Feeling Unhealthy? It Could Be What You Are Eating…

This blog is taken from an article I wrote for thejournal.ie earlier in the year.  It has become timely now because YouSteps have also written a great blog on the same issue, the link to their blog is below.  Read on…

I MENTIONED IN a previous article that the US is now seeing a new phenomenon, an obese child who is also malnourished.

How can this be happening in a first world country? It’s down to the highly processed, refined foods we eat today. As much as two thirds of our average calorie intake is from fat, sugar and refined flours. The calories in these foods are “empty” because they provide no nutrients, and are often hidden in processed foods and snacks that usually weigh little but satisfy our appetite instantly.

For instance, two sweet biscuits provide more calories than 1lb of carrots and are considerably easier to eat – but they provide no vitamins or minerals. If two thirds of your diet (by calories) consists of such “empty” foods, there is little room left to take in the amount of essential nutrients your body needs to function properly. (Holford, 2004).

Recommended daily allowances (RDA) of nutrients are set by Governments, vary by country, and are set at a ‘prevent illness’ level – e.g. preventing rickets (lack of Vitamin D), or scurvy (lack of Vitamin C). They are NOT at a “promoting full wellness” level. So in order to feel really well and for optimum functioning, our intake should be considerably higher than the RDA.

If we consider how deficient the average daily diet is in ‘dense nutrition’, and how low the RDAs are, your ‘five a day’ of fruit and vegetables just isn’t going to give you everything you need. The ‘five a day’ guideline should come as well as a balanced, nutritionally dense diet of high quality protein, complex carbohydrate and the right sorts of fats – but that is not what we are eating.

So what does ‘nutritionally dense’ mean? Well, as an example, wheat has twenty five nutrients removed from it in the refining process that turns it into white flour, but only four (iron, B1, B2 and B3) are replaced. On average, 87 per cent of the essential minerals such as zinc, chromium and manganese are lost. This is why you might hear nutritionists say that there’s about as much nutritional value in the packaging of white bread as in the bread itself. It is nutritionally almost worthless.

‘Bread is a good place to start’

As an experiment, I would ask you to do some investigating. Bread is a good place to start. You can do this experiment in your own supermarket but in Ireland, I suggest the next time you are in Dunnes (who stock all the following), take a few minutes to do a comparison of different types of bread. First, compare a pack of Irish Pride Wholemeal or Wholegrain bread, with any other brand – Pat the Baker, Dunnes own brand, Brennans. In my personal opinion, Irish Pride is the least bad of the manufactured breads, containing no E-numbers and the fewest added ingredients.

Now, get a pack of the new McCloskeys bread, which will be in the ‘artisan’ or ‘specialist’ bread section. McCloskeys are an independent bakery based in Drogheda. Compare their ingredient list to any of the others. You’ll find McCloskeys has what you want to see on a loaf of bread – no added unpronounceable ingredients, just the basics. Soul Bakery are another Irish bakery who make pure breads and cakes, look at their labels in comparison to, say, a loaf of ‘Lindens’ – which very cleverly markets itself as being wholesome and ‘good for you’. After comparing the labels, do you still think so?

Again in a previous article, I commented that an apple today has only approximately one third of the nutritional content it had back in the 1940s. This is because of our current food production methods. Non-organic fruit and vegetables are far less nutritious than they used to be – because they are forced to grow, year round, out of season, with the use of fertilisers and other growth promoting chemicals. This significantly dilutes their nutritional value, with the exception being organic produce.

Food production is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the food producers are a powerful lobby group. Similar to pharmaceutical companies, they hold a lot of power with governments – they provide hundreds of thousands of jobs, they are a fundamental part of stock exchange activity (“commodities” are the likes of orange juice, wheat, pork belly etc), and as a result they hold huge sway around policy and legislation.

The ‘Imitation Food Rule’

As an example, consider what happened in the US in 1973. In 1938, the FDA passed a resolution (the ‘Imitation Food Rule’) that named a comprehensive list of ‘traditional foods’. This included bread, yoghurt, pasta, butter and other natural foods. They ruled that if you “substantially changed” the composition of any of these ‘traditional’ products, you could no longer call it ‘bread’, or ‘pasta’, but had to call it ‘Imitation Bread’ or ‘Imitation Pasta’.

In 1973, a significant lobby effort on the part of food producers resulted in this rule being repealed, paving the way for food producers to call re-engineered food, and imitation food, food.

What this means is that we now have a whole array of foods, being promoted as ‘healthy foods’, which technically, are hardly ‘food’ at all. Low-carb pasta should be called Low Carb Imitation Pasta – because it is not pasta any more. No-fat sour cream is not cream, there’s no cream at all in it. It is a completely manufactured product that has been designed to taste a bit similar to real sour cream.

And some of the breads mentioned earlier are barely bread, with the clear exception of breads like McCloskeys or Soul Bakery – which are real traditional breads made with real ingredients that come from nature. By completely breaking down natural foods in the processing and refining process, food producers reduce nutritionally dense natural foods to a nutritionally valueless imitation food. And they make billions of dollars (or euro) doing it, by promoting its convenience, its ‘healthiness’, or its novelty.

Here in Ireland, we are extremely lucky to be an agrarian society with a strong history of farming in our culture. Within the current recession, we are hearing great stories of how our agri-sector and artisan food sectors are growing, and substantially contributing to our strong export levels. This is potentially great news for us, as it means we as a nation can make a real choice to eat well and healthily.

How often do you read the labels?

But do we? How often do you read the labels of what you are buying – not for the calorie content, but to examine the list of ingredients? How often do you reach out for the small pot of pure, natural yoghurt being made in West Cork over the large pot of ‘Greek Style Yoghurt’ made by the multinational food company whose name we all recognise? Do you go to your local farmers market and buy the lumpy organic carrots, or do you pick up the sanitised, plastic bag of carrots from the German multinational supermarket down the road? What about your meat – do you have any idea where it comes from and what farming practices are being used to produce it?

In the US, 95 percent of cattle routinely receive estradiol, testosterone, progesterone, and anabolic steroids, not to mention the huge doses of antibiotics needed to control disease in feedlots. I won’t go into this further here but recommend you read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation if you wish to learn more. Trace residues of these drugs end up in the beef that gets eaten, along with concentrated doses of herbicides used in cattle feed, and pesticides and insecticides needed to control the rampant fly populations in feedlots. These drugs, hormones, chemicals, and poisons are being blamed for a host of modern human health crises, including dropping sperm counts and fertility rates, cancers, and our rising resistance to antibiotics.

As a nation, we are being actively encouraged right now to ‘buy Irish’ and ‘shop local’. We can do a tremendous amount to support our economy and get back to positive growth if we do so. But for me, the far more important reason to do so is not about the economy, it is about our health and wellbeing. Ireland is the second most obese nation in the world after the USA. Fertility rates are dropping alarmingly, rates of cancer and heart disease are high.

We are being bombarded with conflicting and untrue ‘statements of fact’ by food producers, simply to grow their bottom line. I suggest for 2012 you take the time to do some research, educate yourself about food and nutrition, not from your popular magazine, but from writers who have taken the time to do the in-depth investigations needed to really understand what is actually happening to our food, and as a result, your body and your health.

YouSteps Article: http://tinyurl.com/cs8tkcs

Michael Pollan, author of “In Defence of Food”, on YouTube: http://youtu.be/LWg0cCNAB-M