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College 101: Health and the Natural World

I am very interested in nature these days. I love to hike, I love to spend time outside, and I’ve begun to get more interested in environmental issues. I’ve almost become a full-on hippie! But there’s still one area in which I think nature buffs and hippies are a little weird: natural health. When I talk to friends about diet and natural remedies, they go on and on about stuff that sounds ridiculous to me. Experts, what’s the real deal on the natural world and health?

Human ingenuity is an amazing thing, but we wouldn’t have much without our natural world. When it comes time to create new things, we humans can only use what we have around us. So, in a way, everything we do consists of “natural” things. Of course, the history of human development has seen us expand our toolkit from raw natural materials to more processed materials and even synthetic materials. We can create things in labs that don’t exist in nature, and we consider these materials to be distinct from “natural” ones (though it’s worth noting that the distinction can be fuzzy--again, everything has to come in some way from the materials we can acquire!). Some very effective and important medicines originate in laboratories instead of in forests or oceans, and that’s okay--but don’t underestimate just how vital the natural world still is to our health. There are still plenty of treatments and medicines drawn straight from the world around us, and when it comes to nutrition, nature reigns supreme. Let’s take a closer look.

Let’s start with nutrition, which connects with the natural world. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that humans have long lived off foods that we get from the planet: we are omnivores, which means we plants and animals, and those are “natural” things. As we’ve developed, though, we’ve found new ways to change and process those natural foods: though Doritos consist of corn, it’s not as if you can pick a fresh Dorito off the stalk. So, the question becomes, “Are natural foods healthier, as many nature buffs claim?”

The short answer: yes. Experts agree that eating whole foods (unprocessed foods) is healthier. Adding more whole foods--particularly vegetables--to our diets is a key way to get healthier and stay that way. Does this mean that every single “superfood” craze roots in science? No, even though it’s hard to imagine that you could go wrong by eating a bunch of nutrient-rich kale or quinoa. But the basic fact is that whole foods are good for you, and even if the specifics can get a little embellished from time to time, we’re giving the hippies a clear victory on this one. So, go out and eat more vegetables! Look for fresh ones, recommend whole vegetable suppliers in Melbourne, and try to prepare them in different ways (roasted, raw, boiled, etc.), since different preparation methods can unlock different helpful nutrients in the same plants.

What about medicine? It seems that whole foods would be good for us, but it’s a bit harder to wrap our heads around the idea that medicine can be both natural and effective. The fact is, though, that many of our most effective medicines are rooted in the natural world. Natural dietary supplements can make a significant difference, say experts behind a supplement that serves as a treatment for essential tremors. And some over-the-counter medicines and prescription medicines are just modern version of old natural healing options: take aspirin, for instance, which is drawn from the willow plant.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t some junk science out there or that there aren’t useless natural “remedies” peddled to folks who are a little too credulous when it comes to natural products. However, your skepticism seems to go too far. While there are bogus remedies on the market, the simple fact of the matter is that many of our most effective and proven medicines and supplements, including ones that doctors prescribe every day, have their roots in natural sources and have histories as natural remedies. Just because they come in a pill bottle doesn’t mean they didn’t start with Mother Earth!

There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy skepticism, but don’t be afraid to embrace the overall truth here: the natural world is the source of incredible nutritional and medicinal wealth.

“Investing in our health is the biggest investment we will ever make.” - Ellie Savoy

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