Nourishing Body and Spirit in an Uncertain World

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • In his wonderful book, “Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Own Nutritional Wisdom”, Dr. Fred Provenza covers the fascinating topic of the innate nutritional wisdom of animals
  • It was a herd of shrub-pruning goats in Utah that set Dr. Provenza on his lifelong study of the interconnections between the soil, plants and animals
  • In Nourishment, Dr. Provenza raises and answers thought-provoking questions about what we can learn from animals about nutritional wisdom

Today I'm very excited to be talking with Dr. Fred Provenza, professor emeritus in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University. Dr. Provenza has written hundreds of journal articles and professional papers as well as a magnificent book called Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Own Nutritional Wisdom. As a fellow wildlife biologist, I loved the book so much I contacted him for an interview.

One of the things I enjoyed about Dr. Provenza's book is how he weaves short essays about his fascinating research on the innate wisdom of animals with stories, thoughts and research on how his findings might apply to humans. The first part of his book, Dining with Change, Dancing with the Wisdom of the Body and Savoring the Artist's Palate, address nutrition and its impact on health.

He eloquently knits together how soil makes plants that nourish animals that nourish us (or not). There are benefits and consequences, the whole way up that food chain. Dr. Provenza has made a career of studying the intricacies of these interconnections, the wisdom body, as he calls it. The last two sections focus on the mystery and wonder of these complex and infinite relationships.

Because this interview was an extended, in-depth conversation about the interconnectedness of animals, their environment and their innate nutritional discernment, this article highlights just some of the discussion I thought Healthy Pets readers would enjoy. The following will give you an idea of the questions I asked Dr. Provenza and the topics we covered in the full video interview (above).

Why he wrote Nourishment

More about the BEHAVE program

Behavior-based land management

The amazing things you can learn from goats

Domestication and formulated rations

Secondary compounds — phenols, terpenes, alkaloids

The flavored straw test — how experience shapes taste

Why choice and food diversity are so important

Nutrient self-selection

Moms — mothers as transgenerational links to ancient wisdom

Nutritional memory

One "complete and balanced food" for the "average individual" vs. a wide variety of foods to help meet unique needs of each individual

Plants for therapy and prevention

Scavenging omnivores (and other blurry categories)

I invite all of you who share my love of ecology to watch the full interview.

Goats, Woodrat Houses and Innate Nutritional Wisdom

I began by asking Dr. Provenza at what point in his career he realized that animals possess innate nutritional wisdom.

"Being trained in wildlife biology, I really wanted to study goats," he says. "But I wanted to study mountain goats in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The last thing that interested me at that point was studying domestic goats on a monoculture of blackbrush. But I learned so much watching those goats every day. Two things really struck me.

Number one, we were using them to prune the shrub blackbrush during the winter, which stimulates new growth during the spring and summer. The new twigs are much more nutritious than the old woody plants.

They're higher in energy, protein and minerals and we knew that. But the goats didn't want to eat the new growth, which amazed me. I knew they weren't stupid. So that was one thing that stuck with me that winter.

The second thing was that in addition to the blackbrush shrubs there were juniper trees scattered all about the place, and at the base of many of those trees were woodrat houses. Woodrats are small mammals that live in the desert. They build these houses, and they put juniper bark on the outside sort of like siding.

We had six different groups of goats, and one group (and only one) started eating the woodrat houses. They removed the bark from the outside to reveal the densely packed vegetation inside each of the rooms of the house. One of the rooms was the bathroom, and the vegetation in that room was soaked with urine. It was a non-protein nitrogen source that enabled the goats to better digest blackbrush.

We weighed all the goats throughout the winter, and the one group performed better than all the others who weren't eating the woodrat houses. So, now I'm thinking there's a lot going on here that hasn't been studied. Actually, it had been studied, but previous researchers concluded, in error, that domestic animals no longer have nutritional wisdom. "

I asked Dr. Provenza about zoopharmacognosy — animals self-selecting certain foods for chemical compounds that may be needed for a malady they're experiencing.

"If they're sick and they learn to self-medicate on something, they'll do that and we showed that they can do that under multiple states," he explains. "They can recognize different internal states of illness and self-select the medicine [food] that rectifies that. So one facet of our studies was to explore these biochemically mediated, flavor-feedback relationships. I guess that's a mouthful."

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Food Diversity and Maternal Wisdom Are Critical for Animals

Dr Provenza stressed that all animals, including humans and our pets, have the ability to self-select diets that meet needs for nutrients and to self-medicate. Those abilities depend on three interdependent factors.

First, liking for food is mediated by feedback from cells and organ systems, including the microbiome, in response to physiological needs, which are met by nutrients (energy, protein, minerals, vitamins) and the tens of thousands of other compounds plants produce (phenolics, terpenes, alkaloids) that in moderate amounts promote health.

Second, animals can readily meet their nutritional and medicinal needs when they have access to diverse arrays of foods, but the more we restrict their choices, the less able they are to select diets to maintain their health.

Third, mother is an essential transgenerational link to foodscapes. Her knowledge of what and what not to eat is fundamentally important for helping her offspring get a start in life. Her influence begins in the womb (flavors in amniotic fluid), continues at birth (through flavors in milk), and she serves as a model when her offspring begin to forage. Dr. Provenza went on to stress the importance of having a variety of foods available:

"If animals don't have a wide array of alternatives available to them, there's no way nutritional wisdom can be fully expressed. From when I was a young undergrad, people talked about the importance of biodiversity and I understood, but as I've gone through the last 50 years, I've come to deeply appreciate why biodiversity is so important.

Nowadays, people are so interested in soil and for good reasons. Without soil health, it's a mess. But I like to remind people that plants turn dirt into soil and diverse mixtures of plants turn soil into homes for herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores below and above ground.

So, without plants, it's just dirt. Plants and plant diversity are the keys to making gillions homes below ground and above ground. And when it comes to being able to self-select diets that meet needs, diversity enables that. So that's the second leg of the nutritional wisdom stool.

The third leg is mother. It was so amazing to realize the many ways that mother becomes this transgenerational link, mother links offspring to ancestors to landscapes. Mother's knowledge of what and what not to eat, where and where not to go, what's a predator, what's not.

Her knowledge of that environment is fundamental to survival. In addition, it's so important too that genes are being expressed epigenetically and that begins in the womb.

We did many studies looking at experiences in utero, mother's milk and mother as a model, and showing just how important she is on food and habitat selection. We know that when domestic animals are allowed to go feral, they end up in extended families, just like bison and many other wild herbivores. And those families are also so important for survival.

In the book, I reviewed many examples of wildlife species that live in extended families that are called matrilines where you have mother and her offspring and grandma and great-grandma and so forth. And young males are part of those groups during their first few years and then they break out of those groups and form their own groups."

Nutritional Memory

I asked Dr. Provenza about nutritional memory and his thoughts on domesticated animals, both pets and livestock, maintaining any remnant of this "innate nutritional wisdom." Animals' nutritional needs vary, depending on a number of factors including environment and disease status.

"It's logical to me that over the eons animals needed to be able to self-select foods that meet their own unique physiological needs to nourish their bodies in a way that resonates with what's happening in their own, unique environment." he said.

"Historically, there were no medical doctors or veterinarians. So absolutely, nutritional wisdom has always been and still is built into the bodies of domesticated animals. We simply need to enable that through the ways we've been discussing."

Animals and Pets Exist on Preformed 'All-in-One' Diets

After reading Nourishment, one thing readers will walk away with is a clear understanding of how magnificently wired animals are at deciphering what they need, when they need it and where to find it. Dr. Provenza writes about factory farmed cows consuming scientifically formulated, preformed "all-in-one ground-up food."

I was struck by the similarity to pet food. We feed our dogs and cats nutritionally "complete and balanced" all-ground-up food and take away their ability to forage or make any food choices at all.

"Yes, I have to say I love every word of what you're saying, Karen, on that," says Dr. Provenza. "The further we went along in our studies, it became so obvious that no two individuals are alike. Each one of them is so uniquely different. Even in the most seemingly uniform groups we ever put together.

And if you think from a human standpoint, each one of us can be identified by our fingerprint; a bloodhound can track us by our odors. We're each absolutely unique. Well, then you start to think about our organ systems and how they function, and they are equally unique.

And so, when gave animals choices, that uniqueness was manifest in what individuals ate from meal to meal and day to day... I'm thinking now of one study with lambs. We gave them a simple choice between alfalfa pellets and rolled barley, and allowed them to self-select.

And we had everything from animals that just loved the barley and ate very little of the alfalfa pellets to ones that loved the alfalfa pellets and didn't want to eat much of the rolled barley. That's just two foods. Every animal gained weight just fine. But they were doing it in their own way.

Then we went on to do work with cattle. We offered them either a total mixed ration, which would be like a dog ration. One group was fed a total mixed ration formulated for the "average individual" in the group.

The other group of animals was simply allowed to self-select from the four ingredients that were in the ground up total mixed ration, day to day, whatever they wanted to eat. By the end of the trial several things were really obvious.

One was that given a choice, no two animals ever selected the same combination of foods and no individual ever selected the same food from day to day, but they all finished in fine condition. And what was amazing, the ones choosing their own ration ate less food than the ones on the total mixed ration.

They were able to better meet their needs. They weren't having to over ingest to get the nutrients they needed. There's some evidence that animals will over ingest energy in order to meet needs for protein in cases like the total-mixed ration.

The bottom line was the animals given a choice ate far less food. So that meant it cost us less to feed that group of animals. So, there was an efficiency that came as a result of allowing those animals to self-select their own diet.

We did many studies with sheep and cattle looking at [self-selection]. It became apparent that animals aren't machines and genes aren't destiny. Everyone is different and when we allow that to be expressed there is an economic benefit [for livestock producers].

And certainly, a benefit to each individual animal's well-being. One of my colleagues is studying stress levels, by monitoring cortisol levels, when animals are given choice versus no choice. When animals can self-select their own diet, there's less stress for them.

In the book, you remember I mentioned when animals are given choices, they'll eat 50 to 75 foods in a day. By eating that many plants they're able to self-medicate prophylactically, that's so important because it's getting these vast arrays of compounds in low dosages into the body.

And I realize not everything is digested or absorbed, but a lot of them are and they get into the capillaries where a cell can forage on the compounds it needs to maintain its health and ultimately the health of the animal. Cells can forage only on what's in those capillaries.

Feedback from cells and organ systems changes liking for foods as a function of needs, and that's how cells and organ systems change liking as a function of their needs.

So, there are so many good reasons to give animals choices. And I think back to what you said about how interesting it would be to do research along those lines with pets, assess cortisol levels as a measure of how content they are on choice vs no choice.

Look at how healthy they are, look at longevity, all those things and then go back to that fundamental idea, no two of them are alike. So, giving them choice and ability to choose is good for them."

This synopsis of our long and colorful interview doesn't include any of the thought-provoking questions Dr. Provenza poses about what we can learn from animals, as teachers. As one fellow reader of Nourishment commented, "The shortest line to draw between humankind and nature is what we eat. Read this book and you'll surely be convinced of that." I'd like to thank Dr. Provenza for sharing more about his lifetime of fascinating work in this interview.

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