When Katie suggested that I read a book published earlier this year by a doctor I’d never heard of, I had no idea how relevant it would be to the pandemic currently swirling around our world!
Food Fix by Mark Hyman, M.D., went to press before coronavirus hit the United States, yet it’s very easy to see how the problems with our global food system addressed in this book are worsening the spread of the virus and its deadly effects!
Dr. Hyman writes about the chronic illnesses affecting about 60% of Americans and an increasing number of people worldwide, citing findings from the Global Burden of Disease Study published in The Lancet in 2019:
A diet without enough healthy foods (fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, etc.) and with too many bad foods (processed foods, refined grains, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fats, etc.) accounted for 11 million deaths . . . Imagine if an infectious disease like Ebola or Zika or AIDS or cholera killed 11 million people a year. We would have a global effort to find a cure, to address the public health factors–and governments, scientists, philanthropists, and businesses would be aligned to fight these threats.
Well! Coronavirus has, at the time I’m writing this, killed fewer than 1 million people in half a year, but prospects are looking grim–and the Centers for Disease Control tell us that COVID-19 is more likely to cause hospitalization or death in people with the very same chronic health conditions caused by poor diet: heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.1
Furthermore, Wired magazine explains how working conditions in meatpacking plants have spread coronavirus to workers around the world.2 The meat industry’s effects on workers, meat-eaters, and the environment are addressed in Food Fix.
Some of the shortages we’ve noticed in stores are connected to the difficulties of getting migrant farmworkers into the fields when crops are ready3 or getting trucks full of food driven where they need to go when travel risks spreading the virus.4 Food Fix discusses why eating more locally-grown food is better in so many ways!
Let’s hope the pandemic adds urgency to what was already an urgent need to improve our food system to save human lives, reverse climate change, and reduce poverty. Although food is not the only factor driving any of these problems, it is a big one, which affects everybody every day.
Fixing food would make a huge difference that would help all the other issues fall into place. In fact, shortly after I finished reading the book, I realized that the food system connects to racial justice issues, too!
Dr. Hyman makes a strong argument, backed up with fascinating facts and specific strategies for improvement. Some changes we can make right away in our own lives, while others are reforms we need to push governments and businesses to implement. There’s a lot of hope for a healthier, tastier future, but we have to make big changes right now!
I’ve been reading about nutrition, environmental issues, and social justice for decades, so I thought this book might be just “preaching to the choir” about things I already knew. In fact, I learned a lot and found that these issues are even more intertwined than I’d realized! Just look at how many pages I folded down to mark the remarkable parts!
Although our flawed food system is a worldwide problem, the book focuses primarily on the United States because U.S.-based companies sell food around the world and have an enormous influence on food policies. I’m going to share some of the most interesting bits. Please read the whole book and check out the Food Fix website to learn more!
What’s Wrong With Our Food System?
- Although eating too much refined, sweetened, heavily-processed food is a big problem, the biggest factor in diet-related chronic illness is what people don’t eat: fruits and vegetables. Only 2% of American farmland is used to grow fruits and vegetables, which should be 50% of our diet!
- Diet is a factor in the development and progress of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, kidney failure, osteoarthritis, depression, and more. The direct health care costs of treating these chronic illnesses are over $1 trillion per year, not counting indirect costs like reduced employee productivity.
- Gigantic monoculture (all one crop) farms of corn, wheat, and soybeans–as well as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations where cows, pigs, and chickens are fed these crops instead of their natural diets–require pumped water (for irrigation and for animals to drink) and deplete soil so that water runs off it and pollutes our remaining water supply.
- Since 1980, the proportion of adults who are obese has doubled and the proportion of children who are obese has tripled in more than 70 countries.
- Many people are both obese and malnourished at the same time because our system produces more than enough calories per person but makes nutritious foods more expensive than those with high calories but low nutrition.
- Junk-food companies time their marketing campaigns in low-income neighborhoods for the days when Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, a/k/a “food stamps”) benefits are issued, to lure people into spending our tax dollars on food that’s making them sick. Why? Because sugary drinks, cookies, and chips are more profitable than most other foods.
- United States farm subsidies go overwhelmingly to corn, soy, and wheat grown with extensive chemical use and converted into junk food, animal feed, and ethanol. These “commodity crops” fill 59% of U.S. farmland. The U.S. government actually penalizes farmers who grow fruits and vegetables while receiving subsidies for commodity crops!
- Chicken processing lines run twice as fast as they did 30 years ago, leaving no time for caution about sanitation or worker safety.
- Over 90% of corn, soybeans, and cotton grown in the U.S. are genetically modified to survive spraying with the carcinogenic weed-killer glyphosate, which is banned in many countries. There were 14,000 pending lawsuits against glyphosate at the time Food Fix was published.
- Farmworkers are 70% more likely to get Parkinson’s disease than the average person because of their pesticide exposure. They also have increased risks of cancer and diabetes.
- Respectable-sounding medical organizations’ recommendations for patients’ diets are influenced by their sponsors: Groups like the American Heart Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Diabetes Association, American College of Cardiology, and American Academy of Family Physicians receive millions of dollars from producers of soft drinks, candy, cereals, canned soup, and similar foods that foster the very problems they’re supposed to be fighting.
- Over 70% of people who want to join the U.S. military are in unsuitable physical condition: either overweight or chronically ill. Many soldiers gain weight during active duty, which increases their risk of musculoskeletal injury.
How Can We Fix Our Food System?
- Regenerative agriculture–in which multiple types of food plants are grown together with animals–improves soil quality and absorbs greenhouse gases while burning less fuel and pumping less water to maintain the farm. The United Nations estimates that $300 billion (equivalent to 60 days’ worldwide military spending) invested in transitioning farmers to regenerative agriculture would slow down climate change by 20 years. (Here are my reviews of two good documentaries about regenerative agriculture.)
- Taxes on soda pop are remarkably successful at reducing consumption of this non-nutritive, obesity-promoting, tooth-destroying beverage. When soda pop is more expensive, people drink more water, and their health improves.
- SNAP should not cover soda pop or other foods and drinks with little to no nutritional value. Improving the health of people who receive food assistance will save taxpayers money because most of those people also receive tax-subsidized health care.
RELATED: The future of healthy food at food banks.
- SNAP should incentivize buying fresh produce. Many states are doing this in various ways, such as giving a rebate to people who use SNAP to buy produce (or seedlings for their own gardens!) with SNAP. Some programs even offer cooking classes or composting classes.
- Restrict lobbyists’ influence on the Farm Bill that determines subsidies based on which crops a farm is growing by what methods. Eliminating the pressure from giant agribusinesses would allow Congress to prioritize regenerative agriculture, affordable vegetables, and fair labor practices.
- Use anti-trust laws to break up those giant agribusinesses, meatpacking companies, and supermarkets to give small entrepreneurs a fair chance.
- Unbiased nutrition research funded by the federal government, rather than industry-funded studies, should inform policies on food and farming. Research should focus on large, randomized, controlled trials rather than observational studies. Researchers should share raw data for independent analysis and disclose any conflicts of interest.
- Clear labeling of food products helps consumers choose nutritious, humane, eco-friendly options, and avoid pesticides and GMOs.
- Cut food waste by publicizing how to use “best by” dates, utilizing “funny-looking” produce, fining stores for sending food to landfills rather than food banks or composting, and cutting incentives to farmers to grow excess crops or to plant crops on unsuitable land.
- Children and adults who have committed violence should be given better nutrition. Multiple research studies show that nutritional interventions (some as simple as a daily supplement pill) reduce violent behavior by 25% to 91% compared to control groups!
- Schools, prisons, hospitals, the military, and other institutions should serve healthy food, using on-site gardens and other local sources as much as possible. This will reduce violent, disruptive behavior and improve learning; reduce medical costs; teach gardening skills and/or support local farmers; keep our troops battle-ready, and help develop good eating habits that may persist when people are choosing their own food. Dr. Hyman details several programs that are working to improve school lunches–many of them using the same budget available for standard school lunches–and several prison farming programs.
- Health-insurance incentives for healthy eating encourage consumers to reduce their risk of chronic illness, saving insurers money in the long run. (A few years ago, I completed a nutrition-coaching program by email and telephone, in exchange for a reduced deductible on the health insurance I had at the time. It was interesting to see the relationship between the calories and fat grams I ate at each meal, and how soon I got hungry again! It would have been more helpful to someone who needed to make more changes in her diet.)
- Crop insurance should reward farmers for building better soil, which reduces water use, sequesters carbon to slow climate change, reduces effects of droughts and floods, and increases ecosystem biodiversity.
- End the ethanol mandate, which since 2007 has required farms receiving subsidies to have a portion of their corn processed into ethanol fuel. This was supposed to cut U.S. reliance on foreign petroleum, but it turns out that ethanol production uses more fossil fuels than it saves!
- Give tax breaks for ecosystem restoration to farms and corporations that plant forests, improve soil quality, create wildlife habitat, or improve water management.
- Fine agrochemical companies for the damage their products do to our environment and human health.
- Increase composting by collecting scraps from food processors and providing the compost to farmers.
- Support urban agriculture and community gardens to bring food to the people and increase personal investment in healthy food and a healthy environment.
These are just some of the great fixes proposed–or documented as in progress somewhere in the world–by Food Fix.
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Do We All Need to Eat the Same Diet?
Dr. Hyman works with patients whose chronic health conditions are dramatically reversed by following the diet he recommends, which he probably explains more clearly in his other books, like Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?
Basically, he recommends a plant-rich diet, with the animal foods coming only from regenerative agriculture (grass-fed beef, pastured eggs) and sustainable seafood. He advises mostly vegetables and berries rather than other fruits. He says most people shouldn’t eat dairy, but if you do it should be grass-fed and organic. He recommends eating only whole grains, not flour. His advice on fats and beans is too complicated to summarize. He advises minimizing sugar, pesticides and herbicides, food additives of all kinds, and genetically modified food.
The most confusing thing in his diet summary is, “Eat mostly whole plants.” The paragraph that follows fails to explain what he really means! Surely we’re not supposed to eat the entire vine and roots along with the zucchini, right?? I think he means we can chop up the vegetables and make a soup, sauce, or casserole, but we should understand that processed foods combining stuff like “dehydrated broccoli powder” with white flour and potato starch don’t count as vegetables.
Anyway, I appreciate that he writes, “Each of us must find the right diet for our genes, metabolism, age, dietary preferences, beliefs, and so on.” Those of us who are maintaining a healthy weight and don’t already have chronic health conditions may not need a dairy-free, flour-free, citrus-free diet to avoid developing health problems. Listen to your body to find the diet that works for you!
But eating plenty of vegetables, and trying to get all our food as cleanly and sustainably grown as possible, is good for everyone–ourselves, our farmers and food-processing workers, people downwind and downstream from farms, livestock, wild animals, and our planet overall!
I’m hoping that the sudden changes in shopping, cooking, and work/life balance that we’ve had to make during the pandemic lead to a lot of rethinking of how we’ve been doing things–and that this brings many people worldwide greater access to healthy food!
- Centers for Disease Control. (2020). People Who Are at Higher Risk for Severe Illness. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-at-higher-risk.html
- Molteni, M. (2020, May 7). Why Meatpacking Plants Have Become Covid-19 Hot Spots. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/why-meatpacking-plants-have-become-covid-19-hot-spots/
- Shoichet, C. (2020, April 11). The Farmworkers Putting Food on America’s Tables are Facing Their Own Coronavirus Crisis. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/11/us/farmworkers-coronavirus/index.html
- Hennessy-Fiske, M. (2020, April 28). On the Open Road, U.S. Truck Drivers Face the Coronavirus and New risks. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-04-28/u-s-truck-drivers-face-coronavirus-new-risks-on-open-road