Since I am guessing you weren’t around prior to the 1900’s, you may not realize that the way most of us Americans eat today is dramatically different from how our ancestors ate for thousands and thousands of years. Our so-called “Western diet” of processed foods only began around the turn of the last century and also taught us that we should be more concerned about calories, nutrients, fat grams, and vitamins rather than just eating the whole foods given to us by nature that people have survived on since the dawn of agriculture.
Since this new way of eating was introduced there has been a simultaneous rise in chronic diseases (even after adjusting for age since we are living longer thanks to modern medicine). Coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer – 4 out of the top ten chronic diseases that kill most of us – “can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food” that Michael Pollan defines as:
• The rise of highly processed foods and refined grains
• The use of chemicals to raise plants and animals (i.e. anything not organic)
• The superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat
• The narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn and soy (the majority of processed foods are laced with at least one these crops in one form or another)
This, in summary, gives “us the Western diet that we take for granted: lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything – except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains” according to Pollan. And it is making a lot of Americans sick and fat.
We are all used to hearing from food scientists on what to eat and what not to eat – in the way of nutrients that is – to make sure that we stay healthy. But, according to Pollan “it’s important to understand that doing nutrition science isn’t easy.” The tools are limited and scientists don’t know enough to compensate for everything that processing takes out of our foods. Processing depletes whole foods of many key nutrients, some of which are then added back in (which is again why your white flour says it is “enriched”). Trying to make up for what may have been lost as a result of the processing is certainly better than leaving it out completely, but food is far too complex to understand everything that is missing.
So, what are we supposed to do? Since we now understand that food scientists can’t add back all that is taken out during processing, instead of worrying about our intake of specific nutrients Pollan says “we should simply avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of industry than of nature.” In simple terms, stop reading labels to find out the amount of vitamins or carbs your food contains, instead read to find out the ingredients that are in your foods to make sure they are simple or eat foods that don’t have labels at all.
The Western diet is easy, fast, and cheap – just take a look at what you can buy for $1 or $2 when it comes to processed foods versus fresh produce in your grocery store. In order to eat well we need to invest more time, effort, and resources (yes, including money) than we do today. Consider though what spending more on organic whole foods might do for your health and do to lower your medical bills later in life. Luckily, it is proven that most of the damage done to our health by the industrialization of eating can be reversed – so it is not too late to change!
With the “resurgence of farmers’ markets, [and] the rise of the organic movement,” among other things, it is much more realistic for you to step “outside the conventional food system” than it was a half a century ago. “And the more eaters who vote with their forks for a different kind” of non-processed, non-industrialized food, “the more commonplace and accessible such food will become” says Pollan. So please join me in this movement to renovate our food system by voting with your food choices too! Together we can make a difference.