Thursday, October 25, 2012

Food for Thought on Food Day

Yesterday was Food Day, a "nationwide celebration and a movement toward more healthy, affordable, and sustainable food." Started by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the initiative has an impressive and fairly diverse listing of partner organizations, which include public health organizations like the American Public Health Association, activist groups such as Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, and trade associations, including the Organic Trade Association.

Thousands of events were held across the country under the initiative, all devoted to highlighting five priorities in healthy diets, sustainable agriculture, reducing hunger, and protecting the environment and workers' rights.

Regardless of political leanings or views about the individual organizations associated with Food Day, the multidimensional emphasis is a useful way to think about the challenges of today's food system (and the one we envision for the future). Not only are there individual decision-making forces at play, there are even greater societal and systemic forces that effect everything thing from food production and availability, to the policies and guidelines set by governments and promoted to consumers.


Five Thoughts on Today's Food Challenges

  • Data - The nutrition field includes a lot of murky data that relies often on associations and correlations rather than causality. This challenge dates back to some of the early research on diet and nutrition from the 1950's, but nonetheless is now the foundation for much of the current dietary guidelines and recommendations. If you're interested in diving deeper, Dr. Peter Attia, founder of the new Nutrition Science Initiative, provides an interesting overview of some of the history, and his organization has an incredible review of the literature to date (both a summary and citations). On a broader level and as obesity, heart disease, and other chronic diseases become increasing prevalent globally, many countries, particularly low-income countries, data systems "remain weak" according to the World Health Organization, and there is a "vital need" to improve them. If we're going to make evidence-based policies, we need to understand the science and epidemiology of nutrition, obesity, and chronic disease - and this means data.
On one of the main streets in Guhlshan, Dhaka, Bangladesh.
  • Demographics - More than half the world's population reside in cities. By 2035, all regions will have reached the 50% urbanization threshold. How will food systems change? How must they adapt? A popular trend in the U.S. has been farmer's markets, which increased from 1,755 in 1994 to 7,864 in 2012, according to USDA data. Such markets provide urban dwellers the opportunity to purchase fresh produce and meats. However access is often inequitable, and scalability is a major constraint. Accessing nutritious food is of particular concern as cities continue to grow globally, and more people are concentrated in informal settlements, or slums. Research shows a high prevalence of chronic disease risk factors among the poor, such as this study from Soweto, South Africa, where 60% had more than one heart disease risk factor, 44% were obese, and 56% had hypertension. Research from a Brazil slum show similar trends, particularly with women. Among women 20-60 years old, 29% were overweight and 17% were obese.
  • Diet - I like to think of diet not as an intermittent activity, but rather a lifestyle. And diet composition is just as important as overall energy (i.e. calories). Not all food is created equal. For example, not all beef is equal (e.g., grass-fed versus beef raised on a grain diet), which impacts, among other things, the ratio of omega 3/omega 6 fatty acid ratio in the beef. The latter of which the average person consumes way too much of, and prompts the body to do things like store fat rather than burn it. A similar story can be told for eggs, and many other products. In addition, some types of food today are quite different in genetic make-up than their ancestors of a 50-100 years ago - wheat being a big one - which is associated with a variety of health issues, and the nutrient quality found in many fruits and vegetables has declined over the last century as well.
  • Dollars - healthy eating does not have to come at the expense of your wallet. A recent study by the USDA highlighted this precise point. It found that "for all metrics except the price of food energy, the authors find that healthy foods cost less than less healthy foods." In other words, if you evaluate based on edible weight (rather than cost per calorie) vegetables, fruit, and dairy foods were found to be less expensive than most "protein foods, and foods high in saturated fat, added sugars, and/or sodium." What's most promising is that there are emerging some practical solutions, like the tech start-up Zipongo, which is trying to make healthier choices the easier choice through a web-based health community and iPhone app, which "essentially combines the best of and Groupon to create a service that gives users their own personalized wellness plans (and the ability to manage them), while offering discounts at the grocery stores they shop at the most."
  • Difference - as in, make a difference. If nothing else, Food Day is a testament to the power of civil society and organizing. Food is one of, if not, the most important way to invest in your own health. Understanding the importance of food, what's in it, where it comes from, and how to prepare it can be an extremely empowering way for individuals to control their own health. Challenge yourself by filling your cart with real, whole foods next time you're at the grocery store (things like vegetables, seafood, meats (like grass-fed beef and free-range poultry), nuts, and fruit. Support efforts to teach children about food preparation and nutrition, such as home economics classes in schools, which are being cut. And lastly, learn, investigate, and challenge the "conventional wisdom." The newspaper headline or short soundbite on the radio may not be the entire story.
What are your thoughts on today's most pressing food issues. Leave a comment.

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