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!


  1. Good article! I went vegan a few months ago to improve my health (and ward off all the diseases my parents/grandparents have). I can't believe how many "vegans" survive on junk food! I'm still working on eliminating oil, processed food, and excess sugar - but definitely focusing on eating a lot more "real" food.

  2. Hi Jillian! You might be interested to know that many modern-day hunter-gather cultures avoid the diseases you are referring to while also eating fish, eggs, and meat. However, they eat mainly real foods. If going real food vegan works for you, than the more power to you! I would say, though, to keep an eye on your iron and B12. I recently tracked all my nutrient on a particularly veggie-heavy day and found that I did not get nearly enough of these (you can read more about it here:

    If you find that you are having trouble getting all your nutrients (or have low energy or anything like that), you might want to incorporate some (pastured) eggs, (wild) fish, or even just take a fish oil supplement. You can find pastured eggs all over the Bay Area. I get mine through a CSA with Eatwell Farms.

    Good luck and good health!