Mental health is an important concern for all human beings, but the connection between depression and diet seldom comes up in mainstream discussions. In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, I meet with Autumn Smith, founder of Paleovalley, to discuss the motivating factor of personal health problems that brought both of us into our current line of work, and dig deeper into important topics like that little-discussed connection between nutrition and mental health, the widespread problem of nutrient deficiencies, how soil quality affects the nutrient density of food, and more.
In this episode, we discuss:
- Autumn Smith’s personal health journey, which led her to found Paleovalley
- The connection between diet and mental health
- The widespread problem of nutrient deficiencies, even in the modern, civilized world
- How soil quality affects the nutrient density of food
- The mission of Paleovalley
- The importance of caring for your immune system, especially in today’s world
RHR: The Importance of Nutrition for Mental and Physical Health, with Autumn Smith of Paleovalley
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m excited to welcome my friend and colleague Autumn Smith as a guest.
Autumn has a pretty similar story to mine in terms of her recovery from a complex and debilitating chronic illness earlier in her life. She suffered from severe [irritable bowel syndrome] and also severe anxiety and mental health issues. So I think you’ll get a lot out of this podcast. We talk about the link between diet and mental health, why nutrient deficiency is widespread even in the industrialized world and wealthy countries, and what you can do about it. [We discuss] the importance of gut health, not only for mental and behavioral health, but in general. [We talk about] the decline in soil quality and what that has meant in terms of nutrient density of foods we eat even on a good diet, sustainable agriculture and regenerative farming, and more. I really enjoyed this conversation, [and] I think you will, as well. Let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Autumn, it’s such a pleasure to see you. Welcome to the show.
Autumn Smith: Thanks, Chris. It’s really an honor to be here. And I’m just excited to connect.
Chris Kresser: How’s 2022 been for you so far?
Autumn Smith: We live in Boulder. It’s been the weirdest ever.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, wildfires in January or December. Yeah, it’s strange, huh?
Autumn Smith: It was weird because we could literally see the fires from my son’s bedroom; we were right on the perimeter, and we didn’t know if we were going to be evacuated that night. And literally, we had been complaining because we couldn’t get snow. We love our white Christmases. And the next day, of course, we finally got snowfall. It’s just devastating. But other than that, 2022 has been pretty good. How about for you?
Chris Kresser: Yeah, good. I’ve been enjoying the winter so far. We got a lot of snow over Christmas here in Utah, like six or seven feet in 10 days, I think. It was a pretty white Christmas, and that made me happy. So it was fun.
Autumn Smith: Awesome.
Chris Kresser: I’m looking forward to talking to you about the link between diet and mental health. I know it’s something that you pay a lot of attention to. And nutrient status and why that’s important, which is something I pay a lot of attention to, as well. And then just chat a little bit about what you’ve learned through your experience as a nutritionist. You’ve also, like me, had a pretty intense experience with chronic symptoms over your life that eventually led you down the path that you’re on now and eventually to also create a company around that to help people who are dealing with similar issues. So [I’m] really looking forward to this. Why don’t you start by telling folks who aren’t familiar with your work a little bit about your story [and] how you got to where you are now?
Autumn’s Personal Health Journey
Autumn Smith: Yeah, well, it’s a long one, but I’m going to keep it relatively brief. When I was about 10 years old, I started to have digestive issues. It was just bloating and sometimes a lot of cramping, and we didn’t really know what to do. I lived in a small town in Montana, and my parents tried, but they said I had irritable bowel syndrome and they gave me Beano, and they said, “This is stress related, so relax.” And I was like, oh, okay. So that didn’t do anything. And as I got older, those symptoms that started in my gut, now I know there’s a big gut–brain connection, and I started to have mental health issues, anxiety, depression. They put me on antidepressants and all the meds, and that made it worse. And pretty soon, I just came to realize, okay, I’m broken. I’m going to need to use substances. My life is unmanageable [and] unpredictable. And I did that. And I just smoked and drank and did all the things until I met my husband Chas, who, even though I was living [the] life I was, I was a celebrity fitness trainer; I was making things happen. I danced professionally. When he saw who I was, when I wasn’t putting on this persona, he realized I was really suffering.
So he decided to have us try and fix this together. We tried the Paleo diet, which seemed silly to me at the time back in 2008, 2007. And it worked so well that I shared it with two of my friends right away. And when they noticed differences and changes, I thought, you know what? I have a great job as a celebrity fitness trainer; I’m going to have to quit, go back to school, and help people understand this wellness piece. Because I’d always been fit, but I wasn’t always well. So we founded our companies because I thought as someone who doesn’t love to linger in the kitchen, and one time I was on a world tour, I was like people need tools as much as they need education. And I know, people like you and Robb Wolf, you were out there educating very well. So we went into the product space so that everybody could live this whole food lifestyle in our busy modern world.
Chris Kresser: Well, thanks for sharing that. I would say 90 percent of people in our field have a story of their own, somewhat similar to yours and to mine that brought them into this field. And I think that makes a big difference. Because when you have a personal connection to what it’s like to suffer, that empathy really shows up in all the different ways that you can serve people, whether that’s working as a nutritionist and helping people make better choices or creating products that help people make better choices and help people be well. In a pretty challenging world, it makes a big difference.
The Diet and Mental Health Connection
Chris Kresser: Let’s talk a little bit more about diet and mental health because somebody has to. It’s not being talked about in the mainstream world, right? Still, after all this time, I’m horrified by how little attention this link gets. I’ll sometimes have people who are in my sphere, let’s say, they’re not close in, but acquaintances, people I know through various different things in my life, and they know a little bit about what I do. So they come to me, and they say, my son, my daughter, whatever, is experiencing a lot of, it could be anxiety, it could be depression, it could be behavioral health issues, [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder], whatever. And I start asking them questions about what they’ve done, who they[’ve] talked to, etc. And I would say less than one out of 10 times does the concept, even like an idea that food could have anything to do with the symptoms even enters their consciousness. And I don’t blame them as individuals; it’s a shortcoming of our whole approach. But what’s the problem with that? I mean, how can we be in that place still, at this point in time?
Autumn Smith: I honestly have no idea. But that is exactly where I started in 2010 [or 2007]. I didn’t even believe that changing my diet would improve my digestive symptoms. Because, for some reason, that was a novel concept to me. So I find it really, really sad. And I got really interested in this topic, because it was an unanticipated side effect of me changing my diet for digestive issues. And then all [of a] sudden, I was like, whoa, I’m stable, I’m peaceful, I’m centered. I have energy. So I’ve been working with people for a few years on this. And luckily, the research is coming out with Dr. Felice Jacka showing that a Mediterranean diet can actually be very useful even for people who are majorly depressed. But we also know that these effects are in children, when their mommy eats a processed foods diet, that they’re going to be at higher risk for anxiety. And we also know it literally can change the size of your brain in certain regions.
The research is pretty clear, even though it’s just starting to accumulate. And when I work with people, there are three general things I like people to know. And we can flesh it out later. But the first is that depression and other mental illnesses are often rooted in inflammation. I’d read the book, The Inflamed Brain, [by] Edward Bullmore. And there are so many ways to reduce inflammation, and your diet, because 70 to 80 percent of your immune system resides in the gut, is a really powerful place to begin. And then the second thing is that imbalanced blood sugar often masquerades as mental health issues. I think we all have that experience when we eat a high-carb meal or refined carbs, and then eventually, we come down and we crash and we’re irritable, or we’re hangry; we’re restless. And these are symptoms of a blood sugar issue. But what I used to do was attribute it to whatever was happening at that time. Oh, well, Chas is so annoying, my husband, or oh my gosh, my life [is] unmanageable, something I’m doing. So it can often be as simple as balancing your blood sugar.
And the last one is the nutrient deficiency. It can be that simple, too. [Vitamin] B12 deficiency is huge. If you don’t have enough B12, your brain’s not going to work well, [and] neurotransmitter production can be thwarted. So going through those three steps, I found is really powerful. And it takes some time. We can talk about how we measured and all of that. But those three steps have been so powerful for the people that I work with in changing their mental health dramatically, even though sometimes they kick and scream when you do it. But there [are] really simple ways to start, too. Like just eliminating processed foods and soda, and, for some people, caffeine. It was for me; caffeine was a big player, and also upgrading the fats of your diet. There’s research to suggest trans fats and omega six fatty acids, in general, might be detrimental, but [there are] lots of places to start, but there is a clear link because we know the gut actually has a second brain. It travels, it’s connected straight to our brain by the vagus nerve. The neurotransmitters we find in our brain are also in our gut.
And sometimes these changes like irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, can send messages to the brain that can change shifts in our mood. Whereas we used to think it’s only the brain that tells our gut that oh, well, I’m nervous, so I have butterflies. We now know [that] if you have dysbiosis and other things going on in your gut, it can send a message straight to your brain that can create these mood changes.
Chris Kresser: Bidirectional connection. And in Functional Medicine, we say fire in the gut, fire in the brain; there are several popular books out there about this, which are great. And I’m glad to see that it’s getting more attention. But it’s still a small niche that[’s] getting that attention. And it’s a shame to me because the incidence of mental and behavioral health disorders is off the charts in the [United States], whether you’re talking about kids or adults, and that’s only increased during the COVID[-19] pandemic, for lots of understandable reasons. I think even just drawing that connection between inflammation and depression and anxiety is really important. So I want to highlight that.
I’ve been writing about this almost since I started, because I came across the paper, which I’m sure you’ve seen or seen reports on, Autumn, that define this early on. It’s called the inflammatory cytokine model of depression, which is basically the understanding that you have dysbiosis in the gut, or an undetected gut infection, [small intestinal bacterial overgrowth], something like that, [which] causes inflammation in the gut. Those inflammatory cytokines leave the gut, because the gut’s permeable, when there’s inflammation, enter the bloodstream, travel up, cross the blood–brain barrier, and then suppress the activity of the frontal cortex, which produces symptoms [that] are indistinguishable from what we call depression. And no one really knows. I mean, I think there’s more than one cause of depression. But I think a lot of the research at this point suggests that this inflammatory cause or model is present in the majority of people who have depression. And yet, again, very few people, if they’re depressed, will think, “Oh, I guess I’m dealing with inflammation,” right? That’s not a connection that people tend to make. And it’s not to diminish the importance of situational factors and good therapy, and all of that. But I want that to be part of what somebody thinks of if they’re experiencing depression.
Autumn Smith: Yeah. And they’ve done research to show that you can make someone feel depressed by using certain medications that bring [on] inflammation. And then you get [crosstalk 12:47].
Chris Kresser: Like antiviral drugs.
Autumn Smith: Yes. And then in kids, the rates of depression, or I’m sorry, inflammatory markers in the blood are predictive of depression later in life. And that maybe depression in people who are treatment resistant more often is a result of inflammation.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, and when you look at some of the lifestyle interventions that are extremely effective with depression, exercise, probably being the one that is most I mean, if you look at research, exercise is as effective as antidepressants are more for mild to moderate depression. What is one of the things that exercise does? It keeps inflammation in check, presuming you’re not going overboard, as some people in our world tend to do. But yeah, it puts the brakes on inflammation. And, of course, diet, which we’re going to talk more about. Like eating a nutrient-dense whole foods, anti-inflammatory diet, that’s going to put the brakes on inflammation, as well. So it has multiple impacts, right? It’s reducing inflammation, but then it’s making sure you’re getting enough nutrients, which you mentioned, as well. And then it’s also addressing the third factor, which is directly feeding your beneficial bacteria and cultivating good gut health. So there [are] all these virtual cycles.
Autumn Smith: Yeah, absolutely. And like I said, it absolutely changed my life when I changed my diet. And it seems way too simple. And there [are] also some really interesting supplemental compounds I want people to know about. Turmeric has been shown to be as potent as antidepressant drugs like Prozac. Even 1000 milligrams of [eicosapentaenoic acid] (EPA) was found to work as well in at least one trial. There’s carnitine. It’s just like we always [crosstalk 14:33].
Chris Kresser: Probiotics, yeah.
Autumn Smith: Probiotics, exactly. We always jump to oh, there’s a chemical imbalance and I need medication. And we’ve been taught that. But there [are] so many other things you can try, and like you said, diet’s a big place to start.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, it’s really notable. I don’t think it’s useful to spend too much time on why this isn’t known further. I think we can all probably guess some reasons why. Not a lot of money in this.
Autumn Smith: Yeah, it’s too easy.
The Widespread Problem of Nutrient Deficiency
Chris Kresser: Yeah, well, and nobody’s making a lot of money off telling people to eat well and take care of their gut health and get enough nutrients. Let’s come back to nutrient deficiency because a lot of times, when I talk about nutrient deficiency, people think, “Okay, well, that might be a problem in Sub-Saharan Africa or India or parts of China where there’s significant poverty, and people don’t have enough to eat.” And they’re right, of course; it is a problem in those places. But what about in the [United States] and the [United Kingdom] and Scandinavia and these developed countries? Is nutrient deficiency a problem in those places, as well?
Autumn Smith: Yes, absolutely. We’re actually dealing with something called hidden hunger, where we have this surplus of calories that aren’t necessarily nutrient dense, but that we’re also not getting a lot of the nutrients that we need, because we’ve prioritized certain methods of production. And it’s estimated that we need two times the amount of meat, three times the amount of fruits, and four to five times the amount of vegetables that we would have needed in 1940 to get the same amount of nutrients. And even the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] acknowledged that over 90 percent of us are deficient in at least one nutrient. And you can be overweight and still nutrient deficient. And when you are, you’re going to have a harder time burning fat, you’re going to feel lethargic, [and] your body’s not going to work as well. Most of us, pretty much everyone, I think, can safely assume is deficient in certain nutrients. And there [are] even nutrients of particular importance when it comes to mental health issues, and we can get into that. But I have yet to work with someone when I dialed in their diet, who has checked off all the nutrient boxes. I just don’t see that happen ever.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, there are a lot of issues here, a lot of challenges, and it’s a vicious cycle, I think, where you have inadequate intake of nutrients, and that can be because of poor choices off the top. We know 60 percent of the calories Americans get are not just from processed foods, but from ultra-processed foods. So there’s that. But then you mentioned another factor. Even if someone’s making pretty good choices, there’s this degradation in soil quality. And, of course, all nutrients come from soil. So if there’s a decline, and I want to come back to this, and I’m just going to touch on it here. But I want to dive deeper into that.
So even if you’re making good choices, you’re not getting the same level of nutrition that your ancestors were, whether you’re talking about our ancestors 100 years ago, or 5,000 years ago, or 10,000 years ago. But then you have poor gut health. So if [people] have issues with the gut, they’re not digesting and absorbing the nutrients, even if they’re eating the right stuff. And then you’ve got the fact that any chronic disease, whether it’s diabetes, or obesity, or [a] heart condition, or [an] autoimmune condition, increases the demand for nutrients. Because you need more than you would need if you didn’t have that condition. So yeah, it seems like when you put all that together, we’re swimming upstream. We’re starting from below zero, and we have to pay a lot of attention to [in order to] get back to where we need to be.
Autumn Smith: Absolutely. And I know a lot of the people that I work with who are already [following a] Paleo [diet are] often deficient in things like B vitamins, a lot of times and sometimes calcium, and even omega three fatty acids. I don’t know why I find that people are resistant to eating as much fish as I’d like them to.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, they’re not often eating fish, and if they’re not eating pasture-raised animal products, then there’s not really that much of a source of EPA and [docosahexaenoic acid] (DHA).
Autumn Smith: Right. And you’ve probably written about this, but Columbia University did some analyses to determine which nutrients are the most important for mental health and things like iron, zinc, the B vitamins, magnesium, and omega three fatty acids, and they even looked at what are the most antidepressant protective foods. And it’s oysters, poultry giblets, fish, cruciferous vegetables, and colorful fruits and veggies. So those foods need to become staples if we are going to reverse the trend of nutrient deficiency.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, for sure. And these foods were also much more common in our ancestors’ diet. Again, it could be as recently as our grandparents. I know that my grandma took cod liver oil, and my mom talks about being given cod liver oil when she was sick growing up and she didn’t like that. But that was still happening here in the [United States] a lot. And my dad actually grew up occasionally eating liver and onions, but today, these foods are not really part of our diet. And you know this, Autumn, as hopefully, a lot of my longer-term listeners know this, but those are the foods that are the most nutrient dense. You mentioned oysters. [They are] off the charts with zinc, copper, iron, and other nutrients.
So, talk a little bit about the most nutrient-dense foods, the foods that you recommend people integrate into their diet, not as medicine per se, but with the awareness that we’re all struggling and we have to pay some attention to this. And it’s not sometimes enough even just to eat a “healthy diet,” whether that’s Paleo, Mediterranean, whatever choice you’re making, that you actually have to take a step beyond that sometimes to make sure you’re getting enough nutrients. So what are the foods that you recommend? And if you have any tips or tricks for how to, because I’m sure we both struggle with this, like, my patients, getting them to actually eat liver or eat shellfish, how do you work with people in that way?
Autumn Smith: Absolutely. And like you said, I started the Paleo diet, then I learned how to balance my blood sugar in addition to the Paleo diet, and then I learned how to increase my nutrient density. And it was only when I got all three figured out that I felt my best. But I think number one is fermented foods, because it’s been shown [that] people who have social anxiety when they eat fermented foods, I think this trial was done in yogurt, they feel better. And so they’re feeding those good gut bugs, right? A lot of us have dysbiosis, [which,] as we learned, can create inflammation. So I do a fermented day. And I often get raw sauerkraut in my local store, and I just take a spoonful every day. And then I move on with my life. When you get good at that, if you’re opposed to eating fermented foods, you can incorporate them a few times a day. But typically, I start there. Then I do beet kvass, sometimes I do coconut yogurt, [and] sometimes I go all the way with yogurt. Sometimes I do our beef sticks; they’re fermented, too.
The second thing is meat. Meat in general. There’s this big push away from it. You’re part of this conversation; you are this conversation. But when women I noticed, in particular, don’t get enough protein, and I often have people aim for like 100 grams a day, they suffer emotionally; their blood sugar’s all over the place. Amino acids are the basis of our neurotransmitters. And so just getting people to use them as snacks; instead of going for some chips, just have a deviled egg, have some smoked salmon, [or] have one of our beef sticks or something. And eating I think at least 30 grams of protein per meal is the goal. You just need to get a delicious, high-quality source of meat, and it doesn’t take that many, just a few little spices, maybe some grass-fed butter. Also, fish out of the can; I eat it all the time. Sardines, some oysters, and that is not something I wanted to do naturally. It is something that I had to train myself to do over time. But you sprinkle that with a little mustard, you can get a little mustard, you can get a little sriracha, you can get a little buffalo sauce, and it’s much easier. But [for] fish and meat, there’s actually been research to suggest specifically red meat is really protective against depression [and] anxiety, which I was opposed to eating, as well, which is why we started with grass-fed beef sticks.
And then I think organ meats [are] literally the most nutrient dense, and even that Columbia analysis said we need organ meats in our diet to protect our mental health. They’ve got so much [vitamin] B12, vitamin A like you said, iron, [and] copper. It’s funny because some researchers in the 1940s, I believe, actually showed that beef liver could cure pernicious anemia. I’m sure you’re familiar with this, which is interesting because iron issues are also often a result of, or for mental health issues can often involve iron dysregulation. And so for organ meats, I did everything I could. I soaked them in milk; I had Chas not tell me he was going to make me a burger, but just slip a little tripe in there. It didn’t work. And then I used your trick. I think I learned where you freeze it, and then you roll it into balls, and then you put it in the back. But I was also pregnant at the time. So even that was not working. So we put it into capsules, and that’s what we do. We [took] heart, liver, and kidney, [and] we made it an organ complex. That’s a great way to do that for people who just aren’t there yet. And then I always say aim for five servings of fruits and vegetables. As we saw, again, fruits, veggies, color, that is one of the most health protective all around, but also mental health protective things that you can do.
Chris Kresser: I always tell my patients if you’re willing to eat organs and you’re actually going to do it, like not just in your imagination, but [you are] actually going to do it on a regular basis and eat one to two servings of liver, for example, heart. Tongue is sometimes called the gateway organ meat because even though people tend to be grossed out by tongue, it actually tastes more like a muscle meat. And the nutrient quality is more like a muscle meat, too. So it’s not as beneficial as liver or heart or kidney. [With] heart also, a lot of people, as they’re getting used to the taste and texture of organ meats, heart will be the second one that they’re able to tolerate. And then liver will generally come after that. Kidney is often a pretty distant fourth, if that ever happens. But I love that you put those together [in] one product. I often recommend it to patients, and we take it ourselves when we don’t have time to include those foods in our diet.
Because, again, there’s the ideal and there’s the actual. So if you are a person who just knows you’re not going to cook and prepare organ meats, then taking a supplement that is essentially organ meat that’s been freeze dried and powdered, I think that’s important for people to understand. It’s a whole food supplement. You’re basically taking those; it’s like eating those organs, but in powdered form. And [if] you know that you’re good at taking capsules, and you’re willing to do that on a daily basis, I would far rather see somebody do that than not do it at all. And you’re going to get a ton of benefit[s] that way.
Autumn Smith: Yeah, and I even can slip them to my little guy. And you can train the taste buds for sure. But yeah, they’ve been game changers for me because literally, when I take or eat liver, even when I did make myself eat liver, I feel an energy and a vitality that I just didn’t experience otherwise.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, it really is a superfood in that regard, especially for energy. If I have patients who are really, really low on energy, just getting them to eat liver and sometimes some other organ meats, as well, or organ capsules like the Organ Delight you [have], that can make an almost overnight difference in energy levels. People are pretty blown away by it often.
How Soil Quality Affects the Nutrient Profile of Food
Chris Kresser: So let’s come back to soil quality and the converse of that, like we’re talking generally about ways to increase nutrient density in your diet. So first, talk a little bit more about the problems with soil now and why nutrient value has declined. And then maybe a little bit about what somebody might be able to do about that, especially even just having a window garden or willing to do a little bit of their own work there.
Autumn Smith: Yes. The reason a lot of people believe that we have nutrient levels that are declining was the dilution effect that we were asking too much of our land because we’re prioritizing yield and trying to grow too much in too little space. But Dr. Christine Jones, a soil scientist, teaches us that it’s actually the breakdown of the soil biology. And this happens because of the way that we’ve been treating and doing agriculture for especially the last 70 years, in that we’re using these synthetic inputs and nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides, and we’re tilling. And all those bacteria that have a relationship with the root systems stopped working; they stopped existing. So what we need to do is prioritize forms of agriculture that look at that root system. Because what happens in a healthy system is the sun and light and water come and they feed the plant, the plant turns the carbon into carbohydrates that go down through the root system, [and] they feed the bacteria. The bacteria want to return the favor, basically, for the food, so they make the nutrients in the soil available. But that doesn’t happen. Even if the soil has the nutrients that biology and the breakdown of it mean that it won’t be able to access it. So I think that is the bigger issue and the one that we really have decided to tackle in our company, and hopefully, we’ll see more regenerative agriculture soon.
But if you’re someone who wants to improve [the] nutrient density of your food, you can. You can grow your own food; you can have a garden, [and] you can also go and support your local farmers. You can ask your farmers about their principles and what they’re using. Because often, even if you go to stores, it’s going to travel thousands of miles and you don’t know the conditions. And organic isn’t necessarily the same as regenerative. So just getting involved in your local community, asking the questions that might make people want to move in that direction, creating a demand for it. And if you have the energy and you want to garden, that’s a beautiful place to begin, too. I haven’t quite made it into that terrain. But a lot of my friends have herbs, and they make their garden fresh salads, and I’m extra jealous. And that is next-level, or that’s one of my goals in the next few years.
Chris Kresser: We had a huge garden in California. But it turns out the growing season in the mountains of Utah is quite short.
Autumn Smith: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: And also, tomatoes don’t love it when it snows in June or in September, when it was 85 degrees the day before, and then it snows two days later. So that’s mountain living. It’s a little bit harder to do here. But it’s really worthwhile even just having a planter box with kitchen herbs, like basil or cilantro or parsley or something like that. Herbs are one of the most nutrient-dense foods ounce for ounce. So just incorporating more fresh herbs into your diet is something almost anybody can do. And even if you live in New York City or Chicago, if you have a window, you can put a little box out there.
But farmers markets, too. Autumn, you said something that I want to come back to. I’ve written about this quite a bit. I had Jo Robinson, who is the author of [Eating on the Wild Side], on my show several years ago, and that book was amazing because it really opened my eyes to the difference in nutrient value from like where you get your food, and basically, how long it’s been out of the ground is one of the biggest factors, right? So like you just said, if you buy a carrot in Whole Foods, even in Whole Foods, and it’s organic, chances are that carrot was on a truck for probably at least three or four days. Before it probably sat in a warehouse for some period of time, and the warehouse is dark. And so, as you know, the truck[s] [are] not exposed to sunlight, and [once] those vegetables [are] out of the ground, especially if they’re stored in the dark, they’re losing that nutrient value right from the moment they’re pulled out of the ground. Versus going down to the farmers market and buying a carrot that the farmer picked, harvested maybe a day ago before coming to the farmers market. Can you talk a little bit about the difference that those kinds of choices make?
Autumn Smith: Absolutely. Like you said, a lot of times what they do if they know that it’s going to be traveling, they pick it before it’s even ripe, again, meaning that we won’t have as many nutrients to begin with. But also, I had that experience. Lance Roll, he’s a friend; maybe you know him. He’s the Flavor Chef, and he recently moved to Boulder. So I let him make some of my meals. And the first time I tasted a salad, I couldn’t believe how much more flavorful it was. I was sure that he was sweetening it with something. But it wasn’t [sweetened]. It was just the fact that it was grown locally and it was only a few days old. And the really cool thing about having local food and food that is not traveling thousands of miles is not only the nutrients that we know about but all these secondary compounds in food that is grown regeneratively.
Dr. Fred Provenza does a lot of this work. Looking at secondary compounds like carotenoids, terpenoids, phenolics, and nutrients that we don’t focus on pretty much at all here. But [they] add that flavor and they actually add this satiety-provoking mechanism, meaning that we know when it’s time to stop. And that is something I’ve noticed. I know I’m getting more nutrients because it’s really locally sourced and it’s not degrading over time, but I also don’t need as much of it. And so I think there are many benefits to finding a local source of regeneratively raised produce or animal products; this exists in animal products, too, and not only are you going to be having more nutrients, but you’re probably going to need to eat far less than you would otherwise.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, and it’s like you said, in addition to all the benefit[s] to your body, the taste is just so different. Like if you have not had a tomato from a farmers market, you have not really had a tomato. The tomatoes in stores are so different. It really should be almost like a different classification, a different name for it, a different species, because they’re so different. [The] same is true with certain fruits, strawberries. The strawberries we would get at the farmers market in the Bay Area at Berkeley when we lived there were just crazy.
Autumn Smith: It’s incredible.
Chris Kresser: It was like [an] explosion of flavors in the mouth. You can really taste the difference. Those are nutrients that you’re tasting. And all those compounds that you mentioned, which are aromatic, or have different flavor profiles associated with them. So, if you eat something in the store, and it tastes bland and there’s not much of a flavor, then chances are that might have been on a truck for too long.
Autumn Smith: Right, and you cut into those tomatoes, and they’re kind of hard, and you know they’re definitely not ripe. But yeah, the experience in your body, physiologically, the pleasure you receive around food is totally different.
The Mission of Paleovalley
Chris Kresser: Yeah, for sure. So let’s talk a little bit about, you and Chas started Paleovalley, and the intention was to be able to provide some of this whole food nutrition in a way that was more accessible. The Organ Delight being an example for people who are just not going to cook organ meats, or even if [for] people who do, maybe they’re traveling for a couple of weeks, or they get particularly busy and they don’t have time to do that, it’s nice to have that as an option. One of the challenges with this approach is to be able to source really high-quality ingredients. So how have you gone about that? And what have you learned in that process?
Autumn Smith: Yeah, well, this became really important to us. I just want to say we were really lucky that we came across your work early in the game. So we knew the importance of grass-fed and finished; we also knew the importance of synergy, which is you find, you don’t find synthetic isolated compounds in any of our products. But we really became passionate about ingredient quality when our son was born, and we learned about regenerative agriculture and how it was different and how we desperately needed this solution. And so from that point on, we knew we were only going to source from American regenerative farms. Because a lot of the regeneratively raised or grass-fed beef is actually imported. And when you’re looking at environmental solutions, and we didn’t think that was adequate, and we also wanted to give American farmers an incentive to grow food here, because our soil is like the microbiome of our health for the planet. So we wanted to restore that. And also, when it comes to organic ingredients, we’re sticklers, we’re perfectionists, and they call us the ingredients snobs. And I have a love-hate relationship with the term because we also work really hard to make our products accessible for everyone. So I don’t think snobbery is the right term. But we want these products to be a value on a daily basis, not something that you can just use here and there.
So you’re not going to find sugar, [genetically modified organisms], gluten or dairy, or anything refined; you’re not going to find unnecessary additives. Even in a lot of beef sticks, they use this ingredient called encapsulated citric acid, which is the industry standard. And you just label it as citric acid. So even when we first got into the business, they were like, “Oh, don’t worry; you don’t even have to label it. [It’s] no big deal.” And I was like, well, it’s derived from genetically modified corn and hydrogenated oils, and I’m not really comfortable with that. So I don’t know, our commitment to quality has been because these kinds of food products have actually helped me reclaim my health and I know will help my son stay healthy. And I think going through it personally, it has just made sure that we will never cut corners and that we always prioritize health over profit.
But every product we have is because we found out oh, this is a synthetic ingredient, [and] we can do it better, or even mushroom products, most of them are grown on grain, and then the grain is never separated from the actual mushroom. And so you’re getting mushroom supplements with 50 percent grain, or most bone broth protein powders [are] actually derived from the hides and we just wanted one from the bones, and we don’t use chemical solvents. All throughout every single product, the quality of the ingredients in terms of human health and environmental health are always at the forefront.
Chris Kresser: That’s super refreshing. It’s one of the reasons that I often refer people to your products. There are a lot of companies out there who are just riding the train. They realize[d] Paleo got popular, so they entered the space. They don’t really understand the values and what’s important to people who are really actually in this space or really following that kind of diet and lifestyle. And they talk a good game. They know enough, like their marketing department knows the right words to say. And if you just [do] like a cursory analysis or glance at their products, it might seem like they’re doing the right things. But then when you really look under the hood, you can see that, like you said, there [are] all kinds of choices that 95 percent of consumers won’t even know about.
Autumn Smith: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: But people like me, people like you, people who do know, are paying attention and notice. And I cringe a lot when I see some of the products out there that call themselves Paleo, not that that’s necessarily [an] important thing, but that are clearly marketing themselves as a very high-standard, nutrient-dense whole food supplement company. And then when I actually look at what they’re doing, it’s nothing of the sort. So that’s a pet peeve of mine, being [in] the profession that I’m in. There [are] some great companies out there that actually are doing the right thing, and it’s more expensive, and that’s harder. So I appreciate that you are willing to fight that fight because it’s definitely important.
Autumn Smith: Yeah. And a lot of these products are made by marketers, like you said, because they come in, they see an opportunity, and they’re like, we have no knowledge. But here, we’re just going to put this together. And like you said, it’s really hard because we’re often faced with, oh, well, we can’t source that really high-quality ingredient. And so we’ll have to go out of stock. And it makes people angry, but we’d rather do that than compromise the quality. And there’s this big trend, too, which I think is both good and bad, where larger companies are acquiring smaller companies and then changing the quality of ingredients, but nobody really knows that. And so, unless you have companies who are for their own reasons, or they’re educated in this space, it’s really easy to cut corners and make choices that are not in the best interest of the people who are actually using the products.
Caring for Your Immune System
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. Let’s talk about another nutrient that a lot of people don’t get enough of, and it’s particularly important [at] the time of this recording (January 2022). People might be listening to this in two or three years, [and] who knows what’s going to be going on then. But right now, [the COVID-19] Omicron [variant] is surging in the [United States] and elsewhere, and [it’s] also pretty clear that Omicron is evading [the] vaccine for the most part, and vaccine efficacy is dropping a lot. So even Tony Fauci came out on the news circuit a couple [of] days ago, basically saying everybody’s going to get Omicron regardless of whether you’re vaccinated, which is a pretty big shift in the narrative. You might not have even seen that. This was just yesterday.
Autumn Smith: I didn’t see that, but that’s good.
Chris Kresser: So what that means is that we have to take steps to cultivate and support our immune system. And everything we’ve been talking about already on the show is directly related to that, supporting your gut health, eating a nutrient-dense diet, addressing inflammation, etc. But there are other nutrients that are particularly important, and one is vitamin C. So talk a little bit about vitamin C, how to get it in the diet, and then supplementation, because a lot of times, people will just get ascorbic acid powder at Costco in the half gallon size, or whatever, and call it a day because it’s super cheap. So, what are the best options for people who want to make sure that they’re getting enough of this critical immune-supporting nutrient?
Autumn Smith: Yes. And first, I want to say, vitamin C fills so many gaps. It supports the immune system in over 20 ways. [It’s] very important for brain health [and] for youthful looking skin. I mean, [I could go] on and on and on. And most people think they need 75 [or 90] milligrams. But I just want people to know that those studies that originally taught us that or that we drew that information from are very small [and] limited. They didn’t have sick people, they didn’t have people who smoked, [and] they didn’t have people who exercised a lot more often. So a lot of times, we can benefit from more vitamin C than we even think. And I think diet is always the place to begin, like you said. Things like green bell peppers, strawberries, and kiwis, and a lot of people think [of] orange juice, but it’s not actually one of the richest sources. You can get it from your greens, and that’s one of the reasons I’d say five servings of vegetables and a fruit every day or two. And just making sure that you get them spaced throughout the day because vitamin C doesn’t last that long in your body. And so you want to keep replenishing, it’s like four to six hours.
But, like you said, if you want to supplement, I’ve done a deep dive on the research on vitamin C, [and] there’s a lot of benefits. And even ascorbic acid. Most vitamin C comes from ascorbic acid, right, which starts as genetically modified corn; it’s turned into corn syrup, and it’s treated with acetone, then it’s crystallized and then it becomes this [crosstalk 45:32].
Chris Kresser: Mmm, delicious.
Autumn Smith: I know, right? It’s this multiple step process, and then you get this powder. And it’s essentially the antioxidant outer shell of the vitamin C complex. So if that’s all you can afford, I never want to make people scared of vitamin C. But a whole food form is better. In certain trials, it can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in a way that ascorbic acid won’t. You’re not going to get the cofactors, you’re not going to get tyrosinase, which supports your thyroid, and you’re not going to get ascorbigen and ruten and all the J and P factors that are supporting your blood vessels.
And so what I need people to know is food first, for sure. And then we also created a supplement that has three of the world’s most potent natural sources of vitamin C, and you can supplement with that. It has 450 milligrams, which we chose, because it’s estimated that our Paleo ancestors had about 400 milligrams of vitamin C a day, even though we’re told that we only need about 90 milligrams.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, that’s what you need to avoid scurvy. This is the difference between the Recommended Dietary Allowance, which often is the amount that you need to avoid acute disease and what’s actually optimal. Even in normal times, not to mention during a global pandemic, where we want our immune system to be functioning on all, firing on all cylinders,
Autumn Smith: Right, exactly. And vitamin C is going to support those white blood cells. And it does compete. This is one thing that’s interesting. It competes sometimes with sugar for access to our cells. So you don’t want to eat it at a time when you’re not also eating a bunch of carbohydrates and things like that. But yeah, I think stabilizing your blood sugar, adding some vitamin C from a whole food source, and avoiding ascorbic acid, if you can, is [the] best-case scenario.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, great. Well, those are definitely two of my favorite Paleovalley products, the beef sticks being the third. In Utah, I try to be outside almost all the time, if I can be, and that takes different forms at different times [of the] year. In the summer, it’s mountain biking, hiking, backpacking, rafting, and spending a ton, often a lot of time well away from civilization; I’m doing air quotes here. And the beef sticks are amazing for that. Being on a backpacking trip, or a multi-day rafting trip, or [a] mountain biking trip or something like that, where I’m just taking what I can pack with me. And generally, for anyone who backpacks, you know that you’re trying to pack as little as possible, right? And you’re trying to take the things that are going to be the most nutrient dense by weight. And the most satisfying, because you’re not, you might cook.
Different people do it differently, right? I don’t stop. I’ll have generally like one cooked meal in the evening, and the rest of the time, I’m eating, like pemmican that I’ve made or beef sticks that I bring from Paleovalley because they’re super small [and] easy to pack. I love them, and they’ve got a ton of nutrient value. So they’re really good for people who need that additional nutrition throughout the day and they’re out and about a lot. I think it’s an amazing product.
Autumn Smith: Well, thank you for saying that. And that’s exactly why we created it, because I was always on the go and [with] protein snacks, you don’t have to eat all the time throughout the day when you have really high-quality protein. And they’re fermented, so they’re more digestible. And they’re not like jerky; they have like a little snap. And so I think the flavor is different [from] a lot of other things on the market. So thanks.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, let me just say that, because some people are probably like, oh fermented meat. That doesn’t sound very good. You would never know they were fermented. We’re not talking about fermented fish, which can be a pretty vivid experience. It’s not something you can taste, other than like you said, they have a nice tangy, snap kind of. It’s way more interesting of a flavor than a lot of the jerky products on the market.
Autumn Smith: I think it’s like those hickory smoked summer sausages. I was just going to say. That’s kind of the flavor situation.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, so yeah, I mean smoking; it’s a different way of thinking about it. And, of course, it’s the way that our ancestors preserved meat, as well, before they would go on trips and things like that. And the fermentation brings out additional nutrients. We know that from lots and lots of research, and it makes them more bioavailable and digestible. So that’s a great thing about the beef sticks, too. I think for some people, eating a lot of meat in that form can be hard to digest, but with the fermentation, it makes that a lot easier.
Autumn Smith: Yeah, lots of people say that.
Chris Kresser: Where can people find out, try some beef sticks and Organ Delight and this other stuff we’ve been talking about? Because we get a lot of emails from people asking what I recommend, and I don’t often do these kinds of podcasts. I only do them when I think it’s going to be of great value to people. And when I want to share the things that I’m excited about, the products that I use on a daily basis. So I’m super happy to be able to tell people about this, because it’s the next best thing to whole foods, and in many cases, they are whole foods, like the beef sticks.
Autumn Smith: Oh, well thank you for that. That means a lot. We have three different things going right now. You can use the link that we’ll provide with the podcast for sure. And then also at Paleovalley.com. You can find all of our products; we have a lot of them. We also have a regenerative meat delivery service now called Wild Pastures, and it connects American regenerative farmers. And we deliver that meat to their doorstep. And then the third and most recent, really exciting enterprise is we started a burger restaurant, and it’s all regeneratively raised burgers. And it has gluten-free buns. There’s no refined sugar in the whole place. We cook our french fries in tallow; [the] produce is organic. It’s pretty awesome. And it’s here in Boulder right now. But eventually, we hope to franchise, and that’s called the Wild Pastures Burger Company. So any of those three places would be great. Or you can just email me directly at [email protected]
Chris Kresser: Great, Autumn. Thanks so much for coming on. It was a pleasure to have you, and I look forward to chatting again in the future.
Autumn Smith: Yes, [I] hope to see you in Cabo. Thank you.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. All right, so thanks, everyone, for listening. Keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time.
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