Pasadena Learning Gardens

Resourcing communities to create a healthier more sustainable future

Why We Eat What We Eat – And How We Got Here

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Curiously almost no one in the US or the western world just eats what he or she needs. Most of us eat to address needs far beyond the requirements of our body; we even search out and consume stuff we know to be unhealthy.

It seems that back in the days when generations of people stayed close to home, that microorganisms in the soil that facilitate nutrient uptake in plants, the plants themselves, and the microorganisms in animals and us, co-evolved in a way that created a system that worked amazingly well – turning solar power and carbon dioxide into the energy that feeds life, and that we’ve found hundreds of ways to break this system and still continue in this way.

For thousands of generations humans grazed and ate off the land. Things began to change long ago with the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry. More food was easily and regularly available. Ultimately, the delicacies of sweet and fat, which previously had been consumed very lightly by humans simply because of their rarity, were now being consumed at greater rates.

More recently, things got much worse for several reasons. First, advances in agriculture dramatically increased the food supply, driven mostly by chemical fertilizers. After World War II, the chemical industry put to work its vast nitrogen production capacity making fertilizer, yielding much more food than we really needed.

Michael Pollan notes that around the same time our main source of food and nutritional direction, our culture (a.k.a. mom), started to lose control of the kitchen. The basic diet from most cultures, which seemed to work pretty well, consisted primarily of locally produced, fresh and non- or lightly processed foods. But processed food manufacturers, promising more and tastier food at lower prices, took over, bringing us the Western Diet, with its heavy consumption of processed and chemically laced food. Along with it came an unacceptable increase in many of the biggest health issues we face today. As Pollan contends, we don’t know enough about how our body uses the complex combinations of food each of us chooses to consume, and traditional diets, regardless of being protein, fat, or carbohydrate dominated, do not lead to many of these health issues.

Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat, points out that post WWII, more women in the workforce meant less time to prepare traditional healthy and nutritious meals at home. The processed food industry and fast food restaurants were there to help by providing greater convenience.

In the 1960s and 1970s, counter-productive federal government farm policies created a boon in many commodity crops including corn, wheat and soybeans. Subsidies on several key ingredients resulted in ridiculously low commodity prices. Food manufacturers found that by tinkering with formulations by adding ever-increasing amounts of inexpensive sweeteners, fats and salt, they could pump sales and profits. Most importantly, they could achieve the “bliss point” in their products, the point at which optimal levels of these low cost, nutritionally devoid ingredients could create addiction.

It’s also important to note that there are many sociological and psychological reasons we eat unwisely. HealthPages.org – Why We Eat What We Eat describes six major influencers of our food choices: social situations; economic situation; ethnic background; emotional state; eating from habit; and physical health. By becoming more aware of these influences, you can begin to control them.

All in all, this is not a pretty picture. We’re now faced with a massive public health crisis unlike anything the world has ever seen with the potential to bankrupt our economy. There’s much more to this story. Check out Michael Pollan and Michael Moss for fascinating reading on this subject.

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