Looking at the scientific, economic, nutritional and cultural aspects of health.
Most newspapers regularly carry conflicting news items on food and health: on one day, a news item will say ‘Green & Red Veggies great for your heart!” while the next day –“New Drug for Hypertension”. Sometimes, reports say coffee has antioxidants that will boost your cell growth, another time it says research has shown that caffeine promotes anxiety and sleeplessness.
Food wrapped in bright packaging claims ‘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.
More Developed and 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 themselves, 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 has brought in more sickness? Has our species become too smart for its’ own good?
Human beings seem to have a natural vulnerability to quick fixes, convenience and sweet, fatty, tasty foods. Some have a weakness for power and war or for grandeur through possessing more – including more market share of products. All of which has led to confusion about our whole food system and all the new processed foods in supermarkets.
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:
- Foundations: Cell Health vs. Germ Theory
- Macro Nutrients vs. Micro Nutrients
- Capitalism, Globalisation and Modern Development
- Modern Education
Foundations: Cell Health vs. Germ Theory
Louis Pasteur, the famous 18thcentury French scientist, is credited with the theory that germs cause diseases – the predominant modern medical system today has been built on this foundation.
Antoine Béchamp, a scientist and contemporary of Louis Pasteur, proposed an alternative to this foundational theory. He 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. He postulated that ‘microzymas’, normally present in matter, (including tissues) had either a life or death-giving quality depending on the cellular terrain.
Other scientists working on a similar concept have determined that primarily the cellular terrain has to be slightly alkaline, which also means there is more oxygen in the system. Hence, the most important requirement to avoid disease and maintain wellness is to eat enough fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts, which have more alkalizing micronutrients and help us avoid ‘acidosis’.
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. Pasteur finally stated from his deathbed that his germ theory was wrong for medicine – but the ball of medical destiny had already been set rolling and there was no stopping it.
This foundational theory that germs are primarily responsible for disease and not cell health has led to a major illusions related to food and health. The modern world 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. For, the latter requires educating ones’ self, investing time and from the industries’ point of view does not make profit.
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 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.
Macro and 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 soon 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 have become the big three in the food and nutrition industry – and are also 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 haven’t gotten over the obsession with macronutrients. The focus in Government policies and subsidies 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.
The fact is 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 and seeds.
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 are available; most doctors would advice vitamin pills rather than plant foods though it is clear that most vitamin pills do not work; those who live in cities do not have kitchen gardens to grow their own vegetables; and the variety of tasty junk foods and non-foods available from supermarkets and restaurants concentrate only on macro-nutrients.
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 already 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 “regression”. Yet, an increasing number of political and economic analysts consider neoliberal globalization, industrialization, climate change, imperialism, war, racism, poverty, mindless consumerism and the destruction of community 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.
At a macro level, development today requires constant increase in GDP, and only industrialized foods and the medical system help increase the GDP – through trade of foods rich in macro nutrients or fruits and vegetables preserved and transported with high carbon emissions.
Globalisation is an extension of capitalism, while the consumerist zeal fostered through media hype and merchandising in malls is blind to the true costs of such foods.
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 – even if severe malnutrition is not the issue.
To demystify food, health and wellness today, we need to see the whole paradigm of our current model of development that comprises of capitalism, globalization and the modern food, agriculture and health industries.
While we cannot conveniently blame any one person for us getting mixed up 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 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 left untouched.
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 the World War II and very likely a very huge number of scientists today are working on chemicals for food and drugs and several dangerous scientific 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 of holding the Experts and Western Science in high regard – more than one’s own experience and culture – means that we tend to discard Grandma’s wisdom of say, drinking kashaya and eating vegetables and instead pop the pills the doctor ordered.
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 seems as if there was little work for new age heroes.
But we now have a huge range of demons, often insidious, that young (and old) heroes and leaders can embark into new adventures to deal with. Along with ecological sanity, we can begin re-designing our political system (the process has begun in many parts of the Middle-Eastern world), our economic, medical and education systems, and look forward to new ways of finding fulfillment and joy!