''The most radical change to the way humans eat since the discovery of agriculture and the chronic diseases that kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food.'
These changes have given us the Western Diet comprising processed foods, especially white flour and white flour products, an excess of fat and sugar and almost no mention of the many varieties of fruit and vegetables that sustained us in the past. Michael Pollan in his book 'In Defence of Food. The Myth of Nutrition', puts the problem in a nutshell. He condemns not only highly processed food and refined grains, but also the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures, the super abundance of cheap calories produced by modern agriculture and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a small handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn and soy. Traditional diets have been slowly abandoned in favour of this Western diet leading to predictable Western diseases including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Colonial doctors returning to the UK from abroad were astonished to see diseases that simply did not exist among native populations living on traditional, unrefined food. As Pollan points out, humans are well adapted to all sorts of different diets all around the world but the Western diet is not one of them.
TRADITIONAL FOOD ABANDONNED
This fundamental change in our diet has left many people totally confused about what is good to eat. Pollan believes that we have come to rely on science, journalism, government and marketing to help us to decide what to eat. Old traditions, and traditional food have been supplanted by what is called nutritionism; an idea that the nutritional value of a food is the sum of all its individual nutrients, vitamins, and other components. Gone is the pleasure of sitting down with family and friends to eat a traditional meal of meat or fish accompanied by a delicious variety of assorted fresh vegetables followed by locally made cheeses or fresh fruit. Now people question every ingredient. Does it contain too much salt or sugar? Does it have too much cholesterol? Are there trans-fats in the food or worse still, fructose? I know someone who is so neurotic about fructose that she refuses to eat any fruit. There is nothing wrong with fructose when you eat the whole fruit, as we did for decades before the food industry refined fruit down to pure juice and concentrated sugar. How did the human race survive this long if it did not rely on common sense, customs and traditions to know what sort of food was good to eat?
FROM LEAVES TO SEEDS
There has been an almost total change in our diet in favour of seeds instead of plants and leaves. Leaves provide a host of critical nutrients that the body cannot get from a diet of refined seeds. Roughly two-thirds of ancient man's diet consisted of plant-based foods but today, according to Pollan, seeds such as corn, soy, rice and wheat account for two thirds of the calories that we eat. Most of the breakfast cereals come from corn, cooking oils come from corn and other seeds, sugar now comes from corn (high fructose corn syrup), much of the meat and poultry comes from animals fed on corn and soya and these two cereals are also widely used as extenders in processed food. As omnivores we do not get anything like the variety of different foods that we should be eating. Of the fruit and vegetables that we do eat there is no longer the variety we once had. Now varieties are selected for convenience; if they are not high yielding or suitable for processing they are rejected.
FUTILITY OF CHANGING ANIMAL DIET
We have seen the folly of radically changing the diet of farm animals with the advent of BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy). When herbivores were forced to eat meat it made them sick and the consequences were catastrophic. For us humans the processing and adulteration of food, as in the typical Western diet, has been our downfall. We are falling victim to more ill health than ever before. Referring to Type2 diabetes, Pollan remarks 'This is a global pandemic in the making, involving no virus or bacteria, no microbe of any kind but just a way of eating.'
Not so long ago vegetables, especially green leaf vegetables, featured prominently in our daily food. During the second world war people relied a great deal on vegetables to fill their stomachs when meat and many other staple foods were rationed and they were remarkably healthy in comparison to today. They also ate less in quantity because of food shortages. It has recently been claimed that the number of people in the world suffering from the problems of 'over nutrition' has for the first time exceeded the number suffering from 'under nutrition'.
A NUTRITION SCIENCE OFTEN FLAWED
There is an urgent need to escape from analysing food into separate nutrients or eating certain products just because they are supposed to be good for you. Health foods that advertise themselves as such very often are not. There is nothing healthy about margarine with added omega 3. Pollan points out that for most of human history, humans have navigated the question of what is good to eat without expert advice. One of the problems is 'the constant shifting ground of nutrition science that is steadily advancing the frontiers of our knowledge about diet and health or is changing its mind a lot because it is a flawed science that knows much less than it cares to admit'. He goes on to say 'Most of the nutritional advice we've received over the last half century (and in particular the advice to replace fats in our diet with carbohydrates) has actually made us less healthy and considerably fatter.' And indeed this advice was retracted after it was shown to have had some disastrous effects on health and well being. Future historians will be astonished at the millions of people, involving several generations in America and the UK in particular, who were so easily persuaded that industrialised, processed food was so much better than fresh food prepared in one's own kitchen.
ALL POWERFUL FOOD INDUSTRY
Of course, convenience played a major part and when more and more women began to go out to work they were delighted to find supermarket food that had already been prepared and only needed heating up in the microwave. The food marketing industry was only too willing to profit from this new demand, there being little money to be made from fresh food prepared at home but the problems began when the food industry became all powerful and began to adulterate food both by substitution of traditional ingredients and by chemical additives. Thus people were duped into believing that what looked like, for example, a normal loaf of bread was actually a travesty of the real thing. One only has to look at the list of ingredients on packeted food to realise just how many different chemicals and unpronounceable items are included. Certainly artificial flavourings and colourings, some of which promote allergic reactions, have become the norm. Our grandparents would not recognize many of the products on display on supermarket shelves.
NEW DIABETES 'INDUSTRY'
Now modern medicine has learned to keep alive those whom the Western diet is making sick. New business opportunities present themselves such as heart by-pass operations, insulin pumps and bariatric surgery. Although an estimated 80% of type 2 diabetes could be prevented by a change in diet, instead, a vast new diabetes industry has sprung up. Even publications created specifically for diabetics such as the Diabetic Gourmet Magazine have now appeared on the market. Pollan describes how 'the mainstream media is full of advertisements for new gadgets and drugs for diabetics, and the health care industry is gearing up to meet the surging demand for heart by-pass operations (80% of diabetics will suffer from heart disease), dialysis and kidney transplants.... Diabetes is well on its way to becoming normalised in the West, recognised as a whole new demographic and so a major marketing opportunity'.
'CONTROLLED FASTING' THE WAY FORWARD
One contributing factor to the increase in cases of Type2 diabetes is because people never stop eating, causing their insulin levels to see-saw out of control. Dr. Jason Fung, in a recent lecture, showed how he has successfully treated a number of his patients by what he calls 'controlled fasting'. Dr. Fung explains why the accepted traditional method of giving insulin actually makes diabetes worse. His new treatment involves principally abstaining from eating in between meals but under close medical supervision, no insulin and a controlled diet of whole foods. Such a simple but extremely effective solution could save the NHS millions of pounds and avoid a painful outcome for many thousands of diabetic patients. But will Health Authorities listen? I doubt it. The NHS is too geared up to the diabetic 'industry' and a treatment such as this would, of course, lead to the loss of jobs in some departments of the health service.
SO WHAT CAN BE DONE?
GO BACK TO HEALTHY PLANTS AND LEAVES.
Now that we know that the radical change from plants and leaves to seeds in our daily diet has wreaked havoc on our health, it is obvious that the way forward is a return to eating many more vegetables, especially green leaf vegetables. The French paradox can be explained in part by the fact that they eat quantities of lettuce every day. A salad is an accompaniment to nearly every meal. In the UK, in days gone by, a green vegetable with the main meal was considered perfectly normal, be it cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussel tops or sprouts. These vegetables are best boiled, not steamed as this spoils the flavour. They should be rapidly cooked in a saucepan in a small quantity of lightly salted boiling water with the lid on, until just tender.
Pollan gives sound advice. Use the supermarkets less, grow your own fruit and vegetables where possible and support farmers' markets. There you can meet those who actually produce the food and 'shake the hand that feeds you'. This is the only way in which to escape from the length and complexity of the industrial food chain that is threatening not only our health but that of future generations.
In Defence of Food. The Myth of Nutrition. Michael Pollan
Dr Jason Fung. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAwgdX5VxGc