Fundamental to understanding the power of food choices is knowing that humans evolved as symbiotic organisms with thousands of distinct species of microbes in and on our bodies over 100,000 years eating a diverse, seasonal, and untainted diet. Our ancestors ate every part of the animals – not just the “mcnuggets.” They made broths from the bones, and they ate the liver and other organs. Abrupt changes in our environment, what we eat, and how we grow food can have profound consequences. The biggest change in the supply of our food sources occurred just after WWII, when we moved into mass commercialized agriculture
The role of industrialization
The current industrial food system in the United States provides plenty of affordable choices. Many of the foods in today’s supermarkets, however, are not whole foods like our ancestors ate. Rather, they are assembled components presented in food-like products. Most of these options are unhealthy, tainted with residues from herbicides, pesticides and other toxins and/or treated with antibiotics to increase shelf life for mass production. It’s not food. In fact, as of 2015, dietary risk was considered by the CDC to be the leading factor for mortality in the United States with more than 1.5 million deaths linked to poor diet. This includes deaths related to obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and more.
Not only does the industrial farming process impact human health, it also has a significant impact on environmental sustainability. The U.S. Geological Survey determined that 70% of drinking well water samples were contaminated with at least one pesticide or nitrate from human sources. (Squillace et al. 2002). And large doses of chemicals contaminate the healthy nutrients and living microorganisms in our soil, which impacts the quantity and quality of minerals in our food —and in turn into us.
Fueling our bodies
Just as an automobile needs quality gas to run well, a human body relies on nutrient rich food to perform during the day and sleep well at night. In other words, just as oil is refined into gasoline for mobility, food is digested and transformed into absorbable molecules which are distributed throughout your body for everyday use. Let’s look more closely at our food choices to understand how we are fueling our bodies today.
The importance of diversity
When we look at a healthy diet, it is important for us to look again at diversity and what this means. A diverse diet includes a healthy mix of preferably organic (ideally seasonal) fruits, vegetables, pasture-raised animal-based proteins, and sustainably, locally harvested seafood. Food that is grown with clean water in healthy, nutrient-dense, biologically diverse soil is filled with micronutrients, phenolic compounds, and vitamins & minerals that nurture our bodies and fortify our immune systems. Our ancestors ate this way for centuries, and they thrived. We will get into definition of the unhealthy diet when we look at the average American diet today.
We hear a lot about omegas in the media. Omegas are important because they are vital to the healthy functioning of your body. Omega 3, 6 and 9 belong to a group of fats called “essential fatty acids” (EFA) . The proportion of Omega 6 to Omega 3 is also important. Our hunter gatherer ancestors thrived on a 1:1 ratio of Omega 6 and Omega 3. But the current American diet is deficient in omega-3 fatty acids and has an excessive ratio of 15:1 (Simopoulos 2002). High amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats and a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 promotes heart disease, cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Omega-6 is not bad for you, but the ratio to omega-3 must be lower to be considered a healthier diet.
Choosing Beef, Pork and Poultry
With industrialized food systems of the 20th century many meat products, such as poultry, beef and pork are produced from concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs. CAFOs group animals into congested areas and typically treat these animals inhumanely. CAFOs use grain and corn feed mixed with additives to accelerate weight gain in these animals rather than having the animals graze in natural surroundings. And more than 70% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to these livestock as feed additives. CAFOs also generate millions of tons of manure. An average cow produces 120 pounds of manure per day, and when disposed, it saturates the soil, leeches into groundwater, and produces ammonia released in the atmosphere–which we breathe. This contributes to health and environmental issues across the board, impacts the makeup of our microbiome and may help lead to the epidemic of antibiotic resistance we face today. Fortunately, we have a choice and we do not have to, nor should we, choose to buy any animal products produced from CAFOs. Click here to read more.
Consuming (preferably organic) grass-fed, pasture-raised meats, is a great choice for beef, pork and poultry. There is a lower ratio of omega-6/omega-3 fatty acids, which is far healthier for us.
Cattle are ruminants that acquire nutrients from plant-based food by first feeding their micronutrients. These bacteria aid in the fermentation of grasses, which is a critical step to full digestion in a specialized 4-chamber stomach. Cows are meant to eat grass, not grains. CAFOS feed their cattle corn and other grains to fatten them up faster, but their digestive systems are made to digest non-digestible fibers in grasses that naturally contain vitamin D, beta- carotene, and other essential vitamins, minerals, & nutrients. In fact, grass-fed butter is one of the healthiest fats on the planet. Raising grass-fed and pasture -raised livestock is much healthier for the cows because they are eating what nature intended for them to eat. Pasture-raised, and grass fed also means that livestock is moving from one location to another, just like Buffalo do, which is better for our soil and adds to the diversity of nutrients in the animal—nutrients that we ingest when we eat animal products. A great book on this topic is by author Joel Salatin.
A good way to look at the differences between CAFOs that feed their animals grains and pasture-raised livestock that feed their animals grass can be illustrated below.
Fish can also be a rich source of protein, iron, vitamin B, and omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows that higher omega-3 fatty acids found in some fish help in the prevention of heart disease, inflammation, diabetes, digestive disorders, autoimmune disease and cancer. But not all fish are high in Omega 3, sustainably caught or raised, or from healthy waters.
Wild Pacific Salmon has eight times more vitamin D and three times more vitamin A than farmed Atlantic salmon. Wild and sustainable seafood are the best choices if they are harvested or farmed in clean water environments. Seafood grown in unhealthy water in closed conditions can foster antibiotic resistant pathogens that grow in the fish. And most closed systems use antibiotics in their systems because these systems are just like a CAFO – only for fish.
It is important that fish we select from natural wild environments and aquaculture farm fisheries are low in antibiotics, chemicals, hormones, and mercury. Many fish imports come to the US from foreign sources, like China, where water or conditions may or may not be safe. In fact, according to a 2017 report, 84% of gross tilapia imports to the US are from Asia, but China has had 257 FDA import rejections on their Tilapia in one year. Tilapia imports from Latin America, however, accounted for 0 rejections. Always buy seafood from a reputable market where the employees are able to answer your questions on where your fish is from, farming conditions, certifications of the supplier (if available), and when it came into the store. Click here for more information on seafood sustainability and environmental stewardship.
Know your supplier and ask questions when purchasing your fish.
Our hunter/gatherer ancestors never ate candy bars
Highly processed foods such as potato chips, sodas, prepared foods and refined sweeteners and added sugars such as corn sweeteners, corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, lactose, and molasses make up a large portion of the American diet. (Added sugars are not to be confused with natural sugars that occur in fruits and vegetables.)
The average American, however, ingests around which is the equivalent of two soft drinks. The American Heart Association, however, recommends limitations on sugar with a limit of 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men. And the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends getting no more than 5% of daily calories from sugar.
Eating highly processed sugars that we did not have thousands of years ago, let alone a hundred years ago, triggers reactions in the body that cause irregular or dysfunctional digestion. This can impact nutrient uptake through our gut lining, metabolic pathways including fat metabolism and storage, and the microbial populations in gut that do not recognize these foods in the same way they do whole foods.
Many packaged convenience foods must use anti-enzymatic preservatives to extend the shelf life of food products and keep pathogenic organisms from growing on them. Enzymes are an important part of our digestive process. Enzymes break down our food in to molecules or body can use. This process begins in the mouth when we chew our food and mix it with enzymes produced by bacteria in our oral microbiome. The process continues as the food moves through our digestive tract. If our enzymes are not working properly, then our digestion does not work properly. What this means is that when we eat these products over long periods of time, we eat the “anti-enzymes” which stops our digestive process.
Summary: How you can improve your food choices today
There is power in your food choices. Get started today with healthier food choices:
- Increase your intake of organic fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Follow the Environmental Working Group’s clean 15 and Dirty Dozen group of foods list. The Clean 15 are foods with lowest possible pesticide residues. This includes onions, sweet corn, pineapple, avocado, asparagus, frozen sweet peas, mango, eggplant and more. The dirty dozen are foods that are high in pesticides and should be always purchased organically. This list includes popular vegetables like cucumbers which has been tested with as many as 86 different pesticides, spinach with more than 50 pesticides, and celery with more than 60 different pesticides. Click here for the full list.
- Reduce your intake of foods with added sugars and processed foods
- Reduce the overall amount of animal products used in your diet.
- When selecting food from animals (including dairy), source foods that are pasture-raised and raised without antibiotics, or growth hormones—preferably organic.
- When selecting seafood, source food that is known to be lower in toxins and sustainably harvested or farmed. Avoid most food from foreign suppliers unless you know the history of where it came from, and use of chemicals or antibiotics.
- When possible support local farmers and food suppliers who often follow safer and more sustainable, healthy farming practices.
- And as a rule, if you cannot pronounce it, don’t eat it.