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Food health: realities and myths
Food health: realities and myths
Since four of the six leading causes of death (cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes) are diet-related, your food choices can impact how long you live .
Yet, even in the most industrialized, modern societies — like ours — healthy food choices are far from the norm. Christopher Gardner, PhD, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Stanford’s Prevention Research Center, talked with BeWell about our nutritional dilemmas and ways to sort through the maze of food choices on our plates.
Choosing what to eat has never been more complicated. Where should I start?
With all the for-profit food companies trying to convince you to eat “more” of whatever it is they sell, you would hope you could start with national recommendations such as those from the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans (i.e., the Food Pyramid, or MyPyramid.gov). However, be aware that the USDA represents groups like the Cattlemen’s Association and the Dairy Council — a blatant conflict of interest when USDA’s mission is supposed to be development of neutral dietary guidelines.
Should I be a vegetarian?
I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 30 years, and it has been great for my health. However, it is easy to abuse or misuse what sounds like a simple guideline. Soft drinks are vegetarian, and so is a white flour tortilla with nothing on it but processed cheese. You can choose vegetarian and still choose poorly, so this isn’t a simple and certain approach for eating healthfully. Two interesting contrasts on this are the books Mad Cowboy by Howard Lyman (a fourth generation rancher who became a vegan) and Righteous Porkchop by Nicolette Hahn Niman (a vegetarian turned rancher).
What about eating organic foods?
At one point, “organic” looked like a very useful term for helping people make wise food choices. Unfortunately, the term has been ruined by the food industry, which takes advantage of the extra price that can be charged for so-called “organic” products. Almost any food item can now be produced from a set of organic ingredients. A junk food that is made primarily of refined sugar and white flour is not suddenly transformed into a health food by making it with organic sugar and flour. C’mon, are we really that gullible? That said, despite my frustration with its abuse, it is still better for agricultural sustainability to grow organic than not organic — whether it be sugar, wheat, or broccoli.
If not organic or vegetarian, then what?
I’d recommend a focus along the lines of “local” and/or “seasonal.” Take a little more time to think about where our food comes from, and how it is grown or raised. Avoid factory-farmed beef, pork and chicken. Ask yourself if you really need to be eating tomatoes that are shipped thousands of miles to our local grocery store from other countries. Shop once/week or more at your local farmer’s market, and talk to the farmers themselves about what they are selling. Sign up for a weekly box of vegetables from one of the many CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture).
Is there power in this kind of social movement?
I have observed, after 15 years of studying the “health” aspects of food and nutrition, that only a small percentage of people make important and healthy changes in their diet based on health considerations alone. More likely, dietary changes are influenced by such issues as animal rights/welfare, global warming/climate change, or human labor abuses (e.g., slaughterhouses, fast food restaurants). I like the fact that, regardless of the motivation, the end result is similar: more vegetables, more local/seasonal foods, less meat, less processed food.
What is Stanford doing to contribute to better nutrition?
Stanford Dining is making incredible progress along these lines. Matt Rothe was hired a few years ago as the “Sustainable Food Program Manager.” He is responsible for critically assessing the vendors who supply Stanford with food. He has helped with the transition from buying factory-farmed cattle and hogs to grass-feed beef and free-range pork (obtained for a similar price as before by eliminating the middle men and buying directly from Marin Sun Farms and Niman Ranch, respectively). Stanford Dining has also switched to wild caught Alaskan salmon (caught “correctly” in the wild of the oceans), purchased in bulk quantity directly from Taku River Reds, a small family-owned business in Alaska. Matt tells me that when you serve 12,000 meals per day, you end up having a lot of purchasing clout!
Another way Stanford is contributing is by connecting our researchers with community groups and organizations that provide foods to large groups (e.g. schools, worksites, hospitals) through the our Food Summits.
Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna Ryan.