Can Foraging Benefit Our Health And Wellbeing? Here’s All You Need To Know

Let’s travel back in time before Just Eat, five different supermarket chains within a 2-mile radius, or even agriculture. There, you’ll find foraging, one of the most ancient practices there is. Though it’s never truly gone away since then, foraging has seen something of a resurgence in recent years, and with it, a curiosity about how it fits into the modern day. Many of those questions are about our health: is it safe? Can it be good for us? What does wild food do to our bodies? Let’s find out.

What is foraging?

Lots of people have probably foraged without even thinking about it – plucking berries off a bush on a late summer walk isn’t unusual in the English countryside. But in more formal terms, foraging is the search for and collection of wild food, such as edible plants, fruits, nuts, seeds, and of course, our old friend fungi. 

What you can find outdoors will depend on factors like the season and where you are in the world. That’s not just in terms of availability, but also restrictions – lots of countries have laws regarding foraging and in the US, there are often state and local regulations.

Trying to work around all that for some food might sound like a bit of a faff nowadays, when many people can pop on their phones and order a salad straight to their doorstep. But until about 12,000 years ago, foraging was a necessity. It made up the “gatherer” part of hunter-gatherer culture, which is thought to date back as far as 2 million years ago. Fast forward to 2024 and few hunter-gatherer societies remain.

Back in the limelight

If things change in the world… and we had to go back to living on wild food, or supplementing our diet with so-called famine foods, we don’t actually know how it would affect our health.

There’s something to be said about having one of the oldest skills in an unpredictable modern age. It would be sensationalist to suggest that we all learn in case of some impending apocalypse, but even in what seems like the most food-secure of countries, the last few years have demonstrated that security is never a guarantee.

In recent years, countries around the world have seen food prices skyrocket in response to major events – the price of wheat shot up after Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022. Weather events, animal and plant disease outbreaks, and the COVID-19 pandemic have all disrupted food supply chains to some degree. Far from an urban fad, many have turned to foraging in response. But how does this impact their bodies?

On this subject, IFLScience spoke to Mo Wilde, a forager, ethnobotanist, and research herbalist who’s been teaching foraging for many years and is a member of the Association of Foragers. “It occurred to me that here in Britain, we feel very safe,” said Wilde. 

“But if things change in the world, whether it’s to do with climate, or earthquake, or volcano, or disaster, or war, and we had to go back to living on wild food, or supplementing our diet with so-called famine foods, we don’t actually know how it would affect our health.”

The Wildbiome Project

That was part of the inspiration for The Wildbiome Project, a citizen science study spearheaded by Wilde that aimed to find out more about the health effects of a foraged diet. Researchers have previously investigated the health of hunter-gatherer societies, such as the Hadza, but little was known about the impact of switching from a Western diet to a foraged one.

Having already spent a year living solely off wild food, alongside a friend, Wilde had sent off stool samples to a lab to test her gut microbiome – the population of microorganisms, including bacteria, that live in the digestive system.

“It was absolutely fascinating, because you can see these bacteria moving around and appearing from nowhere. And some of them, it seemed logical as to what they were doing. But with most of them, we had no idea of why something had suddenly increased and where this bacteria had come from,” Wilde explained.

In the name of good science, the researcher was determined to get more data.

“Two people doing some off-the-wall experiment doesn’t make science. You need a control group, and you need a reasonable amount of people doing something,” said Wilde. “And it was just one of those things. I just couldn’t let it go. It just had to be done.”

A total of 26 people were recruited for the study, all of whom were members of the Association of Foragers. They were split into two cohorts; one ate only wild, foraged foods for a total of three months, whilst the other ate the same but for only one month (two people later had to drop out of this group).

Over the duration of the study, participants were monitored for their: body composition (weight, BMI, and waist-to-height ratio); blood pressure and sugar; cholesterol levels; inflammatory markers; and various vitamin and mineral levels, such as vitamin D and iron. 

With Wilde also having been introduced to Professor Tim Spector of ZOE, the group also had their gut microbiomes tested and compared to a reference control group of 26 people who ate normal, shop-bought food and had been enrolled in the ZOE health study.

Participants were given a ZOE Microbiome (MB) Score, a measure devised by the company that indicates the ratio of “good” versus “bad” bacteria in the gut, though what the ideal composition of gut bacteria looks like is still very much up for debate. But in this case, the higher the score out of 100, the more bacteria associated with good gut health a person has.

And for the Wildbiome Project participants, that score got higher, on average. At the start of the study, the average MB score accounting for all 26 volunteers was 52, compared to 51 in the control group. For the three-month cohort, that shot up to an average of 65 at the end of the study, with the control group only increasing by 1 point. 

There were also changes in the more typical health measures. All who took part, bar one, lost weight, with those in the three-month cohort with obesity losing an average of 5.6 kilograms (12.3 pounds). A participant with Type II diabetes saw an improvement in their average blood sugar levels, though some of that was lost upon returning to their normal, healthy diet.

The latter highlights the need to delve into the area further. For example, some participants had high cholesterol levels at the start of the project and while some saw an improvement, others didn’t, and some people’s cholesterol markers even increased. 

These are the kinds of results that benefit from additional scientific investigations. The study is small and has not been peer-reviewed, but with more research into the health impacts of foraging, we might be able to answer some of the questions surrounding it.

Wilde is keen to get the results published in a scientific journal, investigate further, and collect even more data – there are plans for a second iteration of the project in 2025. Although the first study involved already experienced foragers, the second could involve a wider range of people and there’s an open callout for participants.

“Even if somebody hasn’t had a huge amount of foraging experience at this point, they’ve got a good year to learn!”

Getting in touch with nature and the community

Having that year to learn is definitely a good thing. Spotting the difference between similar-looking food is easy enough when there are labels involved, but a supermarket nature is not. You may well have heard of death caps, a type of mushroom with a deadly toxin that definitely takes the “fun” out of fungi. Unfortunately, they also look similar to a number of edible species of fungi.

Of course, not every decision in foraging is a matter of life and massive organ damage. Sometimes you just want to know your mint from your stinging nettles as a matter of sticking to a recipe. The question is, how do you start to do that?

Technology is one way – there are plenty of apps out there – but that’s not necessarily the only, or even the best way. Though it can be helpful, it’s not perfect, and Wilde said she’s seen some “clangers” when it comes to app misidentification. The foraging teacher has found that people tend to better hold onto the knowledge about what they’re collecting when they get up close and personal with it, getting to know the minute details of how it looks, feels, and smells.

But if you aren’t sure where to start without tech, the UK’s Food Standards Agency recommends joining an experienced guide or foraging group – and, crucially, never picking anything if you have any doubt as to what it is. There’s very much a community aspect to it, benefiting the individual, the group, and nature. 

The [Wildbiome] project was a breath of fresh air. I felt in sync with my surroundings, seeing a noticeable difference in clarity. Now, I’m more in tune with my body.

“Go out with old people and find local foraging groups – we are all part of the community,” said Wilde. That’s not to say you should grab the nearest old person and expect encyclopedic plant knowledge, but they probably know a lot more than you might assume (and may have plentiful supplies of biscuits).

“If several people in an area like foraging, what better than to get together, not just because you have something in common, but also because you can share with people, start to create huge community harvesting plans, and address the sustainability of things that are growing in your area, making sure that enough is left for its own survival.”

It’s a sentiment that speaks to the many potential benefits of foraging, namely for how it could get us in touch with nature, our community, and give us a mental health boost to boot. Only time and future studies will reveal the possible physical health impacts of eating foraged foods, but it’s worth thinking about how the practice could impact our wellbeing, too. 

One of the Wildbiome Project’s participants, Richard Mawby, told Positive.News “The project was a breath of fresh air. I felt in sync with my surroundings, seeing a noticeable difference in clarity. Now, I’m more in tune with my body.”

That kind of benefit has the potential to be seen by everybody. As Wilde explained: “There is no qualification in foraging. It is the last thing that still belongs to all of us. It is our heritage… You can be anybody and be a forager.”

The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions. 

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