During my adult life, I have always tried to approach things with a sense of purpose. Eating became no different. Focusing on food that is nutritious and that aids in warding off disease and in maintaining proper body weight helped supercharge my martial arts workouts and advance my career. It wasn’t always so. In my 20s, I used to eat whatever I wanted. By the time I hit my mid-30s, I noticed my metabolism change and slow down. This was the point when I realized I needed to rethink my eating habits. It was hard in the beginning. But by listening to my body as I changed my diet, I realized I felt younger again. My new regime became a habit I strive to maintain today.
American essayist, lecturer, philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously wrote, “We are what we eat.” It was true in the 1800s. It is true today. I immediately thought of these words of wisdom upon reading about a study called the Global Burden of Disease study, published in The Lancet, which tracked trends in consumption from 1990 to 2017 in 195 countries. As recently reported in Science Daily, the study estimates that, in addition to contributing to a range of chronic diseases in people around the world, researchers estimate that one in five deaths globally — the equivalent of 11 million deaths — are associated with a poor diet.
Says study author Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, “This study affirms what many have thought for several years — that poor diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor in the world.” The study goes on to define leading dietary risk factors as “high intake of sodium, or low intake of healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds, and vegetables.”
Many experts in nutrition, as well as a growing number within the health care profession, see us in the throes of a deadly global epidemic of diet-related chronic disease. To combat such an epidemic, a movement has begun in this country known as “food as medicine.” The goal is to integrate food and nutrition into the practice of health care by offering programs such as food prescription initiatives to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables for their patient populations.
It is hard to argue with the goals of such a program. But rather than debate its merit, let’s not lose sight of what we are fighting and where progress in this fight against unhealthy eating is being made. Just as it is important to see food as medicine, we must be ever aware about when it is not.
As NBC News reported earlier this month, a pair of studies now show evidence linking processed food to serious health issues. The studies highlight “the risk of frequently eating items such as hot dogs, cheese puffs, soda and French fries,” says NBC’s Aria Bendix. “The first study, which looked at more than 24,000 adults in Italy, found that those who consumed ultra-processed foods in large quantities had a higher risk of death overall, and mortality from heart disease in particular, relative to people who ate less food in this category.”
“The second study followed more than 200,000 U.S. health care workers over a span of 24 to 28 years and found that men who consumed lots of ultra-processed food — more than nine servings per day, on average — had a 29% higher risk of colorectal cancer than men who ate around three daily servings,” she adds. “The group with the highest consumption of ultra-processed foods probably got around 80% of their daily calories from those items. The U.S. average is around 57%.”
It also must be pointed out that some ultra-processed foods are healthier than others. “Breakfast cereals and whole grain bread, for instance, can be sources of dietary fiber, which could lower the risk of heart disease or cancer,” NBC admits.
The most frustrating point of all this is that, given all that is known about the health risks that come with certain foods, scientists have yet to pinpoint “the precise level of ultra-processed food consumption that constitutes a health risk,” Bendix concludes.
There does seem to be mounting evidence, however, that people are getting the point. According to Amy Gorin writing for everydayhealth.com, plant-based eating continues to rise this year. “Interest in healthier eating that has accompanied the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t appear to be fading anytime soon,” she writes.
Says Laura M. Ali, a registered nurse and culinary nutritionist based in Pittsburgh, “Plant-based foods continue to be exceedingly popular, with sales increasing almost twice as quickly as those of overall food sales, per the Good Food Institute.”
The pandemic-caused supply chain shortages have also prompted many people to begin growing their own food as well as increasing public awareness of the issues of food waste. Says everydayhealth.com, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up to 40% of America’s food supply is wasted.
As Fox Business’ Jeanette Settembre reported back in April 2020, amid the strain on supply chains, demand for seeds soared as more people increased gardening and growing their own food. “Seed companies and indoor farming startups are seeing increased demand as more people opt to grow their own food,” she reports. A spokesperson for Pennsylvania-based company Burpee Seeds, founded in 1876, told FOX Business “The biggest increase has been in vegetables which have taken on a greater interest among consumers, with consistent gains across all our channels of sale — both retail and online.”
“In addition to feeding households, growing your own food has mental and physical health benefits that can help those experiencing increased anxiety because of the layoffs, lockdowns and quarantines,” reports Settembre. “Dutch researchers, who had two groups garden for 30 minutes after they completed a stressful task, found they had lower cortisol levels, the hormone associated with stress, according to a 2010 study. … Separate research from the University of Pennsylvania also found that remaining active around a garden can also help people sleep better at night.”