reverse chronic diseases through a diet of whole foods.

We asked Bagnulo about nutrition, health and farming practices. Here are his responses, edited for length.

How did you become interested in nutrition and human health?

My mother developed breast cancer when I was thirteen. I watched both my grandfathers die of nutrition-related diseases before that. The light first came on then. At college I studied economics but took courses in nutrition that resonated with me more than anything I had studied in economics or statistics. I decided after completing my bachelor’s degree to pursue nutrition. I have worked in the field for 18 years now – with individuals and teaching in various settings.

How do modern factory farming systems affect the nutritional content of foods and, in turn, human health?

If you look at populations worldwide with the best chances of living a long, healthy life, almost all subsist on food from a small radius of where they live. Local food, grown sustainably, is a big piece of the health puzzle. Most Americans eat foods they have been told they should eat for health, but a lot of those foods are grown unsustainably and are nutritional skeletons of what they could be. Studies show that food grown in microbially-rich, nutrient-dense soil and varieties of older cultivars contain far more nutrients than most modern ones. Heirloom varieties are far superior, nutritionally, than modern varieties bred for shelf life, resistance to bruising and “transportation vigor,” as the industry calls it.

How are some chronic diseases linked to factory farm-grown foods?

Several mechanisms drive most chronic diseases. Inflammation is very high on that list. Another is loss of organ reserve, i.e., not getting enough micronutrients for optimum cell physiology. Those two, as well as problems with blood sugar regulation, and oxidative stress, which results from not eating enough fruits and vegetables, are the four big culprits.

The two most closely linked to factory farming are inflammation and loss of organ reserve. Inflammation is involved with cancer, heart disease and renal health, and robs people of quality of life. While many individuals are suffering with inflammation from injury or infection, a large number suffer inflammation because they eat the wrong foods – especially those high in omega-6 fatty acids (higher in animals fed a grain- and corn-based diet). We are what they ate.

An animal eating forage and pasture material will produce meat, milk or eggs that are well-balanced in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. In products from an animal fed a corn-based diet, omega-6 will predominate. We need a ratio of about 3:1 omega-6 to omega-3; the average American consumes, due to our corn-based farming systems, a ratio of 30:1. I think most people eat too much animal protein, but the leeway could be greater if animals were raised in accord with how their physiology operates.

Loss of organ reserve means our organs start to decline because they don’t have the nutrients necessary to drive all their chemical reactions. So in the case of the liver, we need significant reserves of magnesium, copper and selenium. But modern cultivars have been bred for maximum yield, maximum sugar content, resistance to damage during transport or long shelf life, and many [conventionally grown] vegetables are grown in micronutrient-poor soils [such as soils that are not amended with organic matter]. Also, people don’t eat enough produce. Fruits and vegetables are the richest source of micronutrients, but only 2 to 4 percent of Americans eat the recommended seven servings per day.

Which produce items offer the greatest nutrient array and anti-inflammatory properties?

I would begin with members of the Brassica family. The real standout is ‘Lacinato’ kale, which has the highest lutein content of the Brassicas. Lutein is a type of carotenoid, similar to beta-carotene, that protects against breast and colon cancer and helps preserve eye health.

Second would be beet greens, a member of the Amaranth family. There is no better source of potassium (K) in foods. Evidence suggests that heart disease and high blood pressure can be avoided just by eating more potassium. Bananas are mediocre sources of K based on calories and weight. Beet greens are as good as it gets. Swiss chard and spinach are also good.

Mustard greens are extremely high in sulforaphane, a phytonutrient found in most members of the Brassica family. That hot, spicy flavor indicates high sulforaphane and flavonoid contents – powerful anti-cancer nutrients. These greens have exceptional levels of K, magnesium and lutein.

Carrots and parsnips contain high levels of beta-D-glucan, a soluble fiber that readers might say, “Oh, that’s in oatmeal.” But by weight, carrots and parsnips have more of this cholesterol-lowering fiber.

Blueberries, cranberries and bilberries (all in the Vaccinium family) are high in antioxidants that come from the red or blue pigments called anthocyanins. In my Ph.D. work at UMaine, we showed that in just one month, eating one cup of raw or frozen (not cooked) blueberries per day significantly increased a person’s blood antioxidant value. Anthocyanins also reduce overall inflammation and the likelihood of developing cancer and other chronic diseases. Blend these berries into a smoothie but don’t cook them to temperatures greater than 130 F.

All types of winter squash are sweet but they don’t raise blood sugar levels as fast as bread or pasta. I suggest people eat these instead of grain products for starch. So many grain products lose nutrients during milling and refining. How about replacing pasta and bread with a vegetable to boost micronutrients and antioxidants in the diet?

The Alliums – onions, garlic, leeks – are powerhouses for fighting inflammation. Alliums are high in selenium and in a soluble fiber called inulin that is actually a prebiotic. Some people take probiotics to boost beneficial gut bacteria, but the fiber in Alliums (and in Jerusalem artichokes) gives intestinal bacteria something to live on. Taking probiotics without also consuming foods with inulin is not sustainable. People should consume onions, garlic, scallions or leeks daily.

Do different animal breeds have different nutritional offerings?

Yes. What stands out most are differences in milk from different breeds of cows. The Holstein is a maximum yield breed, producing more than three times as much milk in a 300-day milking cycle as breeds such as Jerseys and Brown Swiss. Some of that increase has been through increased production of A1 beta casein, a protein largely absent in milk from older dairy breeds. More than 90 percent of U.S. dairy herds are Holstein breeds. A1 beta casein is linked to Type 1 diabetes, autoimmune conditions, and behavior issues in children.

How does an animal’s diet influence its meat, egg or dairy product nutritional offerings?

It comes down to pasture-raised versus grain-fed animals. A balanced polyunsaturated fatty acid profile helps the body balance the inflammation response. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, less likely to form a clot, while omega-6s make blood a little stickier. Animals raised on pasture or quality hay have a much higher level of omega-3.

A big factor with pastured dairy animals is CLA, conjugated linoleic acid – a unique type of fat found only in ruminants that forage on grass. CLA has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, and improves a person’s metabolic profile. When a ruminant spends more time on pasture there is more CLA in milk fat.

You’ve mentioned a field of study called xenohormesis. Can you explain this?

All plants and animals produce stress molecules. Xenohormesis (xeno – foreign; hormesis – endocrine) studies effects of consumed stress molecules on our endocrine systems. Eating an animal that was raised in stressful conditions tends to produce a greater inflammatory response in humans. On the other hand, local plants contain unique molecules that allow them to adapt to stressors in their particular environment – and these molecules might benefit us.

What resources do you recommend for further reading?

Origins of the Human Diet and Implications for Chronic Disease in the 21st Century, by Loren Cordain et al., The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Feb. 2005;

Whole Foods Companion, by Diane Orstad, Chelsea Green, 1996

The China Study, by Thomas M. Campbell II and T. Colin Campbell, BenBella Books, 2004

For more information, see

About the author: Polly Shyka farms Village Farm in Freedom with her husband, Prentice Grassi, and their three young sons.

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