The public fascination with food has slowly grown from an interest to an obsession over the past thirty years. Every kind of cooking show from ethnic cooking to food porn is featured on TV. Daily newspaper articles tell us that a new danger has been discovered in what we eat or that a new miracle diet has hit the market. Every time a celebrity eats a piece of tofu, the news is filled with speculation about the safety of soybeans. Proposals favoring regulation of the food industry or better nutrition in schools are met with screams of “over my dead body” from those who fear government intrusion into their life. Many people either chase the rainbow, buying the latest coconut/gingko/antioxidant-rich kale tonic or simply throw up their hands and order a “Happy Meal.
My personal adventures with food began in 1966. My roommate decided he was going to try a macrobiotic diet and I went along for the ride. The book he was given made some fairly wild claims regarding the curing of disease but was filled with references to Oriental philosophy that interested me. The meals were not particularly delicious to start with. But after a few weeks of eating these totally new foods, I noticed some interesting effects.
I did not embark on my little experiment with health benefits in mind, but I did have a problem that I was doing my best to avoid. I had ulcers in my stomach and duodenum. I was only twenty-four years old, but my stomach was behaving like an old man’s. My very 60’s lifestyle was burning a whole in my solar plexus.
I was used to having pain after almost every meal, and the medications the doctor gave me were useless. I felt embarrassed having this problem at such a tender age and kept it pretty much to myself. Self-medicating and self-delusion were my primary coping strategies, but they weren’t working.
Two or three weeks after changing my diet, I noticed that the pain was slowly decreasing. After a couple of months it was gone. I lost weight, felt bright eyed and bushy tailed, and my stomach and I seemed to be back on speaking terms again. This was entirely unexpected. I decided to share the good news with my doctor. The meeting was a life changer.
I went in for my x-rays and made an appointment for the following week. In preparation, I typed out my new diet. I was eager to share the news. If this could help me, think of all the other people it could help. There must be a Nobel Prize in here for someone. When the doctor reviewed my x-rays, she complimented me on the progress and said that the treatment she prescribed was working. We were both in for a surprise.
I had stopped taking the prescribed medication long ago; the few dietary suggestions I received from her were the exact opposite of what I was doing. The doctor’s diet (that I did not follow) was built around soft foods and cold milk – basically baby food. My new diet was mostly comprised of whole grains, vegetables, beans (foods I was told to avoid), fruits and nuts with a little fish once in a while. I had stopped eating all dairy food, sugar, refined flour products, red meat, and chicken. When I presented my new diet to the doctor her response was bizarre. She read it through and then slowly (very slowly) tore my diet into tiny pieces and dropped it in the wastepaper basket beside her desk. I thought she was having an emotional breakdown. She looked me in the eye and said, “This is voodoo, and if you are doing this you are no longer my patient. You will be back in six months looking for an operation.” Just imagine my surprise. I left her office bewildered. How could the objective evidence of the x-rays and my personal experience be discarded without any interest or curiosity?
Her little hissy fit changed the course of my life. My quirky food experiment gained a new depth of meaning as I began asking some important questions. Why did she react so strangely? Was her agitation motivated by concern for me or was it simply her wounded pride? How could something as simple as changing a diet be overlooked as a treatment for a stomach ailment?
Over the following years, her response would become familiar to me. My experience didn’t fit with the governing theory of what a good diet should be, let alone one specific to a particular symptom. She might now have a different reaction – times have changed. The macrobiotic diet I was following then (and still do) is almost exactly the same as those recommended today by the World Health Organization, The Center for Disease Control, and hundreds of medical and health-related organizations.
Regardless of the debates that seem to dominate the nutritional landscape, there is overwhelming agreement on what comprises a healthy diet. When we move past the self-serving commercial interests that have the loudest voices, we find the message is the same. Broadly speaking, what is known is that we need to “drastically reduce” (I’m leaving you lots of wiggle room) or avoid consumption of Meat, Dairy, Refined Sugars, and Highly Processed and Chemically Adulterated foods (MDSPC). This needs to be complimented with increased consumption of simple whole foods such as Whole Grains, Vegetables, Beans, Seeds, Fruits, and Nuts (WGVBSFN). Pretty simple - surely not rocket science. Why the confusion then?
Much of the problem lies in the limits of modern nutritional science - it is not built for the task. Conversely, the way of eating I discovered back in the mid-sixties was created by a Japanese philosopher in the 1930’s and based on a dietary system over 2,000 years old. The big question is this (do you hear that distant drum roll?): If the dietary system was so old, how was it so accurate? Think about it. 2,000 years ago, they didn’t know a calorie from a bamboo shoot. They didn’t have a microscope, a calculator, or even a Bunsen burner. Nevertheless, they answered a question that modern nutrition took over one hundred years and billions of dollars to even approximate.
The answer is simple – 2,000 years ago, they weren’t concerned with molecules; they were concerned only with food. Their approach back then was social, it was nutritional, and it was ecological. They understood that the answers to many of the most important questions regarding our health are found in our relationship to our environment. We have much to learn from them.
Creating A Human Ecology
When people ask me what macrobiotic eating is all about, I tell them it’s about eating as if life matters. That means all life - my life, your life, and the life of the planet. Ancient people based their approach to health on simple principles of human ecology for one simple reason -- their lives depended on it. Their contact with the environment was intimate; they grew their food, they cooked it themselves, and they understood the changing of the seasons and how to adapt. I am not romanticising this relationship. This is simply a fact. Modern life is awash in a sea of information generated by the human mind and technology. Through advertising, corporate sponsored “science” and editorial propaganda, we are bombarded with information that affects our food choices. What’s more, these commercial influences are only secondary to the more insidious assault on our biological aptitude.
Awareness of our physical body is diminished by the influence of the artificial, built environment. This effect is most pronounced in our relationship to food. For example, the FDA has authorised the use of over 2,000 chemical additives for food processing. The vast majority of these additives are specifically designed to disguise the appearance, taste, and/or texture of the product being purchased and consumed.
. Profits in the food industry are driven by deception and addiction as an increasing number of additives are specifically designed to create tastes and biological reactions that stimulate increased cravings for repeat consumption In the process, we are loosing our awareness of the effects of what we eat. If our appetites are driven by our dopamine reward system, we are no longer making conscious choices regarding foods. We become like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating at the mere sight of our favorite snack.
The ancient view that health is a result of establishing a beneficial relationship with nature has been lost to us today. The perfection of Nature is expressed as a dynamic balance. This concept is not abstract, yet we seem to have forgotten -- or refuse to accept -- the idea that the perfection of nature cannot be replicated, and that nature operates according to certain rules. Within the constantly shifting tides of change that animate the biosphere nature inexorably moves toward equilibrium. It is as if nature conspires (wittingly or not) for the optimum development of life – all life.
Nature nourishes everything, the shark and the carp, the rabbit and the wolf. If one creature (plant or animal) over populates, over consumes, or wreaks general havoc on the web of life there is a price to be paid. A virus, a fungus, bacteria, or predator can exact this toll. The cost can also be self-inflicted. We do not need to assign revenge or punishment here. We do not need to moralize. This is simply nature conducting business as usual -- trying to create balance.
At the most basic level – our food -- we may eat something that is toxic and vomit, or feel poorly, or have a headache the next day, or contribute to the slow development of a fatal illness. A culture could develop foods or drink that work against the web of life and would face the repercussions. We could also make choices that are life enhancing and maximize our potential for wellbeing.
We are talking about cause and effect here. So, you may ask, what does this have to do with our understanding of human nutrition?
Everything, that’s what.
Beneath the sometimes-esoteric language of Asian medicine and the temptation to turn a dynamic philosophy into a rigid food cult, lie the basic principles of eating as if life matters. It invites us to consider the primary issues that should influence our food choices, underscoring the notion that our “health” includes both our physical condition and our behaviour. I primarily appreciate and use a macrobiotic approach in my food choices because it takes a comprehensive approach to understanding health and nutrition. A comprehensive definition of health includes how we contribute to our family, our society, and the world at large. When applied to the problem of nutrition, it could just as easily be called the Human Ecology Diet.
Personal Nutritional Needs
My doctor in the 1960’s was operating according to the information that was available to her at the time. She was myopic, but that was the state of play. Modern scientific research (especially epidemiological information) clearly shows that a diverse, plant-based diet can provide everything essential to good health and even promotes resistance to the degenerative diseases that kill most people. The nutritional foundations of a good diet are actually the easiest to figure out. It means making the shifts I discussed above; namely, moving away from the standard American/European diet (MDSPC) shifting to a plant based diet (WGVBSFN). None of this was discovered in a laboratory, it was discovered by looking at what healthy people ate.
What you avoid eating is often just as important as what you eat. It is worth mentioning that simply eliminating the MDSPC foods and eating almost anything will profoundly improve the health of anyone. Many of the benefits of many of the so-called “natural” approaches to diet are due to avoiding all or most of these foods. The short-term, positive response of the body to reducing nutritional stress is important but needs to be followed by sustainability. These are all issues that must form the study of human nutrition but there is more to the puzzle.
Adaptability To Meet Individual Needs
A healthy diet should be flexible, making it possible for individuals to adjust according to climate, activity, age and personal health needs. A person with a particular health challenge should be able to change their diet accordingly for therapeutic reasons without resorting to radical adjustment. A life skill that makes adaptation easy is knowing how to cook. Cooking, fermenting, and other home processing can effectively change the quality of simple foods with particular impact on digestion. Cooking gives us the ability to adapt with the seasons and our personal needs. Cooking is also important in providing the essential pleasure some find missing in a simple plant based diet. A plant-based diet can be extremely diverse, and there is no reason that a healthy diet can’t be delicious as well as nutritious.
Aside from the considerations above, the limitation of foods that are known to exacerbate inflammatory processes are an important consideration for anyone with a chronic health problem. Inflammation is common to a wide range of diseases (including cancers, diabetes, and heart disease). Some of the most common foods can easily be eliminated from the diet for a short period of time and produce dramatic positive results. This list would include those mentioned above (MDSPC) as well as refined flour, white rice, tomato, potato, alcohol, mushrooms, aubergine, tropical fruits, nuts, trans-fats and unfermented soy products. None of these foods are essential and all can be replaced by other choices.
Guidelines for adapting diets for age, activity and climate are fundamental to a macrobiotic way of eating but totally missing from conventional nutritional thinking. Each individual has specific reactions to different foods, so this list will vary according to the unique needs of each individual. But again, reducing or eliminating these most common foods can have a dramatic effect on health.
Before creating a food panic or unreasonable anger from the Tomato Lovers Coalition, this does not mean that these foods are “bad” or even that they have no place in a healthy diet. It is simply that they can exacerbate a particular condition. In many cases, the elimination of these foods can reduce or even eliminate serious health problems in concert with a varied, plant-based diet. It is an easy experiment to cut these foods out of the diet for a three or four week period, adding them back one at a time you can monitor the result.
If we can’t eat in a way that promotes environmental health, we are certainly not going to be healthy. Foods that are bad for the planet are unhealthy for anyone. Animal farming, fish farming, chemical-dependent agriculture, foods requiring excessive processing or transportation, or require the destruction of ancient forests or valuable animal habitats all have to be re-assessed for their true value. What we find is that products that are destructive or wasteful to environmental resources are not essential for a healthy diet and can be replaced by healthier options.
Corporate agribusiness and mono cropping is ruining agriculture all over the world and placing more and more land in the hands of multi-nationals with no regard for the health of society or the planet. The greatest offender in this category is red meat. Tearing down forests to grow animal feed is irresponsible and a wasteful use of valuable water and land resources. In this sense, red meat is the single most damaging food for the environment and production continues to grow.
Among emerging economies, the newly-affluent demand more meat. China now produces five times the amount of meat as it did in 1978, and the trend is upward. There is also the secondary impact of greenhouse-gas production. Many of the foods with the biggest carbon footprint are also foods the world is consuming more of: Potatoes, Eggs, canned tuna, chicken, turkey, farmed salmon, pork, cheese, beef, and lamb.
See a familiar pattern emerging? There is a direct correlation between our selves and our environment, yet many keep them totally separate issues. Why is environmental impact not considered a health issue? Why are environmental concerns not directly related to dietary problems? If environmental destruction damages our health (which it certainly does) it is undoubtedly a nutritional issue.
Social Impact of Disease
The social cost of disease affects us all. It is not only the tragic loss of life and the resulting effect on families, but also the direct monetary cost of treatment. We all pay for the treatment of these diseases either directly or indirectly.
Regardless of your views on current medical establishment, it is a fact that our health systems are drowning in a wave of preventable illness. All Type Two Diabetes, most Heart Disease and Stroke, Chronic Digestive Disorders, and most Cancers are diet related. A conservative estimate would be a 50 to 70% reduction in deaths by degenerative disease could be accomplished by changes in diet.
Policy-makers must understand that these diseases pose a significant threat to personal as well as to economic well-being and progress.
--The World Health Organization
According to the World Economic Forum, we are now on track to spend 47 trillion dollars per year by 2030 on the treatment of preventable diseases worldwide. Just to put that in perspective, global military spending hovers just below $2 trillion per year. Health costs threaten to bankrupt national economies worldwide. Health costs are one of the top causes for bankruptcy in America. Do we not think that the stress and social dissention caused by health costs harm our health? This, too, must be included in a new vision of nutrition and not seen as simply an “economic issue.
Given that food is primary among the causes of the life-style factors that kill us, this certainly means that an economic and practical diet that can feed everyone is a priority. We know the changes that are needed they are precisely those mentioned above. We simply lack the social courage and commitment to make them.
Many popular foods we enjoy are only available because someone suffers to grow them. We might be reluctant to call this slavery, but it is. All over the world, both staple and exotic crops are produced for the wealthy countries by peasant farmers who are driven to work for wages that do not even feed their families. The bananas and mangos, the coffee and soft vegetables, that grace the tables of Europe and America are the product of a corrupt agricultural system that monopolizes land, creates a system of monetary bondage, and undermines local food security.
There are valid concerns that fad products, such as everything coconut, wreck havoc on local economies by shifting emphasis from food for local consumption to large-scale production of trendy foods for export. The banana industry in South America is a good example of this. In order to meet the growing demand in America and Europe for the newer breeds of banana over the past decades, intensive chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers have been applied, creating an ecological disaster and severe health problems for the workers as reported by the WHO. Again, a clear analysis of the foods that fall into this category shows that none of them are essential to a healthy diet.
Europe hungers for tomatoes (sorry tomato people). In order to keep the costs low, they are grown by immigrant workers living in hovels in Spain or by using tomato sauces produced by peasant farmers in China and rebottled in Italy so that they can be labelled Italian - Mama Mia! Have we become so self-obsessed that we can turn our backs as long as our appetites are sated? How can we be healthy when we are contributing to the suffering of others? The impact on our health is not an abstraction.
My opinion is that these, and other considerations about food choices, are ethical issues. They all demand a re-evaluation of our attitudes about our relationship to food and even about health. And because our “health,” broadly understood, encompasses environmental, economic, and social issues as well as our physical condition, we must seek a balanced, comprehensive approach to health and wellness.
For me, the most provocative aspect of the continuing revolution in nutrition is veganism. Veganism is largely founded on the concern for animal welfare and the unnecessary and often brutal killing of animals for food. It is an approach to nutrition that is based on one principle – the total avoidance of any food (or product) that is sourced from a living creature. Without consideration for the points I have raised earlier, veganism can be a narrow approach to creating a healthy diet. Nevertheless, it delivers a powerful message for planetary health.
Humans slaughter over 150 billion land animals a year and about 90 billion sea creatures for food. That’s a lot of life sacrificed at the altar of ignorance. Eating animals is also one of the hardest food habits to break. We have been raised on the idea that health is not possible without animal protein. We have also been raised to see animals as “other,” as life without feeling or intellect.
It is an undeniable fact that plant based diets will play a role in creating a healthy society. But old habits die hard. One thing is for sure, though -- given that consuming animal foods negatively impacts in our personal, social, and environmental health, it is certain that the battle for creating a healthy diet will increasingly revolve around our attitudes regarding the place of meat and animal-sourced foods in the human diet.
Nutrition, Human Ecology and Change
Splitting everything apart in order to develop better understanding forms the basis of modern thinking. We think that if we understand the parts, we will automatically understand the whole. This approach has proven to be a disaster in so many areas of life, not the least of which are ecology, medicine, and nutrition where our penchant for more and more parsing of information results in inaction… paralysis by analysis.
If you live in America or Western Europe, you would have to be living in a cave to not know eating a lot of sugar is a bad idea, that fatty foods are best avoided, and that junk food is…well, junk. But we wait. We wait for more research into genetics (boy, do we love that distraction), or the latest antioxidant that burns off all the fat we just ate, or for some wonder drug that will flush all the evil out of our body.
Nutrition is interesting; it simply has little to do with defining a good diet. The basics of life are found in our relationship with the environment, with our family, and with society. Food is a pivotal issue in all these. How is it possible to create a significant shift in our nutritional ideas and ideals given that the science of nutrition is so focused on the latest micronutrient and commerce feeds the growing demand for super foods and secret formulas for health?
Here are some modest suggestions for eating a healthy diet:
- Eat a plant-based diet with a variety of whole grains, beans, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruits.
- Use organically-grown foods whenever possible. Try and eat food that is grown locally, particularly easily-perishable foods such as leafy vegetables and fruits.
- If you use exotic or imported foods, use them in moderation.
- Get those animals out of the kitchen. Red meat, chicken, and seafood are not essential. If you still eat meat, stop for six weeks and see if you still crave it.
- Leave off the dairy (unprocessed or not).
- Avoid sugar, fructose, and artificial sweeteners.
- Avoid foods with a high carbon footprint or high-polluting production process.
- Avoid foods that depend on the underpaid and overworked. If a producer is not willing to pay living wages for their workers, do you think he is concerned with your health?
- Learn to cook delicious and varied meals. There are plenty of Vegan and Macrobiotic cookbooks that can get you started. Learn to make new and healthier versions of your favourite foods.
- Cultivate an attitude of gratitude for your food, and chew it well.
- Enjoy the ride… significant change always causes disruption.
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
&; -- Krishnamurti
If we adopt a diet that reduces environmental damage, focuses on regional food supplies, and does not depend on social injustice, we will find that all the parameters for good nutrition are addressed. If we prepare our own food rather than consigning it to corporate kitchens, we can gain greater control over our health and a better understanding of the power of food.
All of the above considerations can assist in forming a new code of food selection as well as the basis of a new and comprehensive approach to understanding human nutrition. The problems posed are many. But this is not about creating a fear of any particular food or making food choices the moral dilemma with which many struggle. The best way to attract interest in eating a healthy and environmentally sustainable diet is to be an example. This is not rocket science, nor does it entail living in a monastery or being a killjoy. Others will be more attracted to our life choices if they see us enjoying them rather than getting stressed, being afraid of our food, or being a narcissistic health nut constantly preaching.
This is all about discernment -- setting criteria for everyday eating that helps make a positive change in the world. People will change in their own time. Don’t be a pain in the neck. Become informed and begin eating as if life matters.