How To Eat Right & Save The Planet
Squirrels don’t gather to discuss if they should try a little meat in their diet. Lions don’t debate veganism. But we humans chop and change our diets all the time. So exactly how do we make food choices?
It seems that cultural habit, taste, and advertising are the primary motivations that inform our decisions. All are unreliable and derive from emotions or from concepts we absorb from others. But what if there are biological factors that guide us as to what we eat. We seem to have lost the capacity to detect foods that are toxic. Like any animal, we would not have survived without the capacity to detect harmful compounds in what we ate. It is a sign of health when we can discern what actions support our health and which do not.
The reasons for our sensory deficit are simple. The food industry has employed the power of science to fool the senses. Food scientists can now replicate almost any flavour (or smell) using artificial formulations. We can have strawberry cheesecake with no strawberries and no cheese. The simple potato crisp can now be purchased tasting like chicken or pork. This is an important nutritional issue especially since the food we eat not only nourishes our body but also our mind.
Scientists have recently discovered what are termed as pseudo-genes. Some of the most important ones have to do with taste and smell. These genes have lost some or even all of their original functions largely due to lack of use. They have been referred to as genetic fossils. This loss of sensitivity provides an interesting insight into our dietary history. The modern diet has become more tightly focused on a narrow range of tastes with sweet (simple sugars) and salt being highest on the list. The other factor that influences our modern preferences is “mouth feel”, the way that food pleases the internal surface of the mouth.
During the great migrations of human populations, there were very few sources of fat, salt, and simple sugars. Calorie-dense foods, especially sugars, were valuable sources of energy. Aside from the immediate pleasurable effects of eating them, sugars could convert to fat in the body. According to Harvard University evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman:
Apart from honey, most of the foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate were no sweeter than a carrot. The invention of farming made starchy foods more abundant, but it wasn’t until very recently that technology made pure sugar bountiful.
The modern diet has been designed to trigger these ancient memories of scarcity and provoke a desire to eat more. This is done by triggering the activity of Dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that sparks pleasure in us. Fat, simple sugars and salt are all dopamine triggers. The effect is that we want more. The modern diet is built around these three factors in excessive quantities.
Anytime you plan on eating one cookie or just one portion of dessert and end up eating the whole thing it was dopamine. Dopamine is the messenger of not only pleasure but also of addiction. The effect is to keep wanting more but not getting increased rewards. It is the most intense stimulations that are the most troubling. A sugar laden cake with loads of dairy in the frosting is a tsunami of addictive force.
To escape the effects of harmful eating it is important to reeducate the body. That means setting aside the harmful foods and replacing them with healthy options. It is a sign of health when we can discern what actions support our well-being and which do not. This does not mean giving up pleasure, to the contrary, it means developing a more refined sensitivity and finding great pleasure and creating health at the same time.
The most advanced modern research into nutrition and the reflection of decades of epidemiological study from around the world all point to the same conclusions. The healthiest way to eat is a wholefood, plant-based vegan diet. Basically, this announces a return to eating simple foods such as whole cereal grains, beans, vegetables, nuts, fruits and seeds. It means cutting out highly refined and animal sourced foods and eating low on the food chain. It means rejecting an industrially manufactured diet and taking control of our kitchens.
This revolution in nutrition has been driven by scientists, grass roots activists and environmentalists. This dedicated band has been engaged with the powerful forces of vested interest, cultural mythology and food industry giants who buy “scientific” research that spreads confusion. If all this reminds you of the battles for the truth about the dangers of smoking or climate change, it should. It is the same game. The issue is simple: our modern diet not only creates disease, it endangers all life on the planet—and yes, that includes us.
HEALING OURSELVES AND THE PLANET
When I started studying food and nutrition over fifty years ago, I was intrigued by the connection between what I was eating and the environment. I should not have been, one of the great truths of life is that everything is connected. I discovered that many of the foods that had questionable or negative effects on health also had an adverse environmental impact.
We do not need new products or even more studies to create a wholesome way of eating. What we need is a new way of looking at the whole issue of food and health. We need a user-friendly, common-sense approach to understanding food that is healthy and sustainable for society and the environment. To accomplish this requires us to question everything we have been told about nutrition and review some very basic questions about the role of food in our life and in our culture. It means strengthening the relationship between the individual and nature.
The word “health” comes from Old English and means “to be complete.” Food is certainly an important part of being whole---being connected. To be healthy, we eat food that allows us to operate at our full potential. That potential includes the sensitivity and capacity to adapt to environmental change. Health enables us to nurture the bond between nature and ourselves. Ecology is a central theme of the ancient systems of understanding food.
Ecology is rarely acknowledged when discussing nutrition, and yet it is central to understanding our food choices and how different foods affect us. These effects are both direct and indirect. Rachel Carson, author of The Silent Spring and the accepted mother of modern ecology put it this way.
If we have been slow to develop the general concepts of ecology and conservation, we have been even more tardy in recognizing the facts of the ecology and conservation of man himself. We may hope that this will be the next major phase in the development of biology. Here and there, awareness is growing that man, far from being the overlord of all creation, is himself part of nature, subject to the same cosmic forces that control all other life. Man’s future welfare and probably even his survival depend upon his learning to live in harmony, rather than in combat, with these forces.
This view of our relationship with nature is more crucial now than ever. Carson’s vision of an evolution in biological science that unifies human life with the environment has been steadily sidelined. If man is “a part of nature, subject to the same cosmic forces that control all other life,”then natural law exists for us as well as for every other creature, plant, and aspect of the planet. If we do not learn to cooperate with the laws of nature, we will harm ourselves. We don’t need an environmental degree to understand natural law.
When we grow enough grain and beans to feed double the present population simply to feed to animals, we are not observing natural law. When accepting that killing 70 Billion land animals each year for our eating pleasure we are not practicing sound ethical principles. When we ship an exotic fruit thousands of miles by air to eat because we have been told it has magical properties to cure all our ills, we are not being mindful of our place in nature.
Our belief in human supremacy (often referred to as anthropocentric thinking) allows us to place ourselves at the center of the universe. We view our uniqueness as a sign of separation from the rest of life that swirls around us and within us. The belief that we are superior to other life-forms permits us to use the natural world according to our desires and whims. After all, we feel we have “dominion” over all living creatures. As we pull away from any physical interaction with nature, we fortify those mythologies that lie at the foundation of our most harmful behaviors.
HEART AND MIND, BODY AND SOUL
Changing our food choices is an act of Deep Ecology. It is a practical demonstration of our personal awareness of our link to nature. This automatically places us outside the modern social environment we live in, it encourages us to pay attention. It is an act of rebellion against the consumption of toxic foods built on social injustice, ecological damage and the killing of sentient life. It is an escape from the most prevalent aspect of consumerism. It is difficult to imagine a single act that has so many positive repercussions to our physical, social and psychological well-being.
As we move into an era where our young are developing the diseases of the old, where behavioural problems continue to rise, and our health systems teeter on the edge of failure we should be worried. That is seemingly not the case. We are held in place by deep-seated emotional attachments and out-dated traditions.
Imagine the benefit of preventing 50% of all heart disease, reducing cancers by 30% or reversing 80% of all type two diabetes. Think of the impact on our overworked hospitals, doctors and nurses. I believe that the figures above are conservative. Achieving them would require no new drugs, no improved technologies and no extensive training of professionals. What it will require is a new vision of health and healing as well as a stronger commitment to real rather that superficial change.
One of the clear lessons we can learn from our present dilemma is that nutrition, health, ecological concerns and compassion for non-human life are all intimately linked. Until we approach human activities with a clear ethic regarding long term outcome we are doomed to flounder from the effects of simplistic solutions. The Native American Iroquois Council of tribal affairs encouraged leaders to consider the impact of decisions for seven generations. Try and imagine what todays leaders would decide if that system had the force of law. In today’s rush for the quick fix they would be paralyzed but it must be done. It is a challenge to us all.
The food industry and the damage it does from farm to factory to table will only change through consumer demands. These demands should not be for “vegan” or “healthy” replacements for familiar junk food. Our demands should be for food that is organically grown and free of chemicals, it needs to be whole food and not processed quick fixes. The more we move our attention back into the kitchen, the more control we have over our health, and our relationship to the environment. This in no way needs to inhibit any other social actions we wish to take or other environmental causes we want to pursue but it is fundamental.
My wife Marlene and I have 90 years of experience between us in the field of natural health care. We are here to support the shift to eating a diet that is healthy and causes no harm, we welcome your questions. After all, if we don’t take care of our body and our planet, where are we going to live?
In good health