There are few decisions we make each day that are more important than what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The impact of food on our bodies and minds goes beyond words. Diet has well-established links to the chronic diseases plaguing society — diseases like heart disease and cancer and diabetes that are responsible for over 70 percent of deaths worldwide. In the United States alone, diet is considered the single most important risk factor for mortality.
Yet if you look at what most of us eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and all the hours in between), you would have a hard time concluding that food matters much at all. Besides, over 60 percent of our diets consists of highly processed foods laden with refined grains, sugar, additives and inflammatory seed oils (more innocently known as vegetable oils). Most of us pile these products into our grocery store carts with hardly a glance at the ingredients lists. Perhaps we’ll peek at the calories or fat, though truly these are the least of our concerns.
Taste and convenience seem to guide our food choices above all else. In fact, most of us are so disassociated from our food that we don’t really think about how it affects our health — even though so many of our family members, friends and colleagues are succumbing to the tragic chronic conditions with scientifically-established links to diet.
It is a tragic phenomenon, one that I call the paradox of food.
How can food matter so much, and yet we know so little?
It is a complex question, one with enormous implications for our personal and societal health. Chronic diseases utterly overwhelm our medical system, accounting for 86 percent of healthcare spending. Sixty percent of adults have one chronic disease, while over 40 percent suffer from multiple conditions. The numbers just keep getting worse, as millions of children and adults are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, among other diet-related conditions. And just because you don’t yet have a diagnosis, it doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. A recent study found that merely 12 percent of adults are metabolically healthy, even among normal-weight individuals.
How can food matter so much, and yet we know so little?
If we hope to reverse this tragic state of affairs, we must completely transform the way we think about food. It’s not about calories or taste or convenience. It’s about giving our bodies the fuel they need to successfully do their jobs. But again, shouldn’t we know this? How did we arrive at this place of utter disconnection between food and health?
I believe the answer is multifaceted, bringing together diverse sectors of our society. We could spend hours peeling apart the layers, but let’s begin with just a few:
1. The processed food industry has performed a remarkable feat on our culture. In less than 100 years, it has convinced us that industrial food is better than real, whole foods. Through elaborate marketing campaigns and high-tech food science, the industry made its products as alluring as possible while normalizing their place in society. Processed food takes up the bulk of our grocery stores, not to mention our convenience stores and vending machines. We are constantly bombarded with tantalizing packaging and misleading health claims (“whole grain!” “low fat!”). And when our food comes out of a package, it is all too easy to lose sight of its connection to the earth and to ourselves.
2. The vast majority of doctors don’t talk about food. Research shows that medical students receive inadequate nutrition training and are thus ill-equipped to discuss diet as a healthcare tool. Though it seems ludicrous given our current disease landscape, medical training primarily focuses on pharmaceuticals, not lifestyle factors. Imagine if doctors discussed the importance of food with every patient starting at a young age. It doesn’t mean we would listen, but at least we would grow up with the awareness that food matters.
3. Our public spaces are filled to the brim with bad food. When we go to school, we receive nutritionally-deficient meals. When we go to work, we are surrounded by unhealthy food in breakrooms, cafeterias and vending machines. Even when we get sick, we are fed low-quality meals in hospitals — institutions that should be the paradigm of health. Our environment silently tells us over and over again “FOOD DOES NOT MATTER,” and we receive no education to counter the subliminal messaging.
4. The calorie hypothesis has also played a major role in blurring the distinction between processed food and real food. If all calories are created equal, then it doesn’t matter if we consume 100 calories of Cheez-Its or 100 calories of broccoli. The simplistic “a calorie is a calorie” mantra turns out to be wrong, though it is still perpetuated by the food industry and, unfortunately, many nutritionists. Thanks to the field of biochemistry, we know that calories are metabolized differently in the body depending on their source—and that sugar and refined carbohydrates are especially damaging. Thus, we must abandon our obsession with calories are focus on the quality of the food instead.
5. Even our leading nutrition institutions circulate harmful advice. The U.S. dietary guidelines still recommend we limit saturated fat and consume vegetable oils instead, despite the fact that there is no rigorous science to back it up. As Cleveland Clinic cardiovascular medicine chairman Dr. Steven Nissen writes: “Unfortunately, the current and past U.S. dietary guidelines represent a nearly evidence-free zone.” The American Heart Association (AHA) and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) are plagued with similar problems thanks to conflicts of interests in the food and drug industries. The AND’s corporate sponsors — ranging from Coca-Cola to Kellogg — can even host educational courses for dietitians.
Though we have just begun to unpack the paradox of food, we can start to see how it was born. A perfect synergy of factors led us to disassociate from our food, and we are now suffering the consequences. The time has come to take back the reigns, rediscovering the intimate connection between diet and health. Are you in?
To learn more about the problems with processed food, head over here.