The way we eat affects our health. The way our societies allow and encourage food to be produced affects human well-being. That’s why our health is intimately intertwined with our food, illustrating another of the Five Key Challenges for Food Systems that I outlined previously:
- To feed a large and growing world population
- To produce food ecologically
- To consume food for human health
- To act compassionately toward all living beings
- To support community well-being.
In our grandparents’ day, people who died young generally succumbed to infectious diseases such as flus and tuberculosis. Today those who die young fall prey mostly to heart disease, cancers, and stroke. Human ingenuity came up with antibiotics to fight infectious disease. But meanwhile we’ve acted in ways that have increased our vulnerability to illnesses of our time.
Almost all disease is multifactorial, meaning that pathology has multiple causes. The sole exceptions are clearly-genetic conditions such as Huntington’s Disease. Almost all others have many contributions — a little genetic predisposition, but also environmental factors including everything from exposure to toxins in our childhood neighbourhoods, to too much intake of high-fat or pesticide-laced foods.
The fact that food choices play a role in health and disease gives us three or more opportunities a day to do the right thing for our bodies. I’ll quote Michael Pollan’s wonderful dictum: ‘Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.’ In the last post I showed an image of the ingredient list from a jar of ‘gourmet’ antipasto. It takes effort to learn that foods with such labels aren’t necessarily healthy, but they’re not. Let’s eat real food. If you have additional specific ideas on how we can do so, please comment.
That we should also eat ‘not too much,’ as Michael Pollan advises, is difficult but essential. Our evolutionary brains aren’t wired to cope with the excessive amounts of food available, and many of us are overweight or even obese. My elderly father made a fascinating observation recently. Almost 90 years old, he has all his cognitive faculties and also gets out of the home, drives, and walks, most days. A big fan of eating sparingly, my father has observed that: “There are no overweight men over 80.” By and large, they’re gone. Some women seem to be able to carry a few extra pounds and still live into their 80s, but anecdotal evidence suggests that men, at least, cannot.
Industrial agriculture, with its pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, also undermine human health. So does factory farming with its heavy use of antibiotics — which has been demonstrated as the likely main cause of antibiotic-resistant disease today. Food systems are challenged to contribute to human health. The fact that those systems are producing edible substances isn’t enough. We need better production priorities, and better food choices, for health. For example, if you need a snack this afternoon, consider an organic apple. This hasn’t been easy for me. As a salt-and-sugar enthusiast, I had to work hard over time to choose fresh fruit instead of cookies. But now apples and me are an item. Join me in eating for health.