That the world’s richest nation is dealing with so many health related issues – obesity, heart disease and diabetes to name a few – is perplexing, as is the sad fact that our government, along with the food and health industries themselves, have demonstrated little or no desire to deal with this problem.
It’s a complex situation, as the cause and effect of diet and exercise are difficult to fully understand. Studies have attempted to shed light on the role various foods play in our overall health, yet none take into account the many related factors. One fact now abundantly clear, however, is that the developed world is becoming increasingly overweight as our diet shifts from “real” food – fruits, nuts, vegetables and whole grains – to processed food.
Michael Pollan, who previously wrote The Botany of Desire in 2001 and The Omivore’s Delemma in 2006, published In Defense of Food in 2008. It’s an in-depth look at how our society has shifted from eating locally grown, seasonal foods to consuming an expanding array of manufactured foods based on nutritional analysis.
By breaking the links among local soils, local foods, and local peoples, the industrial food system disrupted the circular flow of nutrients through the food chain.
A Troubling Statistic
The book makes for a fascinating, if not depressing, read of how our food supply has changed since WWII, and how the spread of our Western diet is now affecting the rest of the world. Michael covers a lot of territory, and you would be well-served to read all that he has to say, but the following quote caught my eye.
In 1960 Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food and 5.2% of national income on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped: Spending on food has fallen to 9.9%, while spending on health care has climbed to 16% of national income.
While some would credit the decrease in food expense to the success of modern agriculture, we must also deal with the fact that the higher yields of industrial farming come with a cost – the increased use of fertilizers and pesticides, along with the loss of biodiversity that has occurred as farmers are forced to plant only the most prolific strains.
The more troublesome of the two statistics, however, is the increase in health costs. It would make sense that an increasingly wealthy and intelligent society would possess the ability, and the desire, to become healthier, and thus need less health care. Instead we’ve made the choice to shift from earth-based foods to factory-based foods, and the result has been a corresponding increase our weight.
The World Health Organization
While there are many negative issues with regard to human health, many feel the most pressing issue is body weight, as our shift away from foods that come from the earth toward foods that come from factories is creating a problem that is global in scale and will result in severe health problems in virtually all countries.
Carrying extra fat leads to serious health consequences such as cardiovascular disease (mainly heart disease and stroke), type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders like osteoarthritis, and some cancers (endometrial, breast and colon). These conditions cause premature death and substantial disability.
What is not widely known is that the risk of health problems starts when someone is only very slightly overweight, and that the likelihood of problems increases as someone becomes more and more overweight. Many of these conditions cause long-term suffering for individuals and families. In addition, the costs for the health care system can be extremely high.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines “overweight” as a BMI equal to or more than 25, and “obesity” as a BMI equal to or more than 30. These cut-off points provide a benchmark for individual assessment, but there is evidence that risk of chronic disease in populations increases progressively from a BMI of 21.
The chart below, from the World Health Organization, shows the percentage of adults that are now overweight. It’s interesting to note that those countries with greater than 50% of their adult population tipping the scales represent a mix of Western nations, such as UK, Germany, United States, along with some countries who have become increasingly Westernized over the past 20 years – Saudi Arabia, Israel, Czech Republic and Poland.
Shifting Our Habits
The single most important thing that we can do to reverse this trend is to shift our eating habits, away from processed foods and back to the natural foods that society once ate with abandon.
I’ve often heard the expression, “When shopping at the grocery store, buy 80% of your food from the edges – mainly fruits and vegetables along with a prudent amount of bread, dairy, eggs, meat and fish – while never spending more than 20% in the center isles, which are stuffed with boxed, bagged and canned processed foods.
And don’t forget to read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan – as there is much more to learn about the current state of food & health beyond the one topic that I chose to highlight in this Global Patriot blog post!
What are your eating habits and what changes are you making to stay healthy?