Is Diet Change Our “Inner” Climate Change? A Look at Global Trends and Positive Possibilities

This week I heard three separate news stories that made me think that, as a populace, Americans are being treated as infantile helpless indulgents by some data sources. The first was about a report on airline safety. The person interviewed basically said that the situation and the number of “near misses” was so dire and frightening, that if the truth were known, it would be too upsetting. Another story was about climate change, and the scientist interviewed also implied that if people really understood how serious the implications are….it would just be too upsetting. Where, in all of this, I wondered is an adult capacity to respond responsibly to reality and solve problems?

The third article was a lead story in the newspaper I found outside my hotel room door earlier this week. It was about a new mega study, looking at thousands of previous studies, which showed stronger than ever connections between fat consumption and cancer rates. The kinds of fats and their relationships to certain cancers differed, but the high fat, cancer connection was clear. Mentioned was the fact that in so-called developing countries where American style fast food is seductively insinuating its way into daily life, the cancer rates are going up. This made me think for the first time about the idea that in countries which have always eaten traditional whole foods and a largely vegetable quality diet, the population has no reason to question or fear new foods. It’s possible that there is no cultural or historical precedent for food “being bad for you”, unless is was spoiled or excessive. . Until recent times, globally, all food was whole food. Along comes denatured, chemicalized, trans-fattied fast food. It tastes pretty amazing and attractive to many. It’s designed to be that way. It often has “excito-toxins” added that make you, unbeknown to you, want more of it. If you live where food has always just nourished, maybe you wouldn’t stop to think…”is this good for me?” An acupuncturist colleague of mine who recently returned from China said that the doctors she met there know the truth about the food, and tell people, but that the average person doesn’t yet question the health implications while they plunge into being “modern” about food.

When New York City, noticing actions taken elsewhere, acted to legislate nutrition last year by recognizing the threat of trans fatty acids to human health, a very interesting boundary was crossed in a bigger than ever way. It reminded me of an article I read many years ago about how the Chinese central government mandated that a certain number of pounds of leafy green vegetables be produced per capita each year as one element of national health promotion. That seemed brilliant, and I loved that something so simple and sane was receiving official recognition. This was positive preventative medicine.

Here in America, when George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee on Nutrition carefully honed and researched a report and recommendations on nutrition back in the 70’s, his report was scorched back by the interests whose pocket books his recommendations threatened….mostly the large food lobbies…and an historical line was drawn deeply into the American political sand about how far government should go in making nutritional recommendations which might threaten the bottom line of large agri and food manufacturing businesses. Writ large on that long deep line has been a huge challenge for would-be health promoters to educate the public about understanding the relationship between health and food. Though the government still makes recommendations, they tend to be lost in a cultural tide of advertising, lobbying and the sheer momentum of much of the current convenience food culture. Trends such as large natural foods chains counter this, but there is still a lion’s share of health compromising commercial food.

What you put in your mouth as “food” may offer the last great illusion of freedom in modern times. This leads to at least the potential for self-abuse, promoted by the ubiquitous presence of entertaining, stimulating yet often dis-ease promoting foods and food products. A few years ago, in a famous suit against a major fast-food chain for “making” a customer fat and unhealthy, the judge, who did not support the overall case, did point out that the average consumer can not possibly understand how unhealthy some of these foods are for our health WITHOUT SPECIAL EDUCATION (Emphasis mine).

As all of the major de-generative diseases have been at least in part linked to dietary factors, and the cost of treating such diseases is eating up our society, the global implications of diet change are as daunting for our internal environments as climate change is for the external. What we eat…and therefore whether or not we promote our own health in this particular way, then becomes not just a simple matter of self-care versus self-abuse and indulgence..but an issue of the common good, the productive functioning of society, and of individual commitment to health as a global, social responsibility. In other words, as adults, we have to be able to hear the news, with full disclosure of trends and information and respond with positive change. I for one do not want to be protected from the facts so that I can be less upset as we all, like the proverbial lemmings, head over various cliffs together.

Recently, Frances Moore Lappe and her daughter Anna wrote about the right to food as a basic human right. When we read this we might tend to think rather more of the hungry and the starving than the mal and mis-nourished. In light of global trends though (“globesity” is already a functional word), we should perhaps speak increasingly of the right to healthy food, not just the right to food. This is related to my suggestion that we speak of the “right to healthy living”, as opposed to the “right to health care”. When I posted recently about having given a discount to a patient of mine who had stayed healthy his whole life, partly because he raised and ate really healthy food, one reader denounced my position as essentially elitist because, he pointed out, that even HAVING a yard to grow organic food in is a huge privilege these days. This is true, and I am aware that getting to raise my own organic vegetables really is a privilege of time, resource and work flexibility. It is also a matter of priorities…both personal and societal. A shocking percentage of Americans, both urban and rural have nothing but so-called “convenience stores” as the source of their food supply. This often provides them only the lowest quality, least nourishing food. On the other hand, lots of people both rural and urban could be growing a huge amount of healthy food that is not currently being grown. Giving policy priority to making our food future “local”, whole-foods based and health promoting would offer huge social, health and democracy promoting advantages. It’s already happening widely.

“Diet Change” is related to human health on a global scale, and is surely an issue as related to our human future as “Climate Change”. The economic and cultural forces which have lead to both are parallel, similar and sometimes identical. If trends continue to expand globally, the fiery hand of chronic inflammation will be seen as our “inner” global warming! I’m betting on our collective capacity to hear the facts about current trends on these subjects and respond responsibly while exercising what may turn out to be our greatest freedoms….the freedom of imagination and the freedom of restraint.