Let food be thy medicine

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that I think the solution to our chronic disease epidemic and a lot of other huge problems like climate change lies in re-engineering the food system from the bottom up so that we will eat the healthiest diet by default. But I am under no illusions that this can happen overnight. In the meantime, we need to keep trying to help people go against the obesigenic grain. One idea that I’ve written about before is frequent self-weighing. Recently I’ve read multiple articles about a different but very creative tactic–some doctors are now prescribing consumption of fresh produce to their patients, just as they might prescribe a drug.

One of the big roadblocks in the way of getting the public to eat more healthfully, in my opinion, is that people really don’t comprehend that nutrition is the foundation of health. I don’t know how else to say it but you LITERALLY are what you eat. Your bones are built from the calcium that your mother ate and that you ate. Your muscles are built from the amino acids that were in the foods that your mother ate and that you ate. The fat in your body is either the fat that you ate from food or converted from carbs or protein that you didn’t use for energy. I think you get the idea.

Sorry that was a kind of tangent. BUT the point is that people don’t take nutrition seriously enough. I think it all has something to do with that ever-present problem of humans being built, through the course of evolution, to go after instant gratification. It is quite literally against our nature to choose the long-term reward (longer, fitter life, absence of chronic disease, etc.) over the short-term reward (sugary, fatty, salty food). And the field of medicine generally reinforces this mindset, by emphasizing treatment over prevention, as I’ve also written about before–“a pill for every ill.

So it certainly seems that when doctors suggest a lifestyle change like eating more healthfully or getting more exercise, it isn’t taken nearly as seriously as when they prescribe a drug. But what if your doctor gave you a prescription for a dietary change as a way to prevent or treat heart disease or diabetes? I think it might help patients understand better that food is just as important (and I’d argue more important) in preventing and treating chronic diseases as any drug.

Better yet, in this article I read today, the doctor’s prescriptions serve as coupons at a local farmers market to get a bundle of produce at a reduced price. Now that’s what I’d call an incentive. After experiencing the power of handing out incentives to buy fresh produce while volunteering at a farmers market in a low income neighborhood last summer, I feel strongly that the type of program I just described would motivate people to eat better, especially those who feel they face financial barriers to eating better. Not only is your doctor prescribing fresh fruits and vegetables, but he/she is handing you (some of) the means to obtain them! I don’t think doctors usually help you get a discount on your drug prescriptions, which can cost oodles more than a healthy diet that will prevent a need for a drug in the first place. Yes, I did just say oodles.

I think this would be even more effective in pediatric cases, where the patient might be, for instance, overweight and at risk for developing lifelong health problems. Parents are so eager to do the right thing for their kids’ health–being given a doctor’s prescription for a healthy diet might be just the thing that convinces them of the gravity of nutrition in terms of their child’s long-term health.

No, I don’t think this idea is going to be the obesity cure, but it has the potential to be one of the factors that continues the turning of the tide. I know that sounds really inconsequential, but everything adds up, and you have to start somewhere. I think that’s becoming my mantra.

What do you think? Should more doctors be trying this? Would you take a produce prescription seriously?

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Heavy and Hungry

I’m back at school now for the spring semester, and getting back into the swing of things. The great thing about dining halls is that I can eat unlimited amounts of veggies. Today there was curried cauliflower AND grilled broccoli. Anyway, over break I read a very important book called Stuffed and Starved by a very smart man named Raj Patel.

Essentially, it’s about some of the major deep-rooted problems in the international food system that simultaneously cause hunger and obesity. I’m going to throw you some highlights:

  • The food system is like an hourglass: there are billions of producers at one end, and consumers at the other end, with many fewer processors, distributors, and retailers in between. The power mainly lies in the hands of the few, to the detriment of the many.
  • The “few” in power make life a living hell for thousands of food producers (aka farmers) in the Global South (aka the developing world) who ironically can’t feed themselves or their families with their pathetic earnings from growing food. The suicide rate for farmers is significantly higher than for other professions, especially in the Global South.
  • The World Trade Organization sets the prices of grain in different countries and allows wealthy countries of the Global North like the U.S. to subsidize their grain, so they can sell it much more competitively than those in the Global South, which really hurts farmers in the Global South, and makes them dependent on more developed countries.
  • Supermarkets have a HUGE amount of control over food prices and over what we buy, and they are the obvious target to pressure so that food producers and farmworkers are paid better.
  • The cheap, processed calories in the global north and extreme poverty in the global south produced by this system help explain the seemingly contradicting existence of a billion starving and even more overweight.

I believe people need to realize that our food system is intimately interconnected with those of other, namely poorer countries.  We need those corporations in the thin part of the hourglass to perhaps forfeit a fraction of their gigantic profit to the many suffering at the production end, which wouldn’t end up costing a whole lot more to the many at the consumption end. And even if it did cost consumers significantly more, isn’t it worth it to save so many people from hunger and poverty? I realize this post was quite biased, so feel free to leave your thoughts: for, against, or in between.

To meat or not to meat: that is NOT the question

For my final Meatless Monday of winter break, my mom and I made quite the spread. I’ve always loved French Onion soup, and wanted to make a vegetarian version of it, so we did a whole French theme: onion soup, mushroom pâté (both me) and a Niçoise salad minus the traditional tuna (my mom). It might be my most photogenic Meatless Monday yet. And no one missed the meat, I assure you.

photo 1photo 2

Now for my Meatless Monday shpiel of the week. Over the last several months, I have been hearing about a number of less-extreme versions of vegetarianism, as in diets, for lack of a better word, that involve reducing or refining meat consumption, not necessarily eliminating it. I wanted to highlight some of these ways of eating as less intimidating ways to permanently reduce your meat consumption.

Meatless Monday is obviously an example of such a flexitarian diet, in which you avoid meat one day per week. It might not seem like it, but the benefits of reducing just 1/7 of the planet’s meat consumption would be MONUMENTAL for health, sustainability, and animal welfare. You can check out the international Meatless Monday movement here.

Another popular “diet” is that of the “humane-itarian,” who only eats meat that has been raised humanely, according to their moral values. For instance, a humaneitarian would certainly avoid eating so-called factory-farmed meat. This MO certainly limits your choices (desirably, I would say) when it comes to meat, especially when eating out, and any time you cannot confirm the origin of your food. By taking this path you can feel better about your food choices while reducing your meat consumption as a side effect, thereby improving your health and the environment. Learn about humaneitarianism here.

I’ve mentioned this one before, but I find the VB6 diet very appealing. Mark Bittman invented this diet that advocates a vegan diet every day before 6 PM, after which you may eat more indulgently, including any animal products. The way I see it, this way you’re eating close to the ideal diet for health, sustainability, and animal welfare 2/3 of the time, and the other 1/3 of the time you may enjoy the taste and nutritional benefits of moderate meat consumption. Check out the book VB6 here.

Most recently, I read about a diet that’s gathering popularity called “reducetarianism,” which simply advocates eating less meat of any kind. The movement is currently promoting a pledge to eat less meat for the next 30 days. Some strategies they suggest are to skip meat at dinner if you ate it for lunch, participate in Meatless Monday (or any day), choose grass-fed meat over conventionally farmed livestock, and reducing your usual portion size of meat. Find out more about reducetarianism here.

I love that all of these “diets” make a significant change to the typical Western diet without being strict enough to be unsustainable for most people. We should all be interested in reducing worldwide meat consumption–I won’t say no matter the size, because more would be better at this point, but as I often say, we have to start somewhere.

Would you try any of these diets?

Next time you hear from me, I’ll be back at school! Thanks for reading.

P.S. Here’s a fun article about a chef who’s vegan 6 days a week.

Beware of the Fad Diet

We’ve come to the end of another Meatless Monday, folks. Over winter break, I was hoping to get a chance to try a recipe for a veggie burger, and tonight I did! I made the Moosewood Restaurant’s classic tofu burger, topped with caramelized onions (have I mentioned how much I love caramelized onions?). I’m very pleased with how they turned out: great texture and great flavor. Definitely just as satisfying as any burger made of meat. photo

Now, as I wrote about in my last post, the beginning of the year is a very popular time for people to set health goals and go on “diets.” Just today, a friend of mine asked me to look over a diet plan that advertises to help one lose 10 pounds in a week or something to that effect. Sounds too good to be true, right?

When I took a look at the rules for each day I started to laugh because the diet limits you to a single food group or food each day, with no apparent rhyme or reason. Why on earth would you be allowed only bananas and yogurt for an entire day?

That was one of the more laughable ones I’ve seen. But there’s no doubt that the creators of many fad diets have developed what seem to be very impressive scientific arguments; take Dr. Atkins, who advocates eliminating carbs, or the Wheat Belly guy, who advocates eliminating wheat. Don’t be fooled! These diets are part of a million-dollar weight-loss industry that is just trying to make money by providing consumers with a quick fix for those extra pounds. If there truly is scientific research to support any miracle, quick-fix diet, there is far more research to support a diet based on whole, minimally processed, mostly plant-based foods, as I’ve written about many a time.

Can you lose weight on a fad diet? Sure–a low calorie “cleanse” like the one my friend showed me will certainly help you lose weight quickly, but you might as well just eat a lot less of what you were already eating. The problem with most fad diets is that they are unsustainable for most people; either they eliminate foods or an entire food group that are purportedly making you fat, or they allow too few calories for you to feel and function well. As soon as you return to your usual way of eating, you’ll gain the weight right back. The word “diet” already connotes something temporary, and you should not think of the way you eat as temporary. If you want to be healthy and slim for life, you have to have a healthy diet for life, not just until you lose 20 pounds.

The truth is, I’m sorry to say, that there is no quick fix for weight loss, or overall health for that matter. In simple terms, to sustain weight loss, you have to eat less, eat better, and move more. But our society does not make it simple or easy to do any of those things; in fact, our environment is all but forcing us to eat more, eat worse, and move less.

Don’t set yourself up to fail by falling for a claim of miraculous weight loss. We who study nutrition have a rule of thumb for this sort of thing: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.