The relationship between food and health might seem straight forward: with a variety of wholesome foods in sensible quantities, people can grow and function optimally. There is no argument that the food that we eat is intimately associated with health. After all, the molecules that make up our bodies come from food we eat – or earlier in life, that our mothers ate. But foods are incredibly complex and contain thousands of different molecules; foods come from the action of sun, soil, and water on seeds – we eat plants and animals, and animals eat plants. So food is also complex because of its relationship to the physical environment and the animal kingdom and animal husbandry. Food, too, is often processed, so industrial and market forces impact on its wholesomeness and availability.
The health of the world is reflected in the health of the animals and plants that live on land and in the seas of the planet. And it does seem to be going wrong: polluted rivers, acidification of the oceans, rising sea levels, water shortages (threatening crops in places like California), extreme weather events, and the loss of half of the global population of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish since 1970. We are collectively responsible for waste, inefficiencies and pollution. Real world food and water crisis are exacerbated by global warming and climate change. Sustainable development and making better use of what we have already is required.
New Zealand produces enough food for more than 20 million people but we are global leaders with very high rates of obesity and non-communicable disease – the third highest globally and this is directly related to life-long diet. In addition, we could ask: is New Zealand really clean and green?
Our expert farmers know that to get a good yield from the soil and animals they have to be looked after – from the time before the seed is planted – and that impacts and results are intergenerational. But our present and future children do not receive the same consideration and consequently in New Zealand we have one in four of our children living in poverty. Many children go hungry yet the media and experts proselytise about individual nutrients or foods without addressing the question – HOW can we make sure that a variety of wholesome foods in sensible quantities are available to our growing and future children without prejudice?
Of course regular consumption of the simple carbohydrate foods and ingredients such as white bread, white rice, white sugar, white flour and refined cereals is easy – these foods are made tasty and are cheap and have a long shelf life so retailers like them and the cost is low. Consumption of large amounts of these cheap, nutrient-poor foods is associated with the development of excess body fat to the detriment of bones and muscles and general health. Obesity, an excess of body fat, should be regarded as a form of malnutrition; poor physical function and the association with non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers and a reduction in quality of life result.
Everyone eats food, and therefore many people regard themselves as experts. The media regularly picks up on single nutrient or single food research, often from one small study, that looks at one small part of the food and dietary practice and a huge general outcome. If you google ‘food + health’ there are millions of results; the first page brings up the flavours of the day – for example, eating chilli peppers is linked to lower risk of death; the surging food supply is linked to global obesity epidemic.
Academics whose research is related to food and health need to be very responsible about the messages that go to the public and also to policy makers. There is not one ideal diet or combination of foods that will lead to lifelong health – and advice needs to be tempered with how knowledge should and can be applied in the real world equitably. Today, globally, around 800 million people are undernourished or food insecure; overweight and obesity affects 2 billion people including 42 million children under the age of 5 years.
So let’s not have any more diet experts and research quoted in the media unless it is balanced by some practical advice about what really can be done – by adult individuals, families, communities, local bodies and governments. Let’s change the food supply first so there are real choices without decimating the planet.
Academics and media – let’s get some positive, evidence-based messages out there – that are good for individuals and the planet and more importantly inform responsibly rather than entertain or have shock value, and not make the error that everyday familiarity is mistaken for expertise or the last word. Let’s celebrate that we do have an excellent supply of wholesome foods in New Zealand and let’s share this more equitably with our own children first so we really can be world leaders.