I have finally had the time to finish watching this talk from the European Parliament on food, diseases, medication, and policy, and I would recommend it to everyone. No matter what you believe to be true, it does not hurt to check the most recent opinions.
Nicely enough, the panel’s opinions are in line with my personal beliefs. But I think there is one point that should not be controversial irrespective of what you think is a healthy diet: people should be eating real, unprocessed food if they want to be healthy. This should not be subject for discussion.
What the experts invited here are talking about is that lifestyle changes are more powerful than any drug available. The science is behind this and it is simply the marketing power and the lobbying power of big pharmaceutical corporations that have driven the public opinion to embrace drugs (as in medicine) as the solution for any physical problem. While medication can help in certain cases, there are others where it fails to produce results and causes more side effects than positive ones. The way I understand what they are saying is that our biggest killers today, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, are lifestyle diseases and can only be cured or controlled by lifestyle changes. It is attacking the root problem that can help, not bandaging the symptoms.
Here are some interesting facts presented by Dr Aseem Malhotra:
- insulin resistance is the no. 1 cause of heart disease;
- about 40% of adults with what is considered a normal weight have one form or another of metabolic syndrome;
- the daily consumption of 150 calories coming from added sugar is linked to an eleven fold increase in risk of type 2 diabetes, irrespective on BMI or level of physical activity.
These go against the commonly held views on health: a normal BMI is a goal in itself, low cholesterol is a main focus in preventing heart disease, concentrate on not eating fat in order to be lean and healthy. Why are these preferred opinions? Well, one answer is that the companies with financial interest in sugar have been working hard, and spending hard, over the last decades to influence public opinion and public policy in their favour. Another answer is that medical professionals are not trained in nutrition at all, or insufficiently, and have little understanding of how our food affects us. They are thus unable to give their patients sound advice. They may not always understand statistics either, and are therefore not in the best position to read certain articles and see through the misrepresentation of data. They may be under pressure to recommend medication and procedures to their clients, when these may not be necessary. This all goes to say that there is a problem in our medical system; it does not adapt to the latest research quickly enough, it is heavily influenced by the pharmaceutical companies, and it does not put enough emphasis on prevention, or even on fighting the root problem.
The panel was very much in favour of policy intervention, since this has proven to be the most effective way to instill change in societies (think clean water). Sir Richard Thompson also argued for setting limits to lobbying and making it compulsory to declare industry funding, which I believe are indeed key to putting an end to the hold that “food” and pharmaceutical companies have on governments and decision-makers, as well as on forming public opinion.
Another interesting point I particularly liked, probably because I had expressed the same opinion to my husband a few days before watching this, is that when it comes to obesity, it is all about diet. Diet should be separated from physical activity. It is not to say that physical activity is not good or does nothing for you, quite to the contrary, you should do it; but it is meant to say that obesity is caused by poor diet, not by insufficient physical activity.
So here we are, with a panel of world-renown speakers, all arguing for a dietary approach to relieving humanity of some of its worst diseases, and yet this seems to be the hardest thing to do. Why is that? I think one of the main reasons is that people cannot agree on what is healthy food. We look at it very much in terms of “this is not so bad”, rather than “this is good”. We eat things that we think are not too terrible and we therefore don’t have the feeling that we are eating poorly, but in fact, these foods do nothing for us and our health. We have too many exceptions in our diets, too many junk food days, no cooking days, desserts, juices, and so on; while we think of them as exceptions in an otherwise healthy diet, they actually add up to an unhealthy general pattern. Many times we focus on “diet” foods and forget that those are mostly highly processed, and therefore worse than their non-diet version.
Someone from the audience made an excellent point, that I think is one of the main causes of our food issues today: food is seen as trivial, the work of women who stay at home. And that really says it all. We have the most powerful health tool available to us, and we think it is unimportant, we denigrate it and those who spend so much time on it. Not chefs, mind you; but their job is not to make us healthy, it is to make us consume. If we actually valued our food and recognised its importance and the importance of those whose task it is to prepare it, we would be in a better position when it comes to our health.