After all the talk in recent months, you might think this scary headline is about global warming, but actually, it is about the way you eat your food.
That may be even scarier. What is more basic than the food we eat?
The way we eat – and the way we teach our children to eat – changes over time, but who we are – that is, our basic genetic structure, our hormones, our digestive systems and so on – remains constant. For our species, Homo sapiens, our current way of eating is actually toxic. In a very slow way, we are killing ourselves. According to John Foreyt of Baylor College of Medicine, childhood obesity trends suggest that today’s children “may be the first generation of children who will die before their parents.”
Humans like us have lived on the earth for at least 100,000 years, but we did not always live the way we do today. Back in the beginning, we got our food by hunting animals and gathering wild fruits and vegetables. That took a lot of time and effort and it kept our ancestors physically busy most of the day.
Today, most North Americans are not so active, not by a long shot. To a certain extent, Laborers are an exception to the rule. Construction is active, hard work and it provides periods of strenuous physical activity. However, even that activity is not aerobic or sustained enough to forestall unhealthy weight gain. For most spouses and children of Laborers the situation is even worse. Compared to the effort for which our bodies were designed, office work and school are essentially motionless activities.
The most serious consequence of this inactivity falls on children. During childhood and up to about age 20, bone mass builds up from the interplay between bone development and muscle which, in turn, results from exercise. Originally, children helped in the hunting and gathering. Later, they were active on farms. However, with the industrial age, children had less of a role in production. That situation worsened through the twentieth century and took a striking turn for the worse over the last couple of decades as schools eliminated physical fitness programs.
Today’s children are tomorrow’s adults, and the combination of reduced bone mass and greater weight may be deadly.
In addition to our sedentary lifestyle, other features of our “toxic environment” are problematic to a healthy life.
For instance, our bodies are designed to consume raw foods – not raw meat (our species was always capable of using fire to cook) but raw fruits, vegetables and grains. Today, most of us consume few raw foods. We seldom eat fruit, we cook our vegetables and we process (refine) our grains. It used to take hours to consume and digest a meal, but today we consume thousands of calories in a matter of minutes.
Today, each time we eat, our bodies are quickly overloaded by fast-acting carbohydrates and high-glycemic foods. The sudden injection of glucose causes the pancreas to secrete lots of insulin to neutralize the sugar and the sudden influx is followed by a sudden blood sugar drop. Then, the absence of sugar triggers a release of epinephrine and other stress hormones which cause the liver to release stored fuels to bring the sugar level back into the normal range.
Our bodies are not designed to endure this kind of stress reaction, especially not three to five times a day as the result of food consumption. Medical professionals believe this doubles the risk of heart attack.
Also, each time blood sugar makes the precipitous drop, it triggers a primal mechanism in the brain which, despite the body’s stored fat reserves, tells us we’re hungry. We are encouraged to eat again and retrigger the cycle. Each time, the carb and sugar intakes add to our accumulated weight. Today, most people are continuous snacking machines.
This habit would not be so easy to maintain except for the toxic environment created by our modern food industry which supplies us with an endless variety of snack food. As recently as the 1950s, snack food was virtually non-existent. We ate all our food at home and all of it had to be prepared from scratch. Today, 30 percent of our calories come from snacks or meals purchased outside the home. Moreover, 83 percent of homes have microwaves (compared to only eight percent in 1978), and we prepare snacks and processed food meals in an instant. Between 1977 and 1995, potato consumption in the U.S. increased by more than 30 percent, mostly in the form of potato chips or microwaved french fries.
A huge culprit in our dietary slump is soda. After World War II, the typical soda was 6.5 ounces. By the end of the 1950s, it was 12. Twenty years later, the standard soda was 20 to 24 ounces, and today one liter, single-serving sodas are commonplace. Also, as more and more people eat out, not only at lunch and dinner, soft drinks at breakfast are increasingly common. On any given day, 20 to 25 percent of adult Americans eat at some fast food restaurant as do 30 percent of children ages 4–19.
Portion size is another issue. North Americans have grown accustomed to very large portions and the bulk of them are potatoes and meat, not fruits or vegetables.
Part of the reason so many people eat out and eat so much processed food is the way the modern economy encourages two-earner families. With no one at home with time to prepare raw foods, foods for fast preparation and eating out are much more attractive.
One of the worst aspects of our toxic environment is the need of the food industry – profit-based businesses – to sell more and more food. After all, the industry competes for capital and must pay corporate dividends in competition with the other expanding sectors of our economy.
To compete in this environment, the food industry necessarily resorts to heavy advertising and, naturally, it likes to train consumers from the earliest ages. Thus, it markets its heavily processed food products to children and keeps on advertising to us throughout our lives. The industry invests hundreds of millions of dollars, not only in the advertising, but in research to learn how best to formulate and market products so they establish lifetime dietary loyalties.
Overall, our food consumption environment is toxic for us as people because it works in a hazardous way with the basic chemistry and development processes of our own bodies. We cannot change our bodies, but there is little that can be done to change the environment, either. Thus, each family must try to take matters into its own hands.
The best advice is to increase exercise for everyone, but especially for children, and increase the intake of raw fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Minimize consumption of processed food. Avoid soda and snacks.
Keep in mind the way your body works and try to mesh your food consumption with your body’s natural process.