Sunday, August 21, 2011

Get Real! A chance for real progress.

According to the chart below (from the USDA), 64% of the calories in the average American's diet comes in the form of flour & cereal grains, added fats & oils, and caloric sweeteners. That means nearly two-thirds of the average person's calories provide no nutrition that isn't added through fortification. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables could easily provide the fiber and nutrients added to cereal and other grain products; the sweetened beverages and vegetable oils are basically useless. This statistic highlights just how far our population is from a diet composed of real foods: minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, and quality meat and seafood.

Part of the problem is that processed foods are cheap compared to whole, fresh foods because the ingredients are heavily subsidized. Unfortunately, the process by which we grow corn, wheat, and soy (and thus produce things like high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil) is highly unsustainable. Rampant water usage, dependence on fossil fuels to keep the machinery going, pesticide runoff contaminating water supplies, soil erosion and nutrient depletion, and loss of biodiversity all damage the environment in which we live. The uniformity of our cropping systems leaves us vulnerable to disease or pests, which could lead to a serious food crisis.

A whole market has been created to capitalize on our surplus of these cheap raw materials. High fructose corn syrup is in almost every processed product in the grocery store because it's a cheap sweetener; humans are hard-wired to crave sweet foods, so you are more likely to buy more bread (for example) if it's sweeter. The beef industry can produce vast quantities of cheap meat because it can fatten the cows on grains. Of course, to do this requires that the animals be confined in huge feeding operations and dosed with antibiotics because grains actually make cows sick. The animal waste from these CAFOs contaminates ground water, contributes heavily to greenhouse gas emissions, and is absolutely disgusting to be around. The abundant use of antibiotics is leading to resistant strains of viruses as these “super bugs” adapt. Factory farms rely on cheap grains to make cheap meat, which means that neither of these foods are sustainable in the long-term.

The Paleo community advocates a real food diet with some specific restrictions: no grains, no vegetable oils, no added sugars. Instead, people are encouraged to eat vegetables, pastured meats and eggs, seafood, nuts and nut butters, and some fruit. Legumes are a grey area, as is pastured dairy – people are advised to experiment with these foods to determine whether or not they can be tolerated. This isn't a temporary diet with pre-made bars and shakes you can get from the grocery store. You can't be convenience store Paleo; this is a lifestyle change. Many of the people I talked with at the Ancestral Health Symposium prepare most of their own food including snacks like jerky and trail mix. Many of them garden, can, and preserve food. And everyone I spoke to emphasized the need for carefully-sourced animal products. After all, these are people who are convinced that eating ancestrally is the key to optimal health – and that's true for animals as well as people.

These folks sound a lot like me. I may eat less meat and more lentils, but we all consider the current food system unsustainable and unhealthy. We all eat real food.

One of the reasons I was so excited for the AHS was the opportunity to speak with other real foodies about the challenges we face in reforming the food system – making it more sustainable, accessible, healthful, and secure. Strangely, I heard more about troubles with vegetarians than with grain subsidies. Why vegetarians? The Paleo community advocates an evolutionary approach to diet and health in which animal products play a significant role. Vegetarians, on the other hand, do not eat meat and often exclude seafood as well; vegans avoid all animal products including eggs, dairy, and even honey. The question of whether or not eating meat is ethical, sustainable, or even healthy has apparently caused quite a bit of friction between the two groups.

I think this argument is a big waste of time and a major missed opportunity for positive change. A real food vegetarian - one who focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables, adds nuts and nut butters, eats pastured eggs, and avoids processed crap - is eating a diet much closer to Paleo than the majority of Americans. More importantly, the policy changes that would help make a produce-dominated diet cheaper and more accessible than a grain-based diet (including grain-fed animal products) would benefit a real food vegetarian as much as someone on a Paleo diet. We should be allies in this fight against unhealthy processed food and polluting CAFOs that cause a great deal of animal suffering.

Of course, not every vegetarian or vegan eats real food. Many of them survive on cereal and pasta and drink soda. Just like most Americans who also eat meat. Whether you make Rice-a-roni with conventional ground beef or crumbled veggie burger, you are not eating a nutritionally-dense, healthy meal. The healthfulness of a fast-food cheeseburger, fries, and soda does not hinge on the all-beef patty. To put it simply, meat is not the central issue in terms of health.

When it comes to the environment, conventional meat (especially red meat) really is the worst thing you can eat. Meat production doesn't have to be that way though. Pasture-raised meat from integrated farms can actually be good for the environment. And, as I've said already, grain agriculture does a lot of damage all on its own. Creating a food system that is sustainable over the long-term does not hinge solely on meat but rather on producing and eating real food.

If you agree that (1) eating real food is the key to good health and (2) promoting a real food lifestyle is an important step in achieving a just and sustainable food system, then you are part of the real food movement, and I am here to recruit you. Eco-vegetarian, sustaileo, or whatever – you can be on my team any day.

So what do we need to do? Back in January, I attempted to map out issues relevant to sustainable food systems. Many of them are particularly relevant to the real food movement. They are:

1. Reforming farm subsidies.

This one should come as no surprise given my above rant about industrial agriculture. Subsidies that encourage farmers to grow as much corn, wheat, and soy as they possibly can has left us with vast monocultures, environmental damage, really poor farmers (seriously), and a surplus of junk calories that make us sick. It is also the foundation for the grain-feeding, CAFO system that contributes even more to our environmental problems and is really just cruel. Our food system will have to change eventually as the resources on which they rely become more scarce, but minimizing the pain of transitioning away from this system is an important challenge.

What we likely need is a transition subsidy program, similar to the tobacco buy-out, in which farmers can still collect payments without actually growing corn, wheat, or soy. After a prescribed amount of time (the tobacco buy-out lasted 10 years), all subsidies would end. Some farmers would stick with grains, but many others would switch to other types of foods because they can actually make more money. We could even go a step further and attempt to incentivize switching to integrated farming systems or offer additional programs to help farmers go in that direction. I know my libertarian readers won't like that idea as much (yes, I'm recruiting real food libertarians too!), but it's going to take some work to get the land back into growing shape, and we need at least some of the farmers to choose to stick around.

2. Enabling small farmers.

The food industry – from growers through to retailers, in both conventional and organic markets – has become increasingly concentrated (read more here). A few large companies control the vast majority of market share. These companies have the ability to affect legislation, either to stop new regulations that would dip into profits or to direct regulations to stifle small businesses that would compete for market share.

A recent example was the Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill to overhaul food handling regulations to help prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses. In its original form, the bill would have applied the same regulations to all farms regardless of size. Small-scale farmers and their advocates were against the bill because it would effectively put them out of business. Also, many regulations that seemed totally reasonable for a large-scale operation just didn't make sense for a small family farm. The big companies were quite happy with the bill until an amendment was proposed – the Tester-Hagen amendment – which excepted small farms that sold their goods locally and directly to consumers. With Big Food now against the bill, it nearly died. However, enough people expressed their support for the bill, in the form of calls and letters, that it eventually passed.

Fighting for small-scale/family farms is important. They provide food, yes, but they also provide a choice. You can actually go to a small farm and witness their growing practices and how they treat their animals. And with enough small farms, you can actually choose based on your own values. All the rules of economics, of market pressure and voting with your dollar, can work in this system because you have access to the information that would enable you to make a decision and (ideally) a variety of options that allows you to choose exactly what you want. If you want a polyculture farm that grows seasonal varieties and incorporates animals such that they can express their natural behaviors, you can go find that farm – IF we protect them.

3. Improving school lunches.

School lunches in the Unites States are generally awful. French fries count as vegetables, and foods like pizza, burgers, and chicken fingers are common offerings. These foods are heavily processed, provide little nutritional value, and do nothing to educate children as to where food comes from or that nutrition is important. However, there are now programs across the country connecting schools with local farms that can provide fresh produce for school lunches. In many schools with Farm to School programs, involvement with the farms goes beyond a well-stocked salad bar. The farm relationship is used as a teaching tool – a way to expose kids to food systems, nutrition, and even biology and ecology. Some schools even create their own gardens and can literally see the fruits of their labors served up in the cafeteria. Children today (and really all people) are bombarded by messages that they should eat things that taste good, that healthy food does not taste good, and that all calories are the same. A slice of pizza, with some potato chips and a soda, includes all the food groups and is so constantly available that it must be okay to eat, right? Wrong. We need to fight against these messages by connecting kids with the land, their food, and their bodies.

4. Making real food more accessible to the poor.

Nearly 1 in 4 Americans are helped by the government's Nutrition Assistance Program, which includes food stamps and WIC. That's a LOT of people. Allowing these benefits to be used at Farmers Markets gives people access to fresh produce that will help them lead healthier lives – a benefit to both our citizens and our future tax dollars. Both the WIC program and the benefit program for seniors now offer vouchers in addition to the regular benefit that can only be redeemed for fresh fruit, vegetables, or herbs at participating farmers markets. However, the federal benefit is capped at $30 per person per year. My husband and I spend that much at our local farm stand each week! State programs can build on the federal benefit, and many states now have programs that double federal benefits for produce and programs to get EBT card readers installed at more farmers markets. Strengthening these programs will help people get the nutrition they need, develop better health habits that they can use even after they have stopped relying on food stamps, and contributes to local economies.

There are already many organizations working on all of these issues. Until I can create a Real Food Political Action Committee for you all to join, the following organizations are good places to get involved. You can also go back to my Food Sustain-o-sphere post for more links in other areas.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Project
Understanding the Farm Bill: A Citizen's Guide to a Better Food System
Community Alliance for Family Farmers
USDA Farm to School Program
National Farm to School Network
The Edible Schoolyard Project

Of course, there are still going to be disagreements between those in the vegetarian camp and those who call themselves Paleo. The question of what constitutes a healthy diet is an important one that we should continue to research. In the meantime, though, we should not let our differences keep us from real progress. There are many ways in which we could improve our food system and deliver more real food to the public for the benefit of us all; the above are only a few of the issues ripe for collaboration. We may not all agree that Meatless Monday is a good idea, but we can probably all endorse Sodaless Saturday! So I say to you, Real Foodies, Unite!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

AHS 2011 Photojournal.

They say a word is worth one millipicture (or something like that). Here's my 2.5 day symposium experience in pictures.

We kicked things off with a Paleo BBQ at event co-organizer Aaron Blaisdell's house. People kicked off their shoes - literally, there were at least 50 pairs of Vibram FiveFingers on the porch! Christian manned the grill, cooking up grass-fed steaks, wild boar bacon, and a whole salmon.

Early the next morning, it was off to the symposium where I met many Paleo celebrities. People were so friendly and gracious. Amazing!

Mark Sisson and I chatted about my interest in sustainability; he coined the phrase Sustaileo, which I will totally use in the future! My conversation with Robb Wolf started with "Hey, you know you ruined my life..." Seriously, once you read his book, you just can't keep doing the same wrong things you have always done! I met Denise at the welcome reception. She was the first person I actually recognized, and she was kind enough to help me put faces to the names I'd been hearing. Thanks, Denise!

Most of the interview team had never done interviews before. The first day had its ups and downs, but we eventually got into the swing of things. We managed to have at least one interviewer at every talk and interview all but five speakers. And it only took 16 hour days to accomplish!

We really could not have pulled this all off without the dedicated team of volunteers. These guys showed up early to set up, made sure the video cameras and audio support were going strong, and stuck around to clean up at the end of each day. Even though the interview team was technically also made up of volunteers, I felt like I really relied on everyone. I especially want to thank Tony for letting me rest on his shoulder - I really needed a nap!

This was a terrific experience, and I met so many great people. And remember, just say no to gluten!

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Woodstock of Evolutionary Medicine (Part One): 72 hours of awesome.

This past weekend, I spent three days on and around the campus of UCLA for the first (but hopefully not last) Ancestral Health Symposium – a gathering of researchers, teachers, bloggers, and enthusiasts who take an evolutionary biology approach to understanding the impact of nutrition and lifestyle on human health. Over 50 speakers presented talks and posters on topics such as the optimal human diet, fitness from an evolutionary stand-point, how to evaluate scientific “discoveries” presented in the media, the impact of a produce-based diet versus a grain-based diet, and specific biochemical pathways of disease.

I was lucky enough to attend the symposium as part of the interview team. Our dedicated journalists and camera crew managed to interview almost every speaker! It was a grueling few days – we started work at 7am and didn't head to dinner until 9pm – but every minute was worth it! In the coming weeks, all of the presentations will be posted online along with our interviews. I'll be sure to link to them as they become available. In the meantime, I'll give you an overview of what I learned at the symposium (this post) and the amazing presenters I was lucky enough to interview as part of a continuing series.

Here's a list of the people I interviewed:
I also had the pleasure of meeting some of the big names in the Paleo diet community including Robb Wolf, Gary Taubes, Denise Minger, Mark Sisson, Tom Naughton, and co-organizer Adam Blaidsdell. What a welcoming and inspiring community!

The original human diet.

Before I get into all the information presented at the symposium, let me give you a brief overview of human health and how it has changed with time. I promise to provide more details and references when I get to the specific presenters, especially when I discuss doctor and medical researcher Staffan Lindeberg and anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen. You can also read about their findings in the following places:
Agriculture is a relatively recent human invention. Before that, we were hunter-gatherers (HGs) who survived on a diet of mainly animal proteins and fats, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. The average life span of HGs (i.e. life expectancy) was only about 30 years, but that was mainly due to infant mortality, lack of modern medicine to treat infections and injuries, and a rather high likelihood of being eaten by a lion. Hunter-gatherer communities had many elderly people, and their skeletal remains indicate a lack of many diseases we attribute to old age in our modern society. Studies of the few remaining primitive communities have also shown a lack of the so-called “diseases of civilization” including diabetes and obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia and Alzheimer's, cancer, osteoporosis, and auto-immune disease. Within a primitive tribe in Papua New Guinea – the Kitavans – about 6% of the population is over age 65. These people are very healthy and those who survive to age 45 have similar life expectancy to people in modern societies.

Our ancestors were much healthier during their hunter-gatherer years than after making the switch to a grain-based agricultural diet. Post the advent of agriculture, humans lost several inches in height and began developing these new diseases that had not been present in their ancestors. Disease and death were not only due to the change in diet but also the changes in lifestyle. Agriculture required communities to settle, leading to higher population density and more communicable disease, and the potential for conquest. Life expectancy actually went down post-agriculture. In the 1800's, for example, the life expectancy in Ireland dropped to only about 20 years and was even lower for certain societal classes. Only in recent decades has life expectancy increased, mainly due to medical advances and a safer environment, and we have finally returned to our pre-agriculture size.

Understanding why agriculture led to poorer health outcomes than the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is the main goal of the ancestral health community. Of the many presentations and conversations I was involved in throughout the symposium, there were several points of agreement within the community.

What I learned on my summer vacation.

1. A modern day, grain-based, processed food diet is a major contributing factor in most of the diseases we attribute to old age or random chance, including (but not limited to) dementia and Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, arthritis and other inflammation, cancer, osteoporosis, PCOS, IBS and other digestive problems, and auto-immune disorders like multiple sclerosis, Celiac disease, lupus, and fibromyalgia. Of course, diet is the main contributing factor to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic disorders. These diseases do not appear in modern day hunter-gatherer tribes, and to the extent that they can be diagnosed from skeletal remains, there is no evidence that our pre-agricultural ancestors suffered from any of these diseases.

2. A diet that includes only whole foods – vegetables, fruit, pasture-raised meat and eggs, seafood, and nuts – is the diet to which humans are best adapted. The optimal human diet does NOT include gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye), added sugars, vegetable oils (especially corn and soybean) and most dairy products. Beans, peanuts, and lentils should be minimized or avoided due to these plants' natural defenses against being eaten. Whether or not you eat meat, a grain-based diet is bad for you and for the environment.

3. Getting fat is not caused by eating fat. Breaking the body's natural processes for controlling appetite, absorbing nutrients, and storing/accessing energy in the form of fat is what causes people to gain weight and struggle to lose weight. Therefore, regulating your insulin response is a key factor in overall health and wellness.

4. The specific break-down of foods and macronutrients that lead to optimal health may depend on your heritage and current state of health. For example, someone who's ancestors hail from Sub-Saharan Africa may be better adapted to certain foods than the descendants of, say, Scandinavians. Also, a person with metabolic syndrome – obesity or Type 2 diabetes – may require a stricter diet in order to restore insulin sensitivity.

5. Whole grains are NOT healthy. There are no nutrients you can get from grains that you cannot get from vegetables or fruit, and gluten is toxic to humans.

6. Sugar used to be a scarce and precious commodity; now it is prolific. Whether in the form of high fructose corn syrup, table sugar, agave nectar, honey, refined grains, or alcohol, sugar is a dangerous substance that must not be over-consumed. Always eat your sugars with fiber, such as in the form of fruit. Do not eat fake sugars. Do not drink sugar.

7. If you have unexplained digestive problems (e.g. bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or heart burn), skin problems including acne or rosacea, auto-immune disorders, metabolic syndrome, or unexplained pain or stiffness, you should seriously consider changing your diet. Meeting with a holistic medical practitioner, especially one who specializes in nutrition and health, may help you with your recovery.

8. Ancestral health is a useful approach to studying human health and wellness. However, “because cavemen did it” should not be the only metric by which we determine the impact of any particular behavior. Scientific investigation into why certain ancestral behaviors were more beneficial than modern ones is essential to improving human health.

9. Lifestyle behaviors such as sleep, stress, and movement are important contributing factors in human health and well-being.

10. Poor people, especially those relying on food stamps, WIC, or other government services are ill-served by the USDA's nutritional advice to eat whole grains and low-fat meat and dairy. Also, adhering to a healthy ancestral diet may be out of reach for many people, due to cost, time to buy and prepare foods, limited access to unprocessed whole foods, and lack of nutritional and/or culinary knowledge.

Beyond these main conclusions, there are several issues still being debated within the ancestral health community such as:

  • How much protein/meat/starch/fruit should people eat? Is there one set of guidelines that will work for everyone, or do people need to experiment to find an optimal diet?
  • Conventional, low-fat dairy has been linked to auto-immune disorders and other health problems. Is raw/whole/pasture-raised/fermented dairy equally harmful?
  • What are the key studies that need to be done to advance our understanding of nutrition, lifestyle, and human health?
There was a ton of information packed into only two days of talks, but there were a few topics that were absent or seemed under-developed. The only specific food I didn't hear much about was soy. Fermented soy was briefly mentioned as having positive health benefits, and soybean oil was definitely labeled as bad. Corn and soybeans dominate the vast monocrop industrial farms that demand scarce resources and pollute the environment, so there are solid ethical reasons for avoiding these products. However, I would have liked to hear more about the health impacts of different soy products such as edamame or tofu versus soy milk or soy lecithin.

The majority of the symposium focused on why/how certain behaviors contribute to better or poorer health and how to implement positive practices into modern life. Other than additional research, I didn't come away with a strong sense of what needs to be done to disseminate this information and help more people modify their diets and lifestyles. How can the ancestral health community connect with members of other communities (e.g. sustainable agriculture, global food and poverty, or policy advocacy groups) to achieve common goals such as moving away from grain-based agriculture or revising nutritional standards? What policy changes should the community be advocating for, and how do we mobilize people to make these changes?

If the goal is a healthy human population, in which an ancestral diet is widely accessible and sustainable, what are the steps needed to achieve that goal? If we prioritized polycultures, how many people could we feed a Paleo diet? Given that this is a blog about sustainable food systems, this last point is the one I want to focus on in the future. Although produce plays a big role in ancestral diets, most Paleo diet cookbooks and blogs advocate getting the majority of your calories from animal products. Of course, this has implications for sustainability because the volume of meat that can be produced in a sustainable and ethical manner may be limited. However, author and presenter Don Matesz suggested that humans may not need to eat quite as much meat as some Paleo proponents advocate and, furthermore, he thinks too much meat can also lead to health problems. I'll go into more detail later, but I was very encouraged by my discussions with Don. A diet in which meat and seafood are consumed only on a weekly basis rather than every day or at every meal may still be healthy insofar as you can get enough iron and B12 eating this way. Getting enough protein may require more eggs, seafood, or meat especially since beans and lentils can cause digestive problems and should be consumed only in moderation if at all. Even nuts and nut butters should probably be limited to a few servings per day. A low-meat diet with perhaps more ethical eggs and seafood, supplemented with some lentils and nuts, sounds like the best option for me.

If you are interested in learning more about a Paleo/ancestral diet, be sure to check back for more posts in this series and links to the presentation/interview videos. Also, check out the following websites:
For more on why sugar is especially bad for humans, watch Sugar: The Bitter Truth, by medical researcher and symposium presenter Robert Lustig.

From moons to moos.

[Note: This is a reposting with minor alterations of my intro piece for The Naked Bear Blog, a blog put together by my students at Berkeley last spring, explaining how and why I got started in sustainable food systems. The student blog is not currently active, but there are some terrific and inspiring articles that you should check out!]

As a graduate student in planetary science – I study moons of Jupiter – I often feel out of place in undergraduate courses on sustainable agriculture or food journalism. On the first day of class, when we go around the room and students announce that they are majoring in resource management or environmental policy, I wonder if I really have anything to offer. I assume they are wondering if I got lost on my way to a seminar. The truth is, though, regardless of our backgrounds, we can all contribute to a sustainable future by simply being more aware of what we eat.

Sustainability most often refers to maintaining the complex natural systems that provide us with fresh air, clean water, and a wondrous habitat in which to live. Sustainable food systems also address the impact of food production on the well-being of humans and animals. It is the intersection of these three areas: environment, human health, and animal welfare, that compels me to act. Our food system has consequences that are both long-term (what does this do to the planet) and short-term (how can we keep our 10-year-olds from becoming obese) and at both the smallest scale of community – our bodies, our families – and the global community as well.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” ~Ghandi

My first decision, upon learning about where our food actually comes from and all of the ramifications of that system, was to turn in disgust and walk in the opposite direction from industrial, conventional food. I completely stopped eating conventional meat and eggs; I haven’t purchased eggs from a grocery store in over a year. I also switched to organic produce, ideally locally-grown, which I purchase from various farmers markets and through a farm CSA. The transition was easier than I thought it would be. It’s amazing how much less appetizing a cheeseburger looks when I can envision the cow from whence it came living in its own muck, unable to move because it is so confined, and being pumped full of antibiotics to keep it from dying because it’s forced to eat corn that its body cannot process. And it doesn’t stop with the patty. I can almost see the corn sweeteners in the bun that will cause an insulin spike in my blood and the pesticides used to grow the vegetables draining into the local water supply. This is the story behind nearly every cheeseburger served in a restaurant or fast food joint in the United States, every burger grilled on the fourth of July using the cheap ground beef and hamburger buns sold in nearly every grocery store.

“Knowledge that acts is infinitely more useful than knowledge that sits idle” ~Kahlil Gabrin

In making this transition, I noticed that I wasn’t hearing a lot about these issues from my friends and colleagues. There were lots of Facebook rants about the Tea Party and American Idol and poor grammar, but I realized that the food issues I was learning about were simply absent from the discussion. Changing my own diet was a certainty, but I can’t change the system by myself. To spread the word, I started blogging - to not only inform people of the issues with food, but also to give them an example of how a more sustainable food lifestyle can work. I want to show people that even a busy graduate student can afford, in both time and money, to make better choices. I went a step further by contributing to the Naked Bear sustainable food magazine put together by Berkeley students in 2009 (bears are their mascot). Later, I co-taught a course on food systems and social media, which resulted in the terrific articles featured on The Naked Bear Blog. My goal is to continue to disseminate information about both the problems and solutions within our food system and to teach others to do the same. I hope you will find this blog a useful tool and that you will pass along the information you learn here. There is a sustainable food system out there, and every decision we make can be a step toward that future.