Some confusion is to be expected as to what healthy eating means. As easy as “just eat lots of plants” might seem, the agriculture and food industries have been working assiduously against the success of such a simple approach to eating. In some cases, the changes to our crops have been on purpose and in most cases it’s a result of marketing for nationwide and global sales. Since the 1950’s, our modern approach to agriculture has been focused on pesticides, fertilizer, giant fields of a single crop, and breeding for complete genetic and physical uniformity. None of this is in the best interest of food quality and human health.
While it’s true the broader intent was to provide large quantities of inexpensive food to a growing US and global population, the method for achieving that goal was to simplify the process to the greatest extent possible.[i] With the development of genetic technologies, food science chemistry, and the shift in agribusiness to large food corporations, many of our crop plants and animals are no more than delivery systems for the carbs, fats, and proteins that make up the “simple” diet.
Now our protein is produced in massive feed lots for cattle, pigs, chickens, and fish where genetically uniform animals are more-or-less force fed an unnatural diet (of mostly corn products). These animals grow and reach maturity rapidly and are processed even more rapidly in highly efficient factory situations. Carbs and fats in our diet are derived from wheat, corn, and soybeans grown in massive acreages of genetic uniformity and then processed so the chemical components can be extracted and used as part of the processed food industry.
Of course, I have an issue with modern agriculture and the industrial way in which we produce “food”, but the long-term issues are what that technology does to the food itself (not to mention the environment!). For us to eat a healthy diet, we are faced with grocery stores full of produce that has come increasingly from a commercial food-production system that is essentially industrial and focused on efficiency and marketability, and has no particular interest in quality other than appearance.
Indeed, legal challenges to the modern style of food production, specifically of genetic modification of crops, usually fall flat because the food industry can and does argue that there are no “significant” differences between traditional crops and modern crops. This argument is disingenuous at best, but it means that if one were to look at the biochemistry of the food item, one would find that the same chemicals are found in both and therefore they are not different. A steak from a feedlot cow is not different from a steak from a grass-fed cow. GMO field corn is not chemically different from wild corn.
This is a difficult argument to beat because the definition of healthy vs unhealthy is poorly considered and poorly understood. We can’t beat that argument because we lack the understanding of how the human ecosystem handles and reacts to basic, even subtle, shifts in food quality. Similarly, as humans age, our nutrient requirements change; what we needed as children is not the same as when we are fully mature adults. The food industry treats all humans alike just as the USDA Food Plate (formerly, the Food Pyramid and the Food Wheel) treats us all as if we were the same age, and with a hard-to-understand emphasis on carbs (from grains) in our diets.
So, how do we handle the confusion over food choices? It would help to have a better understanding of who we are genetically. First, the historical diet of humans, as recently as 10,000 years ago, had almost no grains in it except perhaps as a seasonal part of the diet. That changed slowly for Asian and Mediterranean cultures with the advent of agriculture and sedentary societies and the year-round presence of grains in the diet. Some ethnicities (for example, African, Australian, Native American, Aleuts, and Peoples of the North) have little to no history with these types of carbs.
Second, dairy products are a part of many but by no means all cultures. Lactose intolerance is an indicator for many ethnicities of an historical absence of milk products. Third, the dentition of humans is clearly adapted for chewing and grinding, not for cutting and tearing, and this indicates to anthropologists that plants have long formed the basis of the human diet. While some cultures may have migrated in the distant past to places where meat provides the majority of their calories, the longer historical evidence supports a plant-based diet that was supplemented by meat. Fourth, our discussion of the structure of the colon and the microbiome it contains is an incredibly clear indicator of the overwhelming importance of plants, not meats, in the diet.
Food for humans starts with plants (excluding carb-rich grains.) Until a few decades ago, those plants were a diverse mixture and regionally grown, each was genetically diverse and grown in relatively small patches on small farms, and all plants were valued for their flavors.[ii] They weren’t “organically grown” because that label had no meaning; most food was organically grown and it wasn’t until the advent of artificial fertilizers and pesticides (and antibiotics and hormones for animals) after WWII that food crops weren’t “organic”. All food was natural and organic and a product of the soil.
Thus, if we are to consider what healthy food is, we have to understand our relationship to the production of food, and then what the changes in production of food in the past 70 years has done to that food. When we choose food in the market, we should think about the plants that make up that food, yes, but also about how those plants have been grown and harvested.
So, to recap:
*Each of us houses a thousand different species of bacteria in our gut and each species has a particular food preference.
*We must therefore provide a range of food for our bacterial health and prosperity.
*We must also eat for ourselves, but our food choices should be informed and deliberate and this need is only accentuated by the ease with which we can make poor choices in today’s world.
*We must also remember that we and our microbiome possess tremendous resilience and flexibility. Our microbiome can adjust to changes in the diet on the fly, literally overnight. Short-term negative events are not a problem, but chronic shortages and insults are.
*The human body is equally tough although probably because the microbiome is there to help us.
And so, depending on our current health status, none of our food is poisonous in small doses no matter how it was produced, how genetically modified it is, how processed it is, or how much high fructose corn syrup it contains. We can take antibiotics and not suffer long-term digestive disorders, but it is likely that our susceptibility may depend on our personal diet patterns (and a number of poorly understood aspects of our personal history). Our physiological resilience means we can endure insults to our system and not lose our normal functions. We have survived thousands of years of dietary uncertainty and pestilence and famine, and our microbiome has been our partner the entire way. And here we are.
But we, as a species (of individual self-contained mobile ecosystems), are under chronic attack and that’s the problem because our microbiome is under that same attack. We live in an environment that appears to be reducing our resilience and resistance, one that is weakening our ability to repel invaders, and we are exposed to an ever-increasing toxic external environment that is also losing its resistance and resilience. We must act and the first step is to understand what food is and use that understanding to maintain our health.
[i] Chasing the Red Queen (Dyer 2014) was a review of the different aspects of this process and the harm it has caused to the environment. [ii] A great introduction to this topic is Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine by David S. Shields, who has worked for decades to find the original food resources of the south that contained flavors now missing in their modern counterparts. He maintains that true southern cuisine can only be made with the proper ingredients, such as the rice, beans, sugars, and so on, that have the flavors of old because they are grown from the right cultivars in the right soils and in the right climate.