Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, author of The Dirt Cure, wants you to consider how your food is grown. "Rich, healthy soil is infused into our food," she says. "That makes the food healthier. It makes the plants healthier. It make the animals who eat the plants healthier. We, who eat animals and plants, are also healthier because our soil is healthy."

Melissa Clark: What do you mean by The Dirt Cure? What are you curing?

Maya Shetreat-Klein Maya Shetreat-Klein Photo: Tanya Malott

Maya Shetreat-Klein: I’ll first say what I mean by dirt. Dirt is being exposed to microbes, it’s eating fresh, unprocessed food from healthy soil, and it’s getting outdoors in nature.

I use the word cure very rarely in my life because I’m not someone who really believes in miracles. I think healing is a journey. But I think curing is about curing this idea, essentially, which is that we think we need to be really sanitized.

We think that we can control everything in nature. We’ve gotten a lot sicker. The more we try to control things, the sicker particularly children have become. Now we’re seeing many, many children chronically ill with allergies, asthma, ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] and all kinds of autoimmune conditions. It’s really about curing a way of thinking and an approach.

MC: When you tell us that our children need to go outside and play in the dirt, how does that connect to helping them get better?

MSK: Most of us think, “Getting outside is totally nice, totally healthy.” It turns out there’s a tremendous amount of science that actually supports that.

For one thing, being outside in the sunshine reduces the risk of developing nearsightedness in children. It has to do with being in natural light.

There are a bunch of studies looking at soil microbes. In one teaspoon of soil, there are as many microbes as there are people on the planet. There are certain microbes that have been shown to boost serotonin levels as high as antidepressants.

Children or adults, when we’re outdoors, we actually are happier and we are able to be less stressed and perform better on tests. Children who are outdoors perform better on standardized tests when they’ve been in natural environments versus being in less natural environments.

MC: To connect this to food: You don’t want us to just be dirty on the outside, you want us to bring it inside too. For example, not scrubbing our vegetables or peeling them. Talk a little bit about how we can bring the dirt within.

MSK: Part of what we’ve done in the whole sanitizing of not being outside, sanitizing our homes, hand sanitizer and all those things has been also to sanitize food. How we’re growing food -- we’re using pesticides in many cases, chemical fertilizers and washing things with chlorine. We’re not getting exposed to the kind of microbes that we want to be exposed to from soil.

In addition, that rich, healthy soil is infused into our food. That makes the food healthier. It makes the plants healthier. It make the animals who eat the plants healthier. We, who eat animals and plants, are also healthier because our soil is healthy.

MC: One of the great things that you say in your book is: “We are what we eat eats.” Which I think sums that up.

When we’re shopping and when we’re looking for food, is it important to buy organic food necessarily? Or is local more important?

The Dirt Cure The Dirt Cure

MSK: This is one of those conundrums that everyone feels like they get embroiled in if they’re really being mindful about this. We need to walk into it doing the best we can.

If you can grow your own, or even grow a little bit of your own, that’s wonderful. Going to farmers markets and knowing who produced your food, how it’s produced and getting the freshest food possible is incredibly important.

So is eating organic. We know in a lot of different studies that traces of pesticides do remain on food. We do want to avoid that, particularly for certain foods. I always look at the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen as a guide for the top foods to avoid, and then animal products as much as possible. The thick-skinned fruits and vegetables in the Clean Fifteen are the ones I’m a little more flexible about.

MC: If you were going to advise people to make one change in their diets, what would it be?

MSK: We’ve become a very sugar-obsessed society. Part of that is we’ve evolved to eat more and more sweets, and also the food industry has added a lot more sugar.

But what I’d recommend is to eat bitters. The peel of fruits and vegetables, dark chocolate, coffee and beer all contain bitters. Leafy greens, broccoli raab -- all of those foods contain these alkaloid compounds that go into our body and stimulate our digestion so we make more stomach acid, we digest better. Our detoxification mechanisms increase and our immune systems all over our body, including our ear, nose and throat, are boosted. I’m a big, big fan of bitters. I even take a little bitter tonic before I eat meals.

MC: What’s in your bitter tonic?

MSK: It has chamomile, angelica and all kinds of herbs in it. It’s just a little spray bottle. I recommend it to kids, to patients, to help their digestion. Surprisingly, even really picky kids will do the bitters.

Melissa Clark
Melissa Clark is a food writer, author, and host of our new podcast Weeknight Kitchen with Melissa Clark. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written more than 30 cookbooks including Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, and In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite.