Still Weighting for Change

As I procrastinate from studying for my Anatomy and Physiology lab practical exam, I want to use this post to commemorate a year of blogging. I realized it’s been a year because the annual Food Revolution Summit, which last year pushed me to finally start this blog, is now happening once again. I haven’t always been consistent with the posting, but I am proud of myself for getting my voice out there in the food movement somewhat regularly, and I hope I can continue to have a greater influence as I “move up in the world.”

I just smiled reading back over my first post, which laid out my major frustrations and beliefs about our heavily flawed food system. On this anniversary, I think I will do something similar and lay out what I believe are the biggest issues and challenges underlying our food crisis.

Lack of transparency. 

Since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, the public has been wary of what the food industry tries to get away with behind our backs, and with good reason. Factory farms and industrial meatpackers continue to use cruel, unhygienic, and unsustainable practices in order to provide us with massive quantities of animal products at low cost. Several sectors of the food industry, notably meatpacking, fruit and vegetable growers, and fast food restaurants take advantage of undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable, marginalized groups as employees, not paying them a living wage for sometimes dangerous or unhygienic work, and allowing sexual harassment to go on in the workplace. If consumers at large really knew where their food came from, I doubt such shameful practices would continue much longer.

Aggressive marketing and branding.

Especially to children. Kids today grow up begging their parents for the foods they see in commercials and ads literally everywhere they go. I myself remember asking my mom to go to McDonald’s regularly as a kid. This branding makes junk food normal, acceptable, and desirable among the next generation practically from the moment they leave the womb (ok, I exaggerate, but it’s pretty soon after that). The earlier they get hooked on the convenience, taste, and immediate gratification of highly processed food, the greater the risk of chronic disease.

Subsidizing monoculture.  

The two most heavily subsidized crops in the U.S. are corn and soy, which are not coincidentally also the most heavily processed crops that go into food products. Conventionally grown, genetically modified corn and soy dominate the fields in what is called a monoculture, crowding out more expensive but more nutritious whole fruits and vegetables and the benefits to the environment of cultivating a variety of crops. Minimally processed corn and soy can of course be nutritious and healthy, but most of this corn and soy goes to animal feed, and much of what does not becomes stripped of any health benefits to go into packaged food as added sweetener and fat. Thus, our soil and our bodies have become less healthy pretty much directly as a result of our government’s own policy.

Food politics (aka Big Ag and Big Food’s influence on government policy and health professionals)

I’ve written it many times. The food and agriculture industry lobbies an incredible amount so that lawmakers continue to create legislation that is favorable to their bottom line. As a result,

  • supplements are unregulated and often do not contain the substances they are labeled to contain
  • the Dietary Guidelines have never instructed the public not to eat or to eat less of any food, regardless of the strength of evidence arguing against its consumption
  • food marketing to children has never been curtailed, regardless of the strength of evidence arguing for its harmfulness
  • a professional organization of dietitians unofficially endorsed a highly processed food product
  • the foods that are making us, livestock, and the planet very sick continue to be subsidized
  • I could go on and on.

Desire for immediate gratification

I truly believe this is the root of all of our food troubles, and many other troubles as well. Humans are wired for immediate gratification; it’s what allowed us to evolve as a species through time. Back when food was scarce, those who were genetically inclined to crave and seek out the sugary fruits and fatty meats were more likely to survive. Industrialization allowed for more and more immediate gratification: immediate communication with people over long distance, faster transportation, and, of course, food you could eat immediately without having to grow and cook it yourself. All of this seemed like a great idea because humans are wired to seek out immediate gratification. Getting what we want right this minute almost seems imperative to our survival at times, because at one time it was. But industrialization and mechanization and computerization of our food system (and many other systems as well) happened before we could realize the effect it was having on our planet and our health. Hindsight being 20/20, I think people would be a lot better off now had soft drinks and Taco Bell and Doritos never been created. Unfortunately, they provide immediate gratification for our taste buds at low immediate cost. I say immediate because, as we now know, the long-term costs of our indulgences and excesses in salt, sugar, fat, mass-produced animal products, and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are nothing short of astronomical. This quality makes us highly vulnerable as consumers, and also encourages industry leaders to go to any lengths to increase profits and returns on investments, regardless of the long term costs to society. This explains the, ahem, questionable business practices of industrial agriculture and food manufacturers. As you might imagine, this also plays a big role in industry’s influence on government, as elected and appointed officials profit from their connections to the private sector.

The question is, can we as a society overcome this desire for immediate gratification and potentially reverse malnutrition (including over nutrition and undernutrition) and climate change, the two biggest crises facing our planet today? Remains to be seen. I have hope. Thanks for reading!

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Forget About Nutrients

Finally, I’ve found a book that sums up my healthy eating philosophy perfectly: In Defense of Food, written by Michael Pollan–who else? Pollan is a food journalist who has inspired me for years now. His earlier book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which you should also read, is even more groundbreaking, but primarily focuses on aspects of the food system other than nutrition. Anyway, I devoured In Defense Of Food over the last two days during my spring break, and it’s inspired me to write this post, in which I will try to summarize my take on Pollan’s work.

You’re probably wondering about the title of this post. After all, what kind of nutrition major am I if I don’t care about nutrients? Let me attempt to explain. In previous posts, I’ve written a lot about my belief that the answer to our dietary crisis (in terms of human health, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability) lies in switching our consumption from highly processed foods typical of the so-called Western diet to primarily fresh, whole foods more commonly found in the traditional diet of any culture you can think of–what I liked to call “real food.” As soon as Americans started eating the Western diet, they started developing obesity and all of the related chronic diseases. Introduce the Western diet to any other people, be it the French, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the Indians, and they start getting sick just like the Americans. The obesity epidemic is now global. Diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are no longer diseases of affluence as they were once called. Developing countries are experiencing dietary distress at a greater rate than ever before. But I’m going off on a tangent.

So how did we get away from our traditional diets of real food? Mostly because food manufacturers realized that they could make food more addicting and achieve much higher profit margins by stripping food into its component parts and putting it back together again in different combinations, and nearly always with some quantity of added fat, sugar, and/or salt.

When society realized that highly processing foods stripped them of their micronutrients and made people sick with acute deficiency diseases, they started to fortify ’em back up with vitamins and minerals. Curiously enough, though, people continued to get heavier and sicker with chronic disease. Scientists continue to try to find the nutrients that the Western diet was missing and add them back to processed foods–antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, you name it. And as we very well know, they have been toying with the ratio of fat and carbs for decades now as each one is alternately demonized by the public. People think sugar is the culprit, or gluten, or artificial sweeteners, or trans fats. But try as they might, no one has been able to discover exactly what nutrient or nutrients (or lack thereof) is responsible for our nutritional demise.

So what do we propose (we being Michael Pollan and myself)?

Don’t worry about it so much.

Yes, of course, it’s great to know what foods contain Vitamin C so that we don’t all get scurvy and to know that saturated fat raises blood cholesterol and to know fiber’s role in the digestive system, but this approach of focusing on nutrients as opposed to food (what Pollan calls “nutritionism”) has gotten us pretty much nowhere in preventing chronic disease.

What is very clear, however, as I mentioned above, is that the Western diet is associated with exponentially more obesity and chronic disease than any traditional diet. It’s important to note as well that traditional diets vary hugely in their macronutrient composition: the traditional Japanese diet is very low-fat and very high carb, while the Mediterranean diet can be up to 40% fat, mostly from olive oil. The French traditionally eat what we’d consider high proportions of cheese and bread and wine, while Brazilians’ staples are beans and rice. It’s the rare vegetarian that lives in Germany, while most Indians are vegetarian. I think you get my point: people subsisting on a variety of varied, minimally processed diets got on for generations without developing anywhere near the rates of chronic illnesses that our civilization is now experiencing.

What I’m saying is that we should stop worrying about whether it’s the fat or the carbs or the protein or the fiber or the omega-3s. I doubt we will ever be able to completely understand the impact on our physiology of the complex system of the myriad of chemical compounds that make up our food, and definitely not with our reductionist scientific method. We know what caused our health problems, and I don’t mean specifically–what we know for sure is that it all went down when we switched from our traditional diets to the Western diet. The people who are the healthiest tend to follow Michael Pollan’s three rules that have become the mantra of the food movement:

  1. Eat food
  2. Not too much
  3. Mostly plants

I literally couldn’t have said it better myself. Forget about the nutrients; you’ll be happier and healthier if you just try to eat a variety of fresh, real, mainly plant-based foods and try to prepare them yourself most of the time. From now on, whenever anyone asks me what to do to eat healthy (it happens more than you think) I’m going to recommend In Defense of Food. Mr. Pollan, once again you’ve outdone yourself.

Thoughts?