Most newspapers regularly carry conflicting or confusing news items on food and health: one day, a snippet announces, ‘Green & Red Veggies great for your heart!” while the next day –“New Drug for Heart disease”. Sometimes, reports say coffee has antioxidants that will boost your cell growth, another time there is research that shows that caffeine promotes anxiety and sleeplessness.
Foods wrapped in bright packaging claim ‘fortified with vitamins’, the ingredients listed in small print with numbers like E-251. Sensuous TV ads leap from our screens, while grandma’s wisdom (and dozens of opinions all around) often clash with each other. Put them all together and try to make sense of food and health – you can truly and fully, get all mixed-up.
No wonder we fall back on what we find tasty and what is available easily when it comes to food and depend on experts to maintain our health.
More Developed & More Sick
In his book ‘In Defence of Food’, Michael Pollan reports an experiment in which ten Australian aborigines participated. Kerin O’Dea, a nutrition researcher, designed the experiment for these aborigines, who were middle-aged, over-weight and diabetic, living on a typical western diet in a settlement. During the course of the experiment, they had to return to their traditional homeland, an isolated region quite distant from the nearest town, without any access to city-style food and beverages. They stayed in the bush, surviving on plant foods, fish, birds, bush honey, the larvae of a local insect and other traditional aborigine fare.
After seven weeks in the bush, O ‘Dea found they had lost weight - an average of about 18 pounds (about 8.2 kgs), their blood pressure had dropped, and all the metabolic abnormalities of Type 2 Diabetes had improved or normalized.
The value of the experiment, says Pollan, lies in the fact that O’Dea avoided ‘the scientific labyrinth of nutritionism’ i.e. instead of picking out some aspect of their diet for the experiment, O’Dea looked at a whole ‘food system’. The scientific reductionism in studying effects of one nutrient or the other, has obviously led to a great amount of confusion even amongst scientists and Government Policy makers, not only the general public.
What this story tells us, quite powerfully, is that food and health of a ‘developed’ country can be much poorer than that of the so-called less developed ‘natives’. How did this happen? How has modernity brought in more sickness? Has our species become too smart for its own good?
Human beings seem to have a natural vulnerability to go in for quick fixes and
conveniences, and sweet, fatty, tasty foods. So, there is a surfeit of such things in supermarkets, restaurants and others shops today. Add to this the compulsions for power and war or for grandeur through possessing more – including more market share of products, all of which are involved in global trade – we have a recipe for confusion about our whole food system.
While merely understanding the genesis of a problem might not help resolve our doubts, it could be a starting point of a journey in search of better clarity, better science and more wellness.
Let us look at some of the ideas that came along with modern development, which have contributed to our being so confused about taking charge of our health and wellness:
1. Foundations: Cell Health and Germ Theory
2. Macro Nutrients & Micro Nutrients
3. Capitalism, Globalisation & Modern Development
4. Modern Education
Foundations: Cell Health & Germ Theory
Louis Pasteur, the famous 18th century French scientist, is credited with the theory that germs cause diseases – the predominant modern medical system today has been built on this foundation.
Claude Bernard, another contemporary of Pasteur, claimed that bacteria and viruses thrive only in an acidic condition and that keeping the body alkaline is key to preventing infectious diseases. Hence, the most important requirement to avoid disease and maintain wellness is to eat more alkalizing micronutrients (contained in fresh fruits, vegetables), exercise etc., that help us avoid ‘acidosis’.
(Claude Bernard built on the work of another scientist, Antoine Béchamp, who maintained that bacteria essentially change form and are not the cause of, but the result of disease arising from tissues rather than from a germ of constant form.)
This has also been called the cellular disease theory; but the role of cell health in disease did not have mass audience appeal like that of Pasteur’s germ theory of disease. More importantly, Pasteur is said to have had friends in high places who could also see the potential in the business of making and selling drugs – and so the ball of medical destiny was set rolling - and there was no stopping it.
Today, the Germ Theory seems indisputable at one level, since we have plenty of examples of antibiotics killing bacteria and curing people of various diseases like cholera, typhoid, etc.
Yet, the fact is that not everyone exposed to bacteria actually gets the disease. For example, most Indians are said to have the tuberculosis bacteria, but only some fall prey to the disease. Similarly, all people exposed to the flu virus may not get the flu. The Germ theory is also questioned on the grounds that it has bought about a culture of killing. Antibiotics are used indiscriminately – for instance they are prescribed for flu patients although they are ineffective against the flu virus, as a precautionary measure in case it leads to bacterial infection.
The bigger problem of antibiotics is that antibiotics are routinely fed to farm animals – which accounts for 90% of antibiotics produced in the world. Meat eaters are ingesting antibiotic residues regularly, leading to antibiotic residues building up in their bodies, leading to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
This foundational theory that germs are primarily responsible for disease and not cell health has led to major illusions related to food and health. When doctors and scientists think in terms of the germ theory of disease, they fight disease with antibiotics, vaccination and pasteurization. All of these come with very serious problems that are only now beginning to be understood. The average citizen today has developed dependence on external medication rather than on learning self-regulation, being in touch with the intelligence of the body and making wise choices of food and lifestyle.
No doubt, medical science has been miraculous in the way it has fought epidemics and other communicative diseases. But the ‘germ theory’ of diseases and a paradigm of linear thinking as a foundation of our medical system is certainly responsible for us getting mixed up. It has led to a situation where medical colleges do not focus at all on prevention or on cell health. Amongst the public and the Governments, this reality is largely ignored: that to avoid ill health, we need to understand the importance of eating and living right, and that a modern medical establishment is not the only answer.
Focussing exclusively on the germ theory of diseases and ignoring the cellular disease theory has led to a situation where medical colleges do not focus at all on fostering cell health or prevention of ill health.
Macro & Micro nutrients
Another source of our confusion is the way a partial truth - of the importance of macronutrients - has become a superstructure of our social, economic and political priorities.
Justus von Leibig, a German chemist, claimed that there were three major chemicals that plants needed for their growth – Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK). Soon, he was considered the father of the chemical fertilizer industry. Leibig also claimed that there were only three major nutrients that humans needed to consume – Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats. Ever since, these became the big three in the food and nutrition industry – and these are the main foods available in the supermarkets today.
While the importance of micronutrients for the soil and human body is now well known, the Governments have not gotten over their exclusive focus on macronutrients. The focus in Government policies is almost entirely on cereals, pulses and oils as far as food goes, while in agriculture, the focus is on chemical fertilisers with NPK leading the way. Foods with macro nutrients can be stored and power exerted through its supply and pricing, since cereals and pulses are essential for survival.
It is a fact that our bodies need from fifty to hundred different chemical compounds to maintain health and Nature meant us to get these micronutrients from a variety of leaves, fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts.
Today, governments offer no subsidies or support for organic produce such as vegetables and fruits which have higher levels of micronutrients; only fertilizer and pesticide-doused vegetables, cereals, pulses etc., are available. Marion Nestle in her book ‘Food Politics’, shows how the US governments has for decades offered subsidies only for corn, meat and soya etc., (ie. Macronutrients) and ignored the fresh fruit and vegetable (micronutrient) growers, because they had no powerful lobbies. This led to a situation where an excess of macronutrients and insufficient micronutrients were supplied to the country. (The US eats 93% processed foods and less than 7% fresh foods). She indicts the policy makers for the large scale incidence of obesity, heart disease and diabetes in the US. The situation is no different in India. C. Gopalakrishnan of the Nutrition Foundation of India pointed out that, in India, the similar skewed policy of subsidies for macronutrients only, would lead to malnourishment.
When people get habituated to eating largely macro-nutrient based foods, they tend to eat less of the micro-nutrients. Children go in for dosas, burgers and cakes and even rice with dal more than vegetable sabzis, salads and fruits. Most doctors would advice vitamin pills (which often do not work) rather than plant foods for micronutrients – which are much more complex than isolated vitamins.
Processed foods are cheaper and are made tasty with additives, while the media blitz of food ads lure us and especially our children. A recent survey of school children in Gujarat found that about 40% of children aged 10 to 15 showed early signs of heart disease: junk food and sedentary habits through excessive TV viewing and electronic games were held responsible. It is important to remember: Macronutrients are tasty and fill our stomachs but in the long run, deprivation of micronutrients can make us obese and sick.
Capitalism and Modern ‘Development’
Today, at least among most city dwellers and the educated elite, capitalism and globalization are celebrated with unabashed enthusiasm. In fact, no alternative or modification of these man-made systems are seen as possible – they would be perceived as setting the clock back. Yet, an increasing number of political and economic analysts consider that neoliberal globalization, industrialization, climate change, imperialism, war, racism, poverty, mindless consumerism and the destruction of community are the by-products of capitalism.
With its promotion of endless growth, capitalism has spawned a huge competition in the manufacturing and marketing of processed foods. These processed foods only contain cereals, fats and proteins with chemicals for preserving them and making them tasty and attractive. The media promotes them as nutritious – tetrapacked fruit juices are called ‘real’, even if that is impossible since fruits lose most of their nutrients within an hour of cutting them. Breakfast cereals say they have ‘added vitamins’, while many vitamins need a complex of other micronutrients to be absorbed.
Even otherwise discerning adults can get fooled into believing that processed foods are harmless. Children get addicted to them and end up disliking healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. Instead of making efforts to change our daily habits, we end up reducing our immunity and falling prey to lifestyle diseases because of lack of micronutrients.
At a macro level, development today requires constant increase in GDP, and only industrialized foods and the medical system help increase the GDP. Global trade in foods add to the GDP but also to carbon emissions.
In the rural areas, monocultures, high cost of seeds and the use of chemicals needed for crops grown with these seeds have confused priorities –leading to impoverishment of the farmer and a situation where 40% of farmers want to opt out of farming. The habit of eating polished grains and insufficient micronutrients has invaded rural areas as well, amongst those who can afford food. A system that does not focus on equitable distribution has led to millions suffering from hunger.
To understand food, health and wellness today, we need to consider the paradigm of development today and the myths it has generated.
While we cannot conveniently blame any one person for our getting deluded through education, Descartes is considered the one who made a fuss of the split between mind and matter. He asserted that matters of the mind should be the domain of the religious leadership and matters of, well, matter, should be the work of scientists. This was a convenient split to ensure that religious bigotry did not harass scientists as was the case in Galileo’s time. This has created a legacy of various kinds of splits, including in education, where the focus is on mental learning – while the physical, emotional and spiritual worlds are not considered important.
This split also made the field of science value-free in order to be “true”. Science without values led to over 90% of scientists working on war weapons during World War II and very likely a very huge number of scientists today working on chemicals for food and drugs and several dangerous projects.
Again, reductionist science has been fostered by our education system. An example of such ‘bad’ science is the assumption of nutritionists that food is the sum of its nutrient parts rather than a whole complex system – leading to a complicated set of ideas, which on the whole has been unable to deal with non-communicable diseases and made health worse, not better, during the last few decades.
Ten to fifteen years spent in schools and colleges, holding the Experts and Western Science in high regard – and disowning one’s own experience and culture – means that we tend to discard Grandma’s wisdom of say, drinking kashaya as well as various other systems of indigenous knowledge.
Education without importance given to feelings and ethics has also made us follow the pied piper of development without discrimination.
So what is the silver lining?
Mythlogy is replete with Rakshasas and dragons of varying hues tormenting the people, when the hero is called upon to vanquish them and bring peace, security and prosperity to the land. When every great mountain had been climbed and most things you dreamt of have been invented or discovered – it seemed as if there is little work for new age heroes.
But we now have a huge range of demons, often insidious - and young (and old) heroes and leaders are needed to embark into new adventures to deal with them. Along with ecological sanity, we can begin re-designing our political system (the process has begun in many parts of the Middle-Eastern world), as well as our economic, medical and education systems; and yes, we can look forward to new ways of finding fulfillment and joy – perhaps through growing food, a simpler low-stress lifestyle and community togetherness