Food as the New and Improved Pharma

The old saying “you are what you eat,” seems to have more often gone in one ear and out the other for most Americans. In modern society, there has been a serious disconnect between the quality and nutritional value of the food we eat and our health. That may finally be changing. A new branch of medicine known simply as “culinary medicine” seeks to put diet right at the heart of standard medical care. Tulane University even has a Center for Culinary Medicine. While it focuses on the traditional nexus of food and medicine (diabetes, obesity, heart disease), I’m hopeful that this is the start of a much broader look at this issue. That seems to be the approach of a new web site called “Dining with a Doc” that “celebrates food as medicine.”

Beyond connecting our diet to our health, we need to connect our diet to our planet. The impact of our meat-centric American diet on the environment is astounding. Studies show that more greenhouse gas emissions are produced from our industrial food chain than from the entire transportation sector combined. The optimal food choice for the planet is a plant-based choice. However, we don’t all have to become vegans overnight to make a difference. Just as switching to 25% wind power is better than nothing, reducing your consumption of meat and animal products by 25% is a great start.  Instead of a vegan diet, we can call this an “Eco Diet.”

Once you get it, you’ll get it. Making smart food choices is good for you and the planet you live on.  An Eco Diet cleans up your body and cleans the environment.  Need help? Just find a good nutritionist or a culinary doctor and you’ll be on the right path.

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Time to Focus on Food

Turns out we should be focusing more on clean eating than clean energy. That’s the finding of a new documentary based on stats about greenhouse gas emissions. “Cowspiracy” shows convincingly that our industrial food system, especially the part that involves livestock, does more harm to the planet than possibly anything else. As far as greenhouse gases go, this sector produces more of them than the entire transportation sector. Maybe when we spent so much time lobbying for CAFÉ standards in DC, we should have focused on café food sourcing standards. Hopefully it’s not too late to turn our focus to food.

Despite inaction in Washington, we’ve made amazing strides in growing clean energy across the nation. The solar industry is growing by leaps and bounds while energy efficiency is becoming mainstream. In DC, we even got an increase in CAFÉ (fuel economy) standards under President Obama. Meanwhile, we appear to be floundering as a nation when it comes to deciding what we do about food. By food I mean the broad category that includes farming, livestock, delivery, sourcing, nutrition, advertising, and government subsidies. Because of this disarray, we have an increase in obesity and Type 2 Diabetes, the fish are disappearing, the Amazon is being chopped down, our water and air are being polluted, and yes, the ice caps are melting.

We need to elevate the dialogue on food policy just as we did for clean energy. There are so many amazing non-profits and food businesses that are already creating a buzz, as well as effecting real change. But to me, it seems that there is no unifying frame to convey the various food related messages – organic, local, plant-based, grass-fed, non-GMO, fair trade, etc. As authors Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier Schutter point out in their article, “How a National Food Policy Could Save Millions of American Lives,” the Federal government has a role to play in shaping the agenda. The business community, local and state governments, farmers and other stakeholders all have a large role to play. The first step is to start the conversation – there’s no time to waste.

Running on Junk?

Runners should be at the forefront of healthy eating and a commitment to a healthy planet. After all, running is all about improving your body’s health, and eating and breathing obviously have a big impact on that. So you can picture my shock when I participated in my first 10K race as part of the Marine Corps Marathon the other day and saw the vendors/sponsors at both the fitness expo before the race and the finish-line celebration after the race. There was barely a smidgen of anything resembling eco-friendly products or services, while there was a plentiful amount of junk food offered.

“Protein” is apparently the buzz word in good eating for athletes. Nearly every product I saw advertised high protein content. That’s all well and good, but the other ingredients in many of these products included refined sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, chemicals, milk (?!), artificial ingredients, and some things I could not even pronounce. I was expecting a corn-a-copia of vegan health bars, great unsweetened, dairy free drinks, organic protein boosters, and smoothies with loads of dark green leafy vegetables and fruit. There was none of that, with the exception of Clif Bar. You can get protein from good sources.  I eat a health bar almost daily called “Ever Bar,” which comes packed with 11 grams of protein and a simple list of healthy ingredients, all of which I can pronounce.

There were no environmental groups, or clean air groups present. At Clean Currents, we ran a campaign called “Energize Responsibly” targeted to runners and other outdoor athletes. The idea was that these folks care a great deal about clean air and parks because they are outside exercising all the time. It was a big hit when we ran it as the audience really seemed to understand the message. Yet, at this event, there was not a single table talking about clean air and water, or the need for more open space and parks. The only advocacy group I saw was, believe it or not, the Beef Council. They were passing out beef jerky (“protein”) and literature extolling the sustainability of beef. That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I was thinking some “sustainability” groups should be at this event.

When I finished the race, thankfully the marines gave me a bottle of water and a banana. Good start. But the next marine give-away was a bottle of something that I believe is called a protein shake. It’s a bottled drink with like 18 grams of protein. I almost drank some until I read the label and it looked like a shopping list for a chemistry lab. To top it all off, the drink was milk based. I’m not a nutritionist, but I’m pretty sure drinking milk after a big run is a huge no-no.

There are so many great, earth-friendly, body-friendly products for runners and other athletes to consume before or after exercising. Our friends in the natural food industry should be providing these alternatives to runners, so the junk food guys don’t own the field all to themselves. A running event is one of the best places to help people make the connection between food that has a low impact on the planet and a high positive impact on health. As for the environmental groups, they can’t be a no-show in this world and expect to grow their community. Runners may not think they’re environmentalists, but their choice of exercise forces them to be in the green camp.  After all, dirty air and junky food are to runners what gusty winds and alcohol are to a high-wire act.

Some samples of junk food for runners.

Some samples of junk food for runners.

McDonalds and Chipotle – The Changing American Diet

You’re driving down the road at 6pm and your stomach starts gurgling out of hunger. You see a McDonalds on the left and a Chipotle’s on the right. Which way do you turn? Why? The answer to the first question seems to increasingly be to the right, as Chipotle’s just reported an astonishing 57% increase in net income for the last quarter while McDonalds saw a 30% drop in net income amidst declining sales in the U.S. The question of why is a bit more complicated, and it could determine the future of the American food industry.

The financial pundits are pointing to obvious differences. Chiptole is new, McDonalds is old. Chipotle lets consumers build their own meal, while McDonalds serves pre-made items.  Chipotle is known for high quality, McDonalds has a reputation for poor quality. But to find the answer, perhaps we need to look to a larger movement of Americans paying attention to what they put in their bodies as well as how their food impacts the planet.

Chipotle is certainly not perfect, but it’s better than most places when it comes to sourcing and serving healthier food.  The company claims to source sustainably raised, anti-biotic and hormone free meat as much as possible, and locally grown produce, as well as organic produce when practical. The company’s slogan is Food with Integrity. They have some improvements to make, surely, but they are at least heading down the right path for the right reasons. Their web site gives a good primer on the environmental and public health dangers of factory farmed food and other industrial food practices. As far as serving good food, Chipotle is doing better than many there. It has a vegan option at several of its restaurants. Let’s hope they make it universal at every place. For vegetarians, it’s very easy to find a tasty bean burrito to eat. And of course the food is fresh.  Finally, Chipotle is using its business to promote better environmental and health practices. Check out the funny series they did called “Farmed and Dangerous” to see a pretty direct hit on the industrial food barons.

Americans are warming up to the benefits of what I call a low-impact/high impact diet. This is a diet that’s low impact on the planet but high impact on your body’s good health. People increasingly recognize the connection between the industrial food sector and climate change, or environmental degradation.  They are looking for food that is tasty and filling, but that also makes them feel good or gives them balanced energy. This means less junk food, less sugary drinks, and more healthy options including vegetables and fruits. Keep watching the news about McDonalds and Chipotle. When McDonalds sales go down, that means Americans health and environmental consciousness is going up.