Learning From History
Every now and then I allow myself to get lost in the voices of history, with a particular leaning toward stories of famine, plague, genocide, and survival.
From the Great Potato Famine and the Black Plague, to the Holodomor and the Holocaust, there is insight to be gleaned from the stories of survivors as they chronicle the atrocities they witnessed, the hardships they endured, and the miracles that kept them alive.
Through these recollections I’ve learned much about the nature of man when he is desperate for survival, what he is capable of, and how sheer will alone is sometimes enough to sustain one through the end.
It seems all of the stories of mass death throughout history have one common theme: starvation. Whether it’s due to crop failures, unstable economic policies, natural occurrences, or man himself, when food is lacking society breaks down. At first people scrounge for whatever they can find to eat, but once their bodies become malnourished, disease quickly sets in and rapidly spreads.
Having Food Does Not Always Equal Having Health
In the prepper world, it’s easy to fall into a complacent mindset when it comes to food security. We stock up on shelf stable goods, purchase seeds in bulk, learn how to wild forage and hunt, and practice methods of food preservation. And then at the end of the day we sit back and feel safe underneath the protection of our supplies and efforts.
But how much thought have you put into planning actual nutrition during a long term crisis scenario? Do you know which nutrients are essential to your health, and how much of each your body needs on a daily basis? You can eat rice and beans or potatoes all day long, but eventually you will be lacking essential minerals and vitamins.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned about something called “rabbit starvation”. The phrase is referring to exactly what I’m talking about when I say you can fill your belly and still starve to death. Rabbit starvation happens when one is surviving off of rabbit meat alone, and suffers from a lack of fats and other essential nutrients not present in this lean meat. You can eat 10 rabbits a day and still starve to death. I don’t know about you, but that struck me as profound. A proper diet isn’t something to take for granted!
Malnutrition can cause a whole host of problems.
- A diet lacking in iron from dark, leafy greens will result in anemia.
- A diet lacking in vitamin A can lead to blindness, miscarriages, and a weakening of the immune system.
- A diet lacking in vitamin B1 (Thiamine) can lead to nerve and muscle damages, and can affect the heart. Symptoms include fatigue, depression, irritability, and abdominal discomfort, difficulty breathing, and heart damage.
- A diet lacking in vitamin B3 (Niacin) due to lack of protein results in diarrhea, dementia, and can even cause sudden death.
- A diet lacking in vitamin B9 (Folate) contributes to severe birth defects, impaired brain development and impaired nervous system function.
- A diet lacking in vitamin D can cause stunted or defective bone growth, causing porous or fragile bones that break easily; listlessness, lack of energy, and depression.
- A diet lacking in Calcium can lead to serious health problems over time, including weakening of bones and teeth, convulsions, abnormal heart rhythms, and even death.
- A diet lacking in Vitamin C can cause the following symptoms: anemia, bleeding gums, decreased immune function, slow wound healing, brittle hair, easy bruising, dental disease, nosebleeds, scaly skin, swollen and painful joints, and scurvy.
Nutrient deficiencies in general can cause:
- Pallor (pale skin)
- trouble breathing
- unusual food cravings
- hair loss
- periods of lightheadedness
- heart palpitations
- feeling faint or fainting
- tingling and numbness of the joints
- menstrual issues (such as missed periods or very heavy cycles)
- poor concentration
Your survival doesn’t depend on how much you eat. It depends on how good you eat.
If your plan is to live in the wild off of nuts, berries, and squirrels, you better pack some multivitamins to supplement the deficiencies you’re sure to encounter once your body’s reserves are used up. I used to think to myself, if the Native Americans did it why couldn’t we? What I didn’t learn until recently is that many of them were suffering from health issues due to a lack of balanced minerals and vitamins. Could you survive on forage? Yes. But you might also develop debilitating health issues and make yourself vulnerable to disease if you aren’t able to find access to a wide variety of nutrients throughout the year.
Planning For Nutrition
What can you do to better ensure proper health during a long term survival situation? It depends on the particular crisis, but let’s go with least-worst case scenario, which I believe is more likely than worst-worst case scenarios, where food is increasingly harder to obtain (due to either shortages or inflated prices) and people are forced to fend for themselves growing gardens and foraging from nature.
Most of us have limited growing space. Instead of simply raising old standby’s, we need to be focusing on the absolute most important crops for survival. Once you have enough of the necessities, you can fill in the gaps for variety and flavor.
Avoiding Starvation With Calories
Why You Need It
I think the first thing we need to focus on before nutrition is simple survival. It won’t do us much good to grow small amounts of vitamin rich foods if we can’t grow enough to stave off starvation. Calories are key when it comes to survival. It’s possible to fill your belly every day and still die from starvation as your body begins consuming itself due to lack of calories.
The average man generally needs 2000-2400 calories per day, and up to 3000 calories when he’s exerting a lot of energy. Women need 1800-2000 calories per day. Children need 1000-1600 calories per day, depending on their age and activity level.
What To Grow
First and foremost we need to think about which calorie rich crops grow the best in our particular region in large amounts. Beans, grains, soy, potatoes, nuts, Chinese Chestnuts, and avocados are some of the highest calorie foods you can grow. Dried fruits are also surprisingly packed with calories.
Beans- (per cup cooked beans:) Navy beans have 255 calories; Mung Beans have 212 calories, Lentils have 230 calories, Pintos have 245 calories, Lima Beans have 216 calories.
Edamame (Green Soybeans)- contain 254 calories per cup of boiled beans.
Potatoes & Sweet Potatoes- one cup of boiled, peeled potatoes yields 134 calories. One medium baked potato in the skin has 161 calories. One cup of baked sweet potato (in the skin) has 180 calories.
Nuts (per 5 ounces; raw)- Almonds have 825 calories, Cashews have 780 calories, English Walnuts have 925 calories, Black Walnuts have 875 calories, Pecans have 980 calories, Peanuts have 826 calories, Pistachios have 158 calories, Macadamias contain 1000 calories.
Seeds (per cup; dried)- Pumpkin or squash seeds have 745 calories; Sunflower seed kernels have 819 calories; Watermelon seed kernels have 600 calories; Chia seeds have 695 calories.
Chinese Chestnuts (per 5 ounces; raw)- 320 calories.
Avocado- 1 cup puree yields 384 calories.
Dried Fruits (per cup; packed)- Raisins have 493 calories, Prunes have 447 calories, Currants contain 408 calories.
As you can see, nuts and seeds are a major source of calories.
Where I live in the Southeast, we have been able to grow a lot of potatoes. We harvest more potatoes than any other crop. We only have an acre of land, so there isn’t much room for a lot of grains. With proper crop rotation and management, we haven’t ever had an issue with pests or disease in our potatoes (knock on wood!). We enjoy potatoes as they are such a versatile food. This may not be the best choice for where you live, so do some research into which crops grow the best in your area.
Foods That Grow With The Least Effort
Why You Need It
Next, I would recommend that you focus on getting perennial crops established for food with the least effort involved. In a time when energy levels might be running low, having crops you can count on whether you sow or not could be essential to your survival.
What To Grow
Jerusalem Artichokes grow with very little effort, spread like weeds, and provide a significant amount of food in a small space. They have 650 mg potassium per 1 cup (150g) serving. They are also high in iron, and contain 10-12% of the US RDA of fiber, niacin, thiamine, phosphorus and copper. (Wikipedia) The tubers store well in the ground and can be dug pretty much any time throughout the year, even during winter.
Cassava is another easy to grow perennial that will provide you with calories for survival.
Work on planting these 10 Perennial Vegetables and as many fruit and nut trees and berry bushes as you have space for. Once established these plants will provide practically effortless food for many years.
Plants Highest In Protein
Why You Need It
Protein is extremely important in your diet. When your body doesn’t get enough protein, it starts breaking down muscles to get what it needs. This also affects your organs and bones. Your immune system will suffer, wounds will heal more slowly, and you will begin to feel fatigued and lack the energy you need to carry out day to day activities.
General recommendations for protein intake are 46 grams daily for women and 56 grams daily for men. Children ages 1-3 need 13 g, ages 4-8 need 19 g, ages 9-13 need 34 g, and from there they need the same amount as is recommended daily for adults.
What To Grow
We know that eggs, dairy products, and especially meats are high in protein, but what can we plant in the garden to provide an alternate source of protein just in case that’s all we have to survive off of?
Beans and lentils aren’t only an excellent source of calories, they’re also a cheap and easy to grow source of high protein.
Navy Beans– 20 g protein per 1 cup of canned beans (boiled beans have slightly less protein.)
Lentils– 18 g protein per cup of boiled lentils.
Why You Need It
There are two sources of Vitamin A: plant based (Carotenoids) and animal based (Retinol). It’s important to know the difference when watching your Vit. A intake, as overdosing on Retinol can have serious consequences to your health.
While Carotenoids are essential for eye health, immune function, and other areas of our health, overconsumption on a regular basis can lead to jaundice, nausea, loss of appetite, irritability, and vomiting. It is recommended that people take in 5000 IU of Vit. A from plant and animal sources daily.
What To Grow
Sweet Potatoes are #1 on the list of foods high in Vit. A. One cup of cooked sweet potatoes has 38,436 IU.
Cooked Carrots have 26,572 IU in each cup.
Winter Squashes and Pumpkins are high in Vit. A. One cup of cooked Butternut squash has 22,868 IU. On average, all winter squashes and pumpkins have over 200% the daily recommended amount of Vit. A per cup of cooked pulp. Adding pureed squash and pumpkin to soup is a delicious way to take advantage of these crops.
Dark Leafy Greens are an excellent source of plant based Vit. A. One cup of Cooked Kale has 17,707 IU. Spinach, Collards, Turnip Greens, Dandelion Greens, Beet Greens, Swiss Chard and Pak Choi all have more than the recommended daily requirement in a single cup of cooked leafs.
Dried Apricots have 7,538 IU in only 1/2 cup of the fruit.
Cantaloupe is another crop you can grow for Vit. A. One cup of cubed melon offers 5,411 IU of carotenoids. Just enough to fulfill your daily requirements.
By taking advantage of each crop as they come in season, and drying or canning the excess to be consumed throughout the rest of the year, you can ensure a good supply of Vitamin A rich foods for sustenance.
Plants High in Vitamin B
There are 8 different types of vitamin B which are essential to the human body:
- Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Vitamin B3 (niacin or nicotinic acid)
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine, pyridoxal, pyridoxamine)
- Vitamin B7 (biotin)
- Vitamin B9 (folic acid)
- Vitamin B12 (various cobalamins; commonly cyanocobalamin or methylcobalamin in vitamin supplements)
Why You Need It
Each of these B vitamins plays a crucial role in the body’s health and development.
All B vitamins help the body convert food (carbohydrates) into fuel (glucose), which is used to produce energy. These B vitamins, often referred to as B complex vitamins, also help the body metabolize fats and protein. B complex vitamins are needed for healthy skin, hair, eyes, and liver. They also help the nervous system function properly, and are needed for good brain function.
Like other B complex vitamins, thiamine is sometimes called an “anti-stress” vitamin because it may strengthen the immune system and improve the body’s ability to withstand stressful conditions. It is named B1 because it was the first B vitamin discovered.
Thiamine is found in both plants and animals and plays a crucial role in certain metabolic reactions. Your body needs it to form adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which every cell of the body uses for energy.
What To Grow
Plant With Most Vitamin D
Why You Need It
Vitamin D aids our bodies in absorbing calcium, and provides many benefits to our health (as mentioned above). But an excess of Vit. D can cause your body to absorb too much calcium, leading to increased risk of heart disease and kidney stones.
The current recommended daily dose of vitamin D is 600-1000 IU, with children requiring around 400 IU. Consuming more than 10,000 IU per day is thought to be crossing a toxicity threshold. You must consume Vit. D with fat in order for your body to be able to use it.
Right now it’s easy to get enough vitamin D through dairy products, fortified cereals and juices, and supplements. But what if you had to depend on whatever you could find in nature? Fish is one of the best sources of Vitamin D. The sun can also provide your body with this sunshine vitamin, as long as you don’t block it with sunscreen.
What To Grow
Unfortunately there aren’t many plants that provide a significant amount of Vitamin D. Mushrooms are pretty much the only good choice.
Hen-of-the-Woods Mushroom (Maitake) is one of the best plant based sources of Vitamin D. One cup provides 131% of the recommended daily allowance. Portabello mushrooms are a close runner up, with 384 IU (64% DV) per cup.
Studies have shown that laying mushrooms with their gills facing upwards in direct sunlight for 2 days, 6 hours each day, significantly increases their Vit. D levels. One experiment showed Shiitake mushrooms soaring from 100 IU to nearly 46,000 IU after 2 days of sun exposure. These high vitamin D levels in dried mushrooms will last for more than a year, making this an excellent source of nutrients to store up for the winter months when Vit. D from the sun is harder to get.
Plants High in Vitamin C
Why You Need It
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is important for many reasons. It helps to heal wounds, maintains strong bones, teeth, and cartilage, blocks damage from free radicals, and strengthens immune function, among other things.
The recommended daily amount of vitamin C for adult males is 90 mg, women 75 mg, children ages 1-3 need 15 mg, children ages 4-8 need 25 mg, and children ages 9-13 need 45 mg.
What To Grow
Rose Hips- The rosa rugosa plant is one variety known for producing large hips. These hips, which form after a blossom has died, are packed with more vitamin C than most fruits, even more than oranges! Rose hips have a whopping 541 mg vitamin C in a single cup. Eat hips fresh, dry them to snack on, or make a delicious immune boosting tea by steeping 1 Tbsp dried hips in a cup of steaming water for 5 minutes.
Kiwi- Kiwifruit is another amazing source of Vitamin C. One cup of sliced fruit gives you 167 mg. of ascorbic acid.
Peppers- Most varieties of peppers have a decent amount of vitamin C in them. A half-cup of chopped chili peppers has 107.8 mg of vitamin C. A cup of chopped red bell pepper contains 190 mg., and the same amount of green peppers has 120 mg.
Kale- One cup of fresh chopped kale provides 80.4 mg of vitamin C.
Brassicas- Some members of the brassica family can provide a significant amount of vitamin C to your diet.
When broccoli is lightly cooked, our bodies absorb the ascorbic acid a little better than when raw. Boil or steam fresh broccoli for no more than 3-5 minutes in order to retain the most nutritional value. One cup of chopped broccoli provides 81 mg of vitamin C.
A cup of cauliflower has almost half that of its sister broccoli, but still offers a significant portion of the daily allowance at 46.4 mg of Vit. C.
Brussel Sprouts offer almost 100 mg of vitamin C per cup of lightly cooked heads.
Papaya- A one-cup serving of chopped papaya delivers 88 mg of vitamin C.
Strawberries- One cup of sliced strawberries contains 98 mg of vitamin C.
Citrus fruits- Surprisingly, citrus doesn’t make the top of the list when it comes to Vit. C. However, it’s still a good source. One medium orange provides 69.7 mg. Vit. C.
Cantaloupe- One cup of diced melon provides almost 59 mg of Vit. C.
Raspberries- Coming in at 65 mg Vit. C, two cups of fresh raspberries would offer a significant portion of the recommended daily dose for adults, and would be plenty for kids.
Plants High in Vitamin E
Why You Need It
Vitamin E is important for protecting your body from free radicals. It also helps to keep the immune system strong, and is important in the formation of red blood cells. It helps the body use vitamin K and also helps widen blood vessels to reduce chances of blood clots.
Symptoms of serious deficiency include diarrhea, muscle weakness and loss of muscle mass, abnormal eye movements and loss of vision, and imbalance. Prolonged deficiency can lead to liver and kidney problems.
The amount of Vitamin E needed daily depends on age. Children 1-3 years need 6 mg, 4-8 yrs need 7 mg, 9-13 yrs need 11 mg; people ages 14 and older should get 15 mg./day. Breastfeeding women should consume 19 mg. daily.
Because vitamin E is fat-soluble, it’s best absorbed when taken with a meal containing either plant or animal fats.
What To Grow
Sunflower Seeds– One cup roasted seeds has 49.1mg (237% DV) Vit. E.
Almonds- One cup of whole almonds provides 37.5mg (181% DV) Vitamin E.
Greens– Dark leafy vegetable greens are another source of Vitamin E. Interestingly, lightly cooked greens provide more Vit. E than raw.
One cup of boiled spinach provides 3.8 mg. One cup of boiled swiss chard will provide you 3.31 mg.
Plants High in Calcium
Why We Need It
Calcium is a mineral that is necessary for healthy bones, proper blood clotting, and muscle function. Almost 100% of the calcium in our bodies is in our bones and teeth. Each day we lose calcium and our bodies cannot produce more. This is why it’s so important to get the right amount of calcium from the food we eat.
When our diet is lacking in calcium, our body will take what it needs from our bones and teeth causing them to become weak. Severe deficiencies can lead to memory loss, muscle spasms, numbness and tingling in face, hands, and feet, depression, and hallucinations, among other issues.
Most adults need between 1000 mg. and 1200 mg. Vit E daily.
What To Grow
Consuming dairy products is the best way to ensure proper calcium intake, but there are plant sources you can tap into as well.
Collards– 268 mg per 1 cup cooked greens.
Spinach– One cup of boiled spinach has 245 mg Calcium.
Figs- 10 large figs provide 220 mg Calcium.
Plants High in Iron
Why You Need It
Iron is an important component of hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to transport it throughout your body. Hemoglobin represents about two-thirds of the body’s iron. If you don’t have enough iron, your body can’t make enough healthy oxygen-carrying red blood cells. A lack of red blood cells is called iron deficiency anemia.
Without healthy red blood cells, your body can’t get enough oxygen. If you’re not getting sufficient oxygen in the body, you’re going to become fatigued… That exhaustion can affect everything from your brain function to your immune system’s ability to fight off infections. If you’re pregnant, severe iron deficiency may increase your baby’s risk of being born too early, or smaller than normal. – WebMD
Children ages 4-8 need 10 mg, and ages 9-13 need 8 mg. Women ages 19-50 need 18 mg. iron daily, while men in the same age range need only 8 mg. This large difference is due to a woman’s monthly menstruation.
People who are lacking in iron will often look pale, feel short of breath, have a fast heartbeat, have cold hands and feet, crave dirt or clay, have brittle nails and hair, and may suffer from difficulty swallowing.
What To Grow
Iron is mainly found in meat products, but there are a few plant based sources with significant enough amounts of iron.
Beans– One cup of cooked black beans has 9.7 mg iron. One cup of chickpeas has 12.5 mg. One cup of boiled lentils has 6.6 mg.
Spinach- One cup of boiled spinach delivers 6.4 mg. iron.
Apricots– One cup of dried apricots gives 7.5 mg.
Other Important Nutrients
Zinc- A small amount of zinc every day helps strengthen your immune system, helps wounds heal, promotes cell growth, and even affects your sense of taste and smell. Zinc can be found in meat, beans, nuts, and whole grains.
Fats– When animal fats aren’t an option, seeds, nuts, and avocados are amazing sources of important “good” fats.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids– Purslane has more Omega 3s than any other plant. It even has more than some fish!
Vitamin K- Essential for proper blood clotting; brussel sprouts, leafy greens, Shepherd’s Purse, cooked leaks, cooked asparagus, grape leaves, cucumbers, celeriac, are all high in Vit. K.
Micronutrients– There are many trace minerals and vitamins that we need on a daily basis. Consuming a diet rich in variety and including the items I’ve mentioned in each group here is the best way to ensure proper micronutrients.
Longest Storing Items
I would encourage you to also think about growing varieties which are known for being good storing crops. If you have no way to preserve food long term, storing good keepers could be enough to get you through the cold months.
Pumpkins and winter squash are excellent keepers. As a matter of fact, it’s June now and I still have pie pumpkins and “Greek Sweet Red” squash sitting in my kitchen that we harvested last fall.
Beans– Once dried and shelled, beans will last for years stored in a sealed container.
Dent Corn– Used for making cornmeal, this tough corn is dried and used for many months after harvest. It stores much longer than sweet corn, without any special preparation. Popcorn is another long storing grain option.
Nuts– When stored in their shells in a dry, well ventilated location, nuts will last well through the winter. Always hull nuts before storing to avoid rotting. Nuts will last longer in their shells than if you shell them before storing. Shelled nuts should be kept refrigerated to avoid going rancid.
Cabbage– When pulled by the root and hung upside down in a basement or root cellar, cabbage can store for months.
Root Crops– I’ve had luck storing root crops in slightly damp sand for several months underneath our house before they finally went bad. Carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, Jerusalem Artichokes, Yacon, Parsnips, Beets, are all good storage crops. Onions and garlic are best hung in a cool, dry location.
Apples– Known as the queen of storage fruits, apples harvested in the mid- to late fall have a better chance of making it through the winter in cold storage. Some varieties store better than others, so do research into which grow best in your area.
Grains– Wheat, quinoa, oats, etc… grains are excellent keepers and provide a good source of nutrition to the diet. You can grind them, sprout them, soak them, and eat them whole.
For more information on foods that store well, read Top 6 Storage Crops for Preppers.
Not Only Surviving, But Thriving
When the SHTF and we’re left to our own survival, there’s no reason you can’t plan to thrive during the hard times. With proper understanding of what your body needs, with adequate garden planning and seed storage, and with knowledge of foraging skills, you’ll have the energy and strength you need to survive, and a stronger immune system to avoid deadly diseases.