Column: Health benefits to living off the land

Education can be life saving when harvesting food from nature

By James Murray, Observer contributor

There is living off the land and then there is living off the land to the extreme – harvesting food from nature with little more than homespun knowledge and the use of your own two hands.

I guess I’m just not much of an extremist, especially when it comes to trying to sustain one’s self on a diet of nuts and wild berries. I enjoy my creature comforts too much.

Having said that, tubers, leaves, flowers, seeds, nuts and the stems of many plants, not to mention certain fungi, are quite edible. Some can be eaten raw while others are best when boiled or roasted. Some can be used in soups or made into tea, while others are used in a variety of homeopathic cures and medicines. Ironically, most processed food were once natural – at least in part.

In the process of reading on the Internet about wild foods, natural medicines and other edible products derived from nature, I discovered some pretty interesting facts.

Did you know that the young shoots of the spruce tree are high in vitamin C, or that certain wild plants such as the jack-in-the-pulpit, more commonly known as Indian turnip, have high concentrations of oxalate compounds, also known as oxalic acid, that produces a sharp burning sensation in your mouth and throat and in some cases can damage the kidneys? (The same plant can be safely eaten after simply baking, roasting or drying, which destroys the oxalate crystals.)

Or that willow bark, which provides salicylic acid from which aspirin was originally synthesized, was used a pain reliever by the ancient Greeks some 2,500 years ago?

There are more than 70,000 kinds of mushrooms; however, only a fraction (about 250) are edible. The rest can cause illness or even death. The Death Cap is considered to be the number one cause of illness and death when it comes to mushroom-related poisonings in North America. And, despite its attractive appearance, the “Destroying Angel” is the name of yet another mushroom that can kill you. It is very important to know exactly what you’re looking for when you go mushroom hunting in the woods, to say the least.

The common white mushroom, which most of us give little thought to when we buy them at the local grocery store, is actually a fungi and, in more instances than not, fungi are something best left alone. When the skin on your feet feels itchy, you’ve probably got athlete’s foot, which is caused by, you guessed it, a fungus. Fungi and the spores from fungi can be nasty little things. In some cases they can even be deadly.

While I can’t really say that I’m into the whole foraging for food or eating of wild plants and fungi thing, I do enjoy a good moose roast every now and then, and I’ve always enjoyed a shore lunch of freshly caught fish. I’m not even adverse to catching and keeping the occasional fish to take home. The problem is that not all produce at supermarkets and grocery stores is grown in the ground and far too many fish are farmed. And then there’s the store-bought cuts of meat with all their growth hormones and steroids.

I made the decision a long time ago to cut down on red meats.

While I may not have grown up eating wild game, I have always had an appreciation for wild game which, incidentally, is becoming more and more popular these days and is starting to show up in more and more specialty butcher shops. Studies would seem to indicate that wild game meats have a number of health benefits when compared to meats from domesticated or farm-raised animals.

The fact that wild animals eat a natural diet and are very active in the wild contributes to a lower fat content in the meat. Also, animals eating natural greens and other types of plants and berries in the wild contributes to a lower content of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and a higher content of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.

Chronic inflammation is associated with health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. In effect, wild animals eat more grass, green leaves and plants than their domesticated counterparts which means they have leaner meat with lower omega-6 fatty acid content – which, in simple terms, make it better to eat.

So I guess when all is said and done, there really are a number of good reasons to consider a more natural diet – without having to go to extremes.

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